We've written about the wonders of Hollywood accounting
before. It's a series of tricks pulled by Hollywood studios to make most of their movies look unprofitable, even when they're making a ton of money. The details can be complex, but a simplified version is that every studio sets up a new "shell" company for each movie -- and that company is specifically designed to lose money. The studio gives that company the production budget (the number you usually see) and then also agrees to pay for marketing and related expenses above and beyond that. Both of those numbers represent (mostly) actual cash outlays from the studio and are reasonable to count as expenses. Then comes the sneaky part: on top
of all that, the studios charge the "movie company" a series of fees for other questionable things. Many of these fees involve no real
direct expense for the studio, but basically pile a huge expense onto the income statement and ensure that the studio keeps getting all of the movie income -- rather than having to share the profits with key participants -- long after the movie would be considered profitable under regular accounting rules.
Here's a hypothetical example of how this could work in practice, using round numbers just to make the point (these aren't directly accurate numbers, but the concept is). A studio funds A Movie
with a production budget of $100 million. It sets up AMovieCo Inc. and gives it the production budget money. The studio then spends another $50 million on marketing and puts that down as an expense as well -- though, with some of the big studios, some of this money involves paying itself
for advertising on its own properties. Still, even if we assume that's real money spent, you might think that AMovieCo now needs to make back $150 million to be profitable. But... the studio (which, again, controls AMovieCo completely) then tacks onto all of that, say, a $250 million "distribution fee." Now, while there may be some money spent on actually distributing the film, the number is almost completely bogus, and much higher than the actual expense for the studio. Very little actual money needs to change hands here -- it's just a fee on the books (a fee they are effectively charging to themselves
). And it's not just "distribution" but a variety of additional charges. On top of that, the studio may then charge "interest" on that money, even though it's really just lending money to itself. What it all means is that rather than becoming profitable at ~$150 million (the actual money spent), AMovieCo now needs to earn over $400 million before anyone with a cut of the profits sees an additional dime from the movie, thanks to completely imaginary accounting entries on the books.
Over on Kevin Smith's (really, really, fascinating) Smoviemakers podcast, Smith recently interviewed filmmaker Scott Derrickson
, who has made a name for himself in the horror film world. The whole interview is fantastic and well worth listening to, starting with part one
. However, right at the beginning of part two
, Derrickson reveals how he effectively got shafted on one of his most well known films, The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Scott Derrickson (SD): It made $75 [million] domestic and $150 [million] worldwide...
Kevin Smith (KS): Nice. You're a true filmmaker, you know exactly what your movies made everywhere...
SD: Hellllll yeah.
KS: It's a badge of honor.
SD: And to all the young filmmakers listening, I had 5% of the net of that movie. That was in my contract. And it cost $19 million. And it made $150 million worldwide. There's no net. That's how movie math works.
KS: So even you were not above being screwed by the system.
SD: I told my attorney, the next time you're negotiating my net profit for a movie, ask for a ham sandwich instead.
KS: 'Cause you'll get something.
SD: 'Cause I'll get something [laughter]
Basically, it's the same story as always. The net doesn't exist... but because of the extra massive "fees" the studio tacks on, it makes back many times its money before it even has to go anywhere near paying the writer and director to whom it promised 5%.
Related to this, it comes as no surprise that later in the podcast, Derrickson talks about his recognition that the real future in movies is being able to make them much more cheaply, and outside of studio control. He talks about being influenced by the movie Monsters
, which was made for a few hundred thousand dollars, but which he notes would have probably cost a studio $50 million to make. At that point, he realized that to survive in this business, he had to be able to learn to make movies much more cheaply:
SD: The other thing that was happening at that time, was I was watching the business change dramatically.... The movie that was a paradigm shift for me was the sci-fi movie Monsters. Have you seen that movie?
KS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SD: It's this great sci-fi movie where this guy, for $800,000 and his little barebones crew, with a small digital camera, made a movie that would have cost Warner Bros. $50 million to make.... He was one of the first of this new generation who grew up with his laptop. He did like 250 visual effects in the movie on his own laptop. And he made a $50 million movie for $800,000. I saw that happening. I saw what Jason Blum was doing with the Paranormal Activity movies and I said, you know what, the business is changing and you gotta evolve or die. And so part of my interest in doing a movie so small is that I want to be a part of what's happening right now. And I want to be a front runner. I want to be good at it.
They then discuss his new movie, Sinister
, which had a $3 million budget (which shocks Smith, who insists it looks like a movie that's much more expensive). Of course, in many ways, this goes back to the discussion we've been having here for many, many years -- responding to the old school movie studio guys, who demand that we answer how could they possibly continue to make $200 million movies
. One answer, which we've pointed out time and time again, is that the question is the wrong one. Any business should be asking how it can make its product profitably
-- not how it can keep its costs high. No one in the tech industry asks "how can we continue to make $5,000 computers?" They ask "how can we make profitable computers" and one answer is to make the product more efficiently.
It's great to see filmmakers like Derrickson not just get that, but then celebrate what that means for him artistically and financially as well.
SD: I want what matters to matter to me.... Knowing that I had final cut in the movie, knowing that's what it was about, I've never had more fun or been more relaxed while making a movie, because I just wasn't worried about how it would do. I'm making this movie because when it's done I'm gonna see it.... I think a lot of filmmakers go through the experience.... you have that difficult studio experience.... you come out of that experience, and it's not just that 'if you die on a swords, it's gonna be my sword,' it's that thing that 'I'm going to make something that's 100% pure. I'm just going to make something 100% pure...'
In the last few years we've been hearing and seeing similar things from a number of filmmakers, recognizing that perhaps the challenges that the movie industry has faced have been self-imposed in large degrees. The industry got used to doing things one way and have had trouble adapting. But, of course, the actual artists and creators figure this stuff out and they adapt... even while the big studios still play their accounting tricks. And have no fear, with a movie this cheaply made, Derrickson notes that if the movie does okay, it could make him "rich" based on the way he structured the deal this time around. He teamed up with Blumhouse Productions (who backed Paranormal Activity) and while they're using a traditional distributor (which anyone still has to do for a real theatrical release), the economics this time around are quite different than for a film where a major MPAA studio is playing the usual accounting tricks.