I was at PEN USA's annual Literary Awards Festival a few weeks ago, having a great time, hobnobbing with all sorts of illustrious writers, when I ran into "There Will Be Blood's" writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was there to accept an award for his film script. A huge fan of his work, I told him how much I'd liked his movie. He nodded and shyly smiled, and I thought he might say something like, "Oh, geez, thanks for the compliment." What he really said was: "In that story you did, you got the budget wrong."If I actually believed in New Year's resolutions, I'd happily promise to never write about a movie's budget ever again -- all it does is cause pain and misery, both for the press, which is always being spun by studio executives and producers, and for the filmmakers, who are always convinced that clueless reporters and columnists are wildly inflating their movie budgets. (It is safe to say that no one in the history of Hollywood has ever complained about the press underestimating the cost of his or her movie.)To be fair, Anderson wasn't all that angry. We went on to have a perfectly amiable conversation. But I'm sure he was unhappy, since when I made reference to his budget, which I said was in the vicinity of $45 million, I was making the point that his movie -- a dark, intense historical drama -- cost so much (along with the marketing outlays of Paramount Vantage's Oscar campaign) that it could never possibly make a decent profit.The problem that journalists have in reporting about movie budgets is that nearly everyone they ask about a movie's budget tends to -- how do I put this nicely -- offer a whopper of an untruth. In other words, shock of all shocks, people in Hollywood lie. The studio chief who made the movie gives you a low-ball number. The head of a rival studio, eager to make a competitor look bad, gives you a wildly inflated number. Most journalists have reported that Baz Luhrmann's recent film, "Australia," cost $130 million. 20th Century Fox insists that it cost less, saying it received a hefty subsidy from the Australian government, knocking $30 or so million off that figure. But every rival studio chief I spoke to about the film said with great authority, as if they'd seen a host of internal Fox documents, that the film cost $170 or $180 or $200 million, just to throw out the three different figures I got from three different executives.What's a reporter to do? Who tells the biggest whoppers? And how does one reporter use triangulation to figure out the real budget number? Keep reading:I'm old-fashioned about reporting budget numbers. I like to go to the source. In other words, I try not to report a number unless I've gotten it from a top executive at the studio (or financing company) that made the picture or a producer or some other high-level member of the production team. You'd think this would work out pretty smoothly, but even then, I've discovered that budget numbers are a slippery business.My colleague John Horn, who is something of an expert on movie budgets, since he is always writing about film profitability, reminded me of the legendary example of funny numbers involving Jeffrey Katzenberg and his DreamWorks Animation films. When "Shrek 2" was being released, Katzenberg (like most studio execs) was eager to make the film look as profitable as possible, so he didn't stop reporters from believing his movie cost a pittance. That's why Newsweek, in 2004, reported that the film's stars Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz "got $10 million each to reprise their characters, which accounted for almost half the film's modest $70 million budget." But after DreamWorks Animation went public, its budget figures suddenly soared dramatically, with the company acknowledging that the original "Shrek" cost closer to $130 million, with its and other DreamWorks sequels costing "15 to 30% higher" than that.Once burned, twice shy, which is why the showbiz media has a healthy skepticism about budgetary information from studio executives. Sometimes you get the feeling that you could ask five people who worked on a film to tell you the budget -- and you'd get five different answers. When I was writing about the unknown screenwriter who'd penned Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" last month, I reported that the movie (co-financed by Warners and Village Roadshow) cost $35 million. Warners immediately called to complain, saying my number was totally wrong. Rob Lorenz, a delightful guy who's one of the producers of the film -- and has worked with Eastwood for years -- asked how I could have possibly gotten such a wrong figure. Actually, I told him, I got the budget figure from Bill Gerber, who -- ahem -- was the other producer of the film, with Lorenz and Eastwood. Since Gerber had once been a head of production at Warners, I figured he knew what he was talking about. Lorenz told me the film cost closer to $25 million, so I amended the figure, saying the film cost "less than $30 million."This happens all the time. I wrote in a recent post that Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road," a Paramount film produced by DreamWorks, cost $45 million. I didn't make up the number -- it's what a top executive at Paramount (which then owned DreamWorks) told me the film cost. As soon as the story ran, Stacey Snider, who runs DreamWorks, e-mailed me to say the film only cost $35 million. It seems unlikely that Paramount would inflate the cost of a film it financed and distributed, since if "Revolutionary Road" fails to find an audience, it will look like an ever bigger flop if it cost $45 million instead of $35 million. But I also trust Snider, who has a better track record than most studio chiefs in offering honest numbers. So what does the movie cost? Let's just say -- that's a work in progress.As you can see, assessing movie budgets is a skill that relies on instinct as much as actual reporting. Horn uses something akin to triangulation, i.e. the art of measuring from three different points of reference, the epicenter being where those lines intersect. As he puts it: "Ask three people without axes to grind, or reasons to lie, what a movie's budget is, and the average of those numbers