Do you remember when Total Recall freaked out business analysts with its skyrocketing $65 million budget? That was 1990. In 1994, Roger Ebert commented on the exuberant cost of Stargate’s $55 million stating, “They must have had a lot of lunches.” A year later the world was up in arms over the bloated production of Waterworld and its astronomical $175 million price tag. It was that same year when James Cameron produced his last $100 million film, True Lies. Every film since would cost at least double. That doesn’t even scratch the ridiculous, virtually undisclosed budgets of recent films. Spiderman 3 cost $258 million; Tangled was $10 million more than that and it was animated. The record holder didn’t even make headlines; it didn’t freak out studio execs. At $300 million, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End holds the (current) claim as the most expensive movie ever made.
If you think movies are alone on this, the recent release of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioware’s highly anticipated MMO, had an official budget of $200 million though some experts claim it closer $300 million. Regardless of this range, even at 200, The Old Republic still holds the title as the most expensive game ever made. Such an achievement was hardly considered noteworthy fifteen years ago. Something recently changed. The last Call of Duty made more money at launch than any other entertainment title in history. This serves to show that costs reflect sales. If something makes a lot of money, suddenly the price to make that something goes up as well. Despite some game companies claiming that piracy is killing the PC market, it hasn’t stopped Blizzard from making over $700 million a year from World of Warcraft. Back when console and PC games were in their infancy, an expensive game would cost about $100,000. Doom broke that trend by doubling that number. Six years later and Sega had spent close to $70 million on Shenmue. That’s $200,000 to $70 million in only six years. That set the trend moving into the new millennium. When you list the most expensive games adjusted for inflation since Pong, Shenmue is the only game older than 5 years. Let me reword that to stress the point; of the ten most expensive games ever made, nine were made since 2007.
The issue here is that the costs of games haven’t changed. I remember buying Silpheed for $48 and Xenogears for $35. Games still cost the same, but now they need to sell a lot more to recoup their money. Thankfully there are more consoles and PCs on the market than ever before, so companies at least have the comfort in knowing more people are able to purchase their products. However, this increases the pressure to move more units, resulting in game companies instigating draconian measures against piracy. It’d also help if a game didn’t suck or be wrapped in less than six hours.
Both game companies and movie studious believe the solution is attacking their own consumer base, believing that pirates and consumers are different people when they are not. They try to impose laws, implant DRM, but this is a failing model. No matter the security put into a game, finding a crack online takes less than week…tops. Movie studios have also failed to make any progress. Like games, movie ticket prices haven’t increased to reflect bloated production costs. But instead of investigating why this is, companies have gone after the consumers. The actual cause is rooted in the technology industry itself.
The big effects houses are charging per second the same as some movies’ entire budget. There is so much bureaucracy involved, with every level taking a bite, film studios are trying to find ways to keep costs down. But they are not looking at the source of the problem. With hundreds of effect shots, Duncan Jones made Moon for $5 million. Last week, I bought a game called S.P.A.Z. for $15. I wrapped the crapfest that was Homefront in four hours; S.P.A.Z. took me thirty-seven and I had fun. It doesn’t need to make a hundred million to break even.
This week, studio heads shelved the live action Akira film because of its proposed budget. At once a $180 million production encompassing two films, its last compromise had it suffering through an $80 million single film. Now the studio is demanding another reworking down to $60 million, claiming attendance issues and the rise of home theaters and piracy as the cause. Although bringing the cost down is the solution, they are going about it by reworking the script to make it cheaper. That is not the way to solve this problem. Toy Story cost $30 million. Four year later, its sequel cost three times more. It’s an animated film; what changed? Just over a decade later, that budget would again double for its third installment. And this is not an aberration. Kung Fu Panda cost $150 million. If you think it’s because of the quality of animation, you’d be wrong. The last Madagascar looked like crap and it still cost $150 million. Back in 2004, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was promising a unique cinematic experience at a bare bones price. When the film was taking too long to produce its visual effects, its budget was doubled to bring in outsiders, and the film ultimately failed to make a profit, through it would have if it was allowed the time to finish on its own.
I can only hope that these by big companies realize that they could be under threat as artists find new ways to produce quality without them. Do you remember when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace lost the visual effects Oscar to The Matrix? In 2010, Image Engine, a smaller effects house out of BC specializing in commercials, did the effects for District 9, probably on behest of its director who once worked for them. The result was a $30 million film that made $260 million and was nominated not only for best visual effects (alongside Avatar and Star Trek) but also Best Picture as well.
If companies want to fix the problem, they need to go after the people making the films and games so expensive, not trying to attack consumers as being the source of the problem. There was once a time where a film breaking a $100 million was the badge of success. Now, your film bombs unless it clears $300 million. With the theater experience so ultimately disappointing, and theater owners not attempting to remedy this, we may be approaching not so much an industry crash, but depressing and quiet frump.
As for games, this may never be resolved. As long as games pull sales that movie studios would kill over, the costs to develop those games will continue to increase. Thankfully, we have organisms like Steam to allow smaller companies the opportunity to make their presence known. Outside of the Star Wars MMO I recently purchased, the last three games I played cost me less than $15 and were all released by independent companies. I put more faith that they will justify their expense than a game that cost three times more that I wrap in two days.