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A Primer on How Movies Are Made: Follow the Money

by John Aquino on 09/07/19

Did you ever wonder why particular movies are made at all and then remade and remade and why perfectly good movies are left to die with limited distribution and no promotion? There are some exceptions, but the prevalent answer is the simple one. As "Deep Throat" is supposed to have told the Washington Post reporters investigating corruption in the Nixon White House, "Follow the Money." (See Note * at end)

There are, of course, examples of actors, directors, and cinematographers working for union scale just so the budget of a movie they thought was important would not be rejected by studios because it was too expensive. And  filmmakers have produced scripts that they knew would be prestigious but unprofitable. But behind at least some of these stories were filmmakers taking a tax write-off or agreeing to make a particular movie only if the actor who wanted the movie made agreed to sign a multi-year contract (e.g., production head Darryl Zanuck, star Henry Fonda, and the 1940 movie version of John Steinbeck's 1940 novel The Grapes of Wrath). Sometimes, prestigious movies have even made money in spite of low expectations.

A more recent example of the follow-the-money approach concerns the Millennium trilogy of crime novels by Karl Stig-Erland "Steig" Larsson. Larsson died in 2004 having completed three novels about Lisabeth Salamander, a brilliant but emotionally damaged computer hacker and researchers: the English titles are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The novels became mammoth best sellers. By 2015, 80 million copies of the three books had been sold worldwide. 

Larsson didn't leave a valid will, and, consequently, his estate, including his intellectual property, passed to his father and brother, neither of whom he had seen in a number of years. Larsson had completed three-quarters of a fourth novel on a computer notebook in the possession of his lover Eva Gabrielsonn as well as notes for a fifth and sixth book. Rather than work with Gabrielsonn, Larsson's family and publisher hired David Lagercrantz to write three additional novels in the series titled The Girl in the Spider's Web (2015), The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (2017), and The Girl Who Lived Twice (2019) based on his own imagination..

The Swedish film production company Yellow Bird released film versions of Larsonn's  three novels in 2009. The film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo received the BAFTA award (the UK equivalent of the Academy Award) for best non-English language film; all three movies were released in North America and other countries and earned a combined $250 million worldwide. The three films were also re-packaged as a six-part Millennium miniseries for Swedish television in 2010.

Faced with the tremendous success of the novels and their Swedish film versions, Sony Pictures and M-G-M produced an English language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2011. It was given a substantial production budget of $90 million and a capable cast including Daniel Craig, who had starred in two films so far as secret agent James Bond, playing the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, Rooney Mara as Lisabeth, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, and Geraldine James. The screenplay was penned by Steven Zaillian, who had written or co-written the scripts for Schindler's List, for which he won the Academy Award, A Clear and Present Danger, Moneyball, and Gangs of New York. On release, Dragon was well reviewed, was nominated for five Academy Awards including best actress for Mara, won the award for film editing, and earned $237 million worldwide. Now, if a film cost $90 million to produce, the rule of thumb is that you add another $90 million to cover the marketing for a total cost of $180 million. With worldwide ticket sales of $237 million, minus the cost, the film made, based on these numbers, a modest profit of $57 million, not including ancillary income from DVDs, soundtracks, and cable viewings.

A script for a U.S. film version of the second novel was completed, and Craig and Mara were eager to begin filming. But the studios were disappointed that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn't make more money. They were looking for mammoth profits: for a film with total costs of $90 million, filmmakers could expect $400 million or more in ticket sales, and for one costing $200 million to make, $1 billion in worldwide sales. The planned films of the second and third Millennium novels were cancelled.

Now, other minds might reason that, given that the Swedish film versions of Larsson's three novels had been released in the U.S. and many were already familiar with the stories, the U.S. film version of the first novel had still performed well financially and extremely well in reviews and awards. But the studios and filmmakers wanted more and decided to shake things up. They made the decision to produce a movie version of Lagercrantz's novel The Girl in the Spider's Web, which had not been filmed before and so familiarity with the story would not be an issue. They cast Clare Foy, who had won acclaim for playing Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflik's miniseries The Crown, as Lisabeth--a sharp departure for the actress. The rest of the cat, however, included few if any familiar names, all in the spirit of reducing cost. Deciding that Dragon had been over-budgeted at $90 million, the studios produced Spide'sr for $43 million. What really wasn't taken into account is that Lagercrantz' work may not have been as good as Larsonn's. The upshot was that Spider's received mixed to negative reviews, Foy's performance was considered as a valiant effort but inferior to Mara's, and Spider's earned only $35 million at the box office worldwide. Using the same math approach and doubling the production budget to account for marketing costs, Spider's, rather than having a $57 million profit as Dragon did, showed a $48 million loss. Subsequent versions of Larsonn's and Lagercrantz's novels have been cancelled or at least postponed.

You too can turn a $57 million profit into a $48 million loss and fizzle away interest in what looked to be a healthy film franchise if all you do is follow the money. Another approach would have been to keep the high production values, superior cast, and Larsonn's novel as a source and try to make the second U.S. film based on a his work even better than the first.

Note* "Deep Throat" never says "Follow the money" in Woodward and Bernstein's book All the President's Men. The screenwriter for the movie version, James Goldman, appears to have invented it or borrowed it from another setting. That line, at least, was a successful film adaptation, translating the spirit of the book.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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