can be a close approximation of the film's true cost."When Horn was reporting on the budget of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for his Word of Mouth column, he asked a few executives "close to Paramount" what the film cost. Two got back to him. One said $175 million. Another said $185 million. Horn ran the lower figure. Even so, the studio complained, saying that while the film's initial budget was in fact $175 million, incentives from Canada and Louisiana -- where much of the film was shot -- reduced the actual cost to $150 million. The Times published a clarification to explain why our original budget number was off the mark.But right around the time that Paramount was upset that our "Benjamin Button" number was too high, I found myself on the phone with a studio boss who complained that our "Button" number was too low, saying, "You guys are so gullible. That movie cost at least $200 million." I guess that makes us damned if we do, damned if we don't. It makes for a frustrating experience all around. As a baseball junkie, I take pleasure in the sanctity of numbers. You know that at the end of game you can accurately calculate every player's batting average, based solely on his performance. Fudging isn't allowed. If a player's hitting .315, he's hitting .315. If he goes 0-for-4 in the next game, his batting average goes down. No explanation, no exception.But movie budgets, like everything else about the business, are never black and white. In Hollywood, the numbers are a lot like the truth -- they are always subject to interpretation.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein ran into Paul Thomas Anderson recently and the encounter led to an article regarding films and their reported budgets called "Why Everyone Lies About Their Movie's Budget."
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Mike Fleming has posted an exclusive report regarding the current state and speculations surrounding The Master. We have copied/pasted it here for your convenience:
EXCLUSIVE: After the disappointing box office returns on Paul Greengrass’s thoughtful but vastly expensive action polemic Green Zone, what’s gonna happen with a new Paul Thomas Anderson drama that won’t get made by Universal because of its $35 million budget? I’m hearing talks are serious for Bill Pohlad’s River Road to fully finance a film that will star Philip Seymour Hoffman as a charismatic intellectual who in the 1950s becomes the leader of a start-up religion that takes off like wildfire. The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner is circling the role of a young drifter who becomes his right hand man but begins to question his mentor and the whole belief thing. The presence of Oscar winner Hoffman and Oscar nominee Renner gives PTA another Oscar-bait movie, and a topical one, as the storyline questions long established religions as well as comparative upstarts like Scientology and Mormonism. But the $35 million price tag was blasphemy to some indie distributors who considered the package.Jeremy Renner- I’m also hearing that PTA’s longtime agent and former Paramount honcho John Lesher is likely to join as producer alongside Anderson’s longtime collaborator, Jo Anne Sellar. River Road seems a strong fit, given Pohlad's affection for auteur fare. He made possible the Terrence Malick-directed The Tree of Life with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, as well as the Warner Bros castoff Fair Game, the Doug Liman-directed drama about outed CIA op Valerie Plame which stars Penn and Noami Watts. Pohlad is principal investor and partner with Bob Berney in the distribution shingle Apparition. It's unclear if Berney will get the PTA film, though it seems right in the distributor's wheelhouse. Apparition next distributes The Runaways for Pohlad.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The Playlist has the latest on the Master, again. This time they are reporting that Universal has passed on the 35 million dollar budget and that Jeremy Renner is still going to play Freddie:
As we first reported a few weeks ago, Deadline Hollywood confirms that Jeremy Renner is circling a role in Paul Thomas Anderson's gestating, to-be-titled Scientology film. As we assumed, it appears that Renner is indeed being considered for the role of Freddie, the young drifter who is becomes apprentice to The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In many ways it was the worst kept secret in Hollywood that Renner and PTA had been talking, but it's only now that their discussions have been confirmed.It's an intriguing development as in the early draft of the script that's currently making the rounds, Freddie is supposed to be in his '20s and in need of guidance and direction, having hit rock bottom with wanton alcoholism. With Renner nearing 40 years old, it's anybody's guess whether or not the script will be tweaked to play closer to his age. We're curious to see how this changes the script (or not). And just remember, this isn't confirmation he's taking the role yet. There's been salient conversations that PTA was resistant to Renner at first specifically because of his age. The character is supposed to be young and impressionable, which makes him open to manipulation and following the word of this self-made godhead, but that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. After all the script that is floating out there is a very early draft.The other major development is that Universal has gotten cold feet, passing on the project and its $35 million budget. PTA fans have no need to fear as production company River Road is in serious talks to foot the bill. The company has been a haven for auteurs of late, funding Terrence Malick's "Tree Of Life" and Doug Liman's "Fair Game." Honcho Bill Pohlad is also an investor in distributor Apparition, so don't be surprised if the film ends up there. Longtime Anderson collaborators John Lesher and JoAnne Seller are expected to come on board to produce.Reading between the lines, it appears the film is being shopped around as package which leads us believe that once the film finds a home, Renner will officially be on board. At the very least, we hope it gets him out of starring in "Battleship."
