Special Features – Is World War Z the Most Expensive Movie Ever Made? And does it matter?

Anghus Houvouras on our cultural fascination with box office and budgets….

World War Z movie poster

With the release of World War Z, there’s been a lot of talk of rapidly escalating budgets.  It seems like you can’t make a blockbuster these days for less than $200 million.  Some are claiming that World War Z cost almost twice that amount (more on that in a moment).

Film budgets are funny things.  Box office reporting wasn’t always a hot topic.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that the coverage of the weekend’s top films went from a point of interest to a major industry caveat.  It used to be a pithy little news item mentioned between more serious stories on the news.  At best, it was filler.  Now, there are entire websites devoted to tracking every single variable. 

If you wanted to know how much Weekend At Bernies made in it’s third weekend, you could find out with minimal effort.  For the record it was $2,709,067.

Box office does nothing to lend itself to the enjoyment of a movie, and yet we break it down and analyze it like Will Hunting on a chalkboard. 

What’s odd is how Hollywood tries to hide these numbers.  Spending an ungodly sum on a major motion picture has become tantamount to box office poison.  The minute a trade or tabloid reports on the escalating budget of a production, blood hits the water and the sharks begin to circle.  

John Carter quad poster

Last year’s John Carter is a fantastic example.  Once the rumors of a $300 million budget were circled around Hollywood, reporters started writing the eulogy.  Before the film even hit theaters some were calling it ‘the most expensive flop in the history of Hollywood’. 

Does the budget really matter?  Not anymore.  Almost every film you’re going to watch this Summer cost over a hundred million.  A few of them cost twice that.  And some cost even more.  Which brings us back to World War Z.

The expression ‘runaway production’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.  After Brad Pitt’s Plan B bought the rights to Max Brooks acclaimed zombie drama, a massive undertaking was unleashed to bring it to the big screen.  Rumors of uncompleted screenplays and on-set changes started to get people wondering if the production was in trouble.  Then, the studio agreed to spend an unprecedented sum of money to completely rewrite, re-stage, and re-film the entire third act.  They hired Damon Lindelof to rework the third act and tie up every loose end.  This would be like hiring a jackhammer operator to perform a circumcision. 

The cost of all this damage control is estimated to be somewhere near $120 million.  Which, added to the original budget of $180 million put this one north of $300 million.  Sources at the Guardian have that number closer to $368 million.

I’m not sure why these numbers cause so much concern.  Is it your money?  Did you personally invest anything more than the ten dollars spent for the ticket?  Or seven quid for my friends in the UK?  Are you a principal stockholder for Paramount Pictures?  Is your retirement plan hinging on the success of World War Z?  Are you an accountant working for one of the four production companies that helped bring this movie to life?  Are you Brad Pitt or one of his fourteen children?  Is your college fund tied into the back end profit participation of the movie? 

If you’re any of those people, you have a legitimate reason to be concerned with how much was spent on this movie.

Avatar quad poster

The strange fascination some have with the box office success or failure of a movie is fascinating, but antithetical to the cinematic experience.  Do you enjoy a movie more if it’s successful?  Some people seem to associate box office success as an affirmation of their own personal taste.  Avatar is the most successful movie of all time.  I hate Avatar, a dreadful, pandering, idiotic piece of mainstream garbage.  Does the fact that it made a couple of billion dollars invalidate my opinion?  I also hated Cloud Atlas, a movie that was a financial disappointment and had a very passionate base of fans.  Can I use the poor box office performance of Cloud Atlas to validate my opinion that it wasn’t very good?  Sometimes you have to fight the urge to try and validate or mitigate a movie based on how much it cost or how many tickets it sold.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.  At all. 

Budgets don’t matter.  I don’t care if they spend eight dollars or eight billion dollars on a movie.  I just want to be entertained for two hours.  There are some who mitigate a movie because of the massive amounts spent on the production.

I don’t care how much World War Z costs.  I’m just hoping I get a two hour nail biter of an action-horror film.  I think as film fans we have to abandon the idea that box office reporting and film budgets are anything other than trivia.  When we start assigning weight to these numbers, we divert attention from the creative process and focus on the least interesting part of show business:

The business.

Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.


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