Friday, March 05, 2010
The Playlist is reporting now that Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner is set to play Freddie in The Master. Here is their latest post which will more than likely contain slight/major spoilers:
File this under rumor if you like, but the buzz and noise about this has become too deafening to ignore.
It all started in the comments section of our script review of Paul Thomas Anderson's gestating and untitled Scientology project, though called the "The Master" in some circles for shorthand. We posited that Paul Dano might be a good fit for the Freddie, a young, naive, misguided and semi-alcoholic youth in his '20s who slowly becomes mentored by The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman has this role according to Variety). Some readers took that to believe we had some sort of inside information there, and things began to snowball.
In the comments section an Anon says "when was Paul Dano confirmed to be in this??" which is followed up by another Anon post, "I don't think he was/is. Everything I've heard is that an offer is out to Jeremy Renner." We normally wouldn't pay attention to this, but right around the same, Jeremy Renner revealed to the NY Times, that he had taken five meetings already on a "secret project" he was unable to talk about. We took pause at that, but Movieline and Cinematical definitely started to speculate, pointed to our comments section and lo, and behold the rumor began taking some real shape.
It's been two weeks now, and the rumors have quietly, but substantially persisting. An Anon poster on IMDB says what we too have heard: that Renner has met with Paul Thomas Anderson several times, but that Anderson is not convinced that Renner is right for the role. Age is the factor here as Freddie is supposed to be in his '20s, and Renner is 39. And yes, they note our comments section could have just spiraled this out of control, but we've heard this from a number of different sources and are frankly surprised someone like Deadline hasn't caught wind of it yet. Furthermore, a source in L.A. confirms to us that Renner has met with Anderson, but cannot say more.
It could all add up to nothing, but our gut tells us this is something that we shouldn't not ignore. We're also betting if he doesn't get the role — in our minds, as much as we love him, he probably shouldn't, he is too old for it— it will at least come out after the fact that he was in the running.
But as the script that has circulated for "The Master" is still a very early draft, some may wonder if Anderson might rework the role, aging the character slightly to match the 39 year-old Renner. We think that it's a slight possibility, but pretty much doubt it will happen. Freddie is a lost soul on the run, who needs a bit of guidance which makes it far easier for him to come under The Master's spell. And while a cult figure like The Master can weave his spell on anyone, of any age, that has fallen on hard times, in a film, it's probably a much easier and more dramatic sell if that character is younger. Simply put, we don't see Freddie being rewritten as older. It could work, we suppose, but we like the way it was written. It feels right.
Aside from The Master and Freddie, the other major characters are the Master's fiercely protective daughters and that's about it. There is a minor role of The Master's son, but it's so small, we don't see Renner being interested.
The only other possibility, is that Philip Seymour Hoffman is out and that Renner is eyeing the lead role, but again, we highly doubt that. The role is written for someone who already has adult children in their '20s and '30s and while Hoffman is only a few years older than Renner, he can play older a lot more convincingly.
As Renner said to the New York Times, a decision will need to be made soon as he's also eyeing a role in Peter Berg's "Battleship" and both films are aiming for summer shoots. That said, as far as we know, Anderson's film is still awaiting a greenlight from Universal who will need to approve the finished script so its possible that "The Master" might start at a later date depending on when all the pieces fall into place.
So yes, consider this rumor now if you like, but expect to hear some kind of news soon.