Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Uncertain Future Of Big Budget Horror

With Paramount's in-development adaptation of Max Brook's zombie novel World War Z now looking to be the second case in recent weeks - after Universal aborted Guillermo del Toro's At The Mountains of Madness - of skittish studios abandoning ambitious horror projects in the face of cost concerns, one has to wonder if big budget horror has any future at all.

For the most part, I'm actually sympathetic to studio execs for not having the nerve to back a project as expensive as ATMOM. While it was practically a lock to have been a great movie - I think del Toro and producer James Cameron would've ensured that it lived up to all expectations - I doubt that it would've been profitable. Fans eager to see that project realized can proclaim that it would have been a guaranteed hit - but to be a hit as huge as it would've needed to be to justify a $150 million production cost? I don't know. And $125 million for World War Z seems damn high as well. But if - as reported - Paramount is aiming for that film to be PG-13, maybe it's just as well if that project fails to continue (although, to be fair, The Walking Dead gets away with as much gore on basic cable as I really need to see in a zombie movie these days).

Whatever the commercial chances of these two films, they were definitely projects that fans were hoping would raise the bar of artistic ambition on the current genre scene. Now that it looks like they're going to be shelved - likely permanently - it may be a clear sign that big budget horror is dead in Hollywood and that's a shame. While the lifeblood of the genre has always been found in independent cinema, big budget, studio-produced horror has its own vital legacy - as seen in The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, John Carpenter's The Thing, and other classics.

As much as I love the raw, scrappy likes of The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project and the resourcefulness that they embody, I also love it when filmmakers get to make a horror movie with real money and top-shelf talent (both in front of and behind the camera). The Birds, for instance, couldn't have been done without groundbreaking FX work; Gore Verbinski's remake of The Ring took excellent advantage of its expanded resources without ever becoming crass; Zack Synder's Dawn of the Dead remake delivered apocalyptic sights that no other zombie movie had before; and I'm forever grateful that Cannon Films gave Tobe Hooper the money to make his sprawling, messy, utterly daffy Lifeforce.

That last example, of course, is one reason why studios won't automatically foot the bill for a lavish horror picture - because the risks can be catastrophic. These days, to play it safe, high-end horror films either have to be action/horror hybrids (like this year's Priest) or they have to be Twilight movies (or wanna-be Twilight movies like Red Riding Hood) and even those aren't nearly as pricey to produce as ATMOM or World War Z would've been. Which leads me to ask - why do those two films have to be so insanely costly? I know the price of everything is going up these days but $150 million for ATMOM? Really?

I admire del Toro for not wanting to compromise his dream Lovecraft project but isn't the history of horror - the history of filmmaking - largely defined by compromises? Many would say the fact that the mechanical shark in Jaws wasn't good enough to withstand more than the most limited of screen time helped that movie be the classic that it is. And in making The Shining, Stanley Kubrick had to substitute a hedge maze in place of hedge animals when it was determined that the special effects technology of the time couldn't successfully bring that element of Stephen King's novel to life but yet that maze proved to be one of the most memorable aspects of Kubrick's film.

If del Toro can't make ATMOM for less than $150 million, I'd love to find out what kind of ATMOM adaptation Stuart Gordon would be able to make with, say, a paltry $50 million. Somehow I bet he'd prove it could be done. I mean, I'm sure he would've loved to have had more than just under $5 million for Dagon but that movie still kills. He made it work, rubbery fish faces and all.

But del Toro thinks big and - in the horror genre, especially - that kind of grandiose vision has to be admired. It's just too bad there may not be many more opportunities for that kind of vision to flourish. I'd like to think that we won't be forever deprived of any ambitious, big-budget horror projects in the future but when a film like Paranormal Activity can be made for $15 million and make back almost $200 million, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the best kind of scare will always be a cheap scare.


Sarah said...

The Thing was a studio picture, but wasn't it a box office failure when it was released? I remember reading that most critics at the time considered it a rip-off of Alien.

World War Z would work best as a lengthy cable TV miniseries just because of how the stories are told. But considering that the book has at least 6 action-y set pieces with the Battle of Yonkers being the main set piece, it kind of does warrant a high budget.

Jeff Allard said...

It's been said that cable would be a better home for World War Z so who knows - maybe that's where it'll end up eventually.

As for The Thing, it was a flop when it came out and a critical disaster as well. Over time it's become enshrined as a classic but in its day, Carpenter was all but run out of town.

That's the other thing that makes it tough to argue a case for big budget horror - a lot of films that one would point to as validating the expense actually bombed when they were released only to become cult classics after the fact.

Rotting Pumpkins said...

The last big screen horror with a budget and done right was "The Mist". As far as I remember hearing, it wasn't a budget that was considered extremely large.

Jeff Allard said...

The budget on The Mist was surprisingly low - $18 million. Every penny must've made it's way onto the screen because it has the feel of a much more expensive picture than it really is.

The best big budget genre efforts I can think of from recent years are Silent Hill (reported budget $50 million) and Spielberg's War of the Worlds ($132 million).

Will Errickson said...

Honestly, I don't think HPL's Cthulhu mythos vision--no matter which story is adapted or which director and screenwriter tackle it--is *ever* going to be embraced by the mainstream film-going audience.

Radio London said...

I think del Toro said that one of the issues was that the studio wanted to ensure a 'PG-13' rating, and while he didn't think it would turn out as an 'R', he didn't want to film under that constriction.

But $150 million does seem unnecessarily high. I'm wondering if part of the cost was studio insistence that it be shot in 3-D (expensive) and have a major star like Tom Cruise (also expensive). Or maybe del Toro was set on being able to employ all of the resources of something like AVATAR to bring Lovecraft's world to life, and decided it wasn't worth the effort to settle for anything less.

Jeff Allard said...

Will, I agree - mass appeal and Lovecraft just don't go together. I do think a big movie could be made from his work - just perhaps not one as big as del Toro planned.

RL, maybe with a higher budget but a PG-13 it would've gotten by or with an R but a smaller budget. Either way, it's sad to think this movie will never happen. I've seen so many crummy movies lately that it's all the more discouraging to see one this promising never come to pass.

the jaded viewer said...

Clearly the studios think they can bank the money on a Resident Evil rather than Lovecraft or Brooks.

I kinda think they think of the horror fans as mindless zombies who need the most basic plot and explosions to guarantee success.

If Inception can be the thinking man's action flick, I'm sure there's room for a thinking man's horror flick.

Ivan said...

Jeff, I think these things come in waves: now it's a down-time for big-budget horror, but when someone with more "juice" shows up, the purse-strings will be loosened.

So why didn't this happen with del Toro & Co.? Maybe some exec just didn't want the headaches (budgetary or otherwise) that Cruise and Cameron would bring?

Or maybe there's an exec with tastes similar to mine who feels that del Toro is overrated. I've seen Mimic, Pan's Labyrinth and the two Hellboys, and while they are visually fascinating, I for one have huge problems with del Toro's pacing: his flicks make me look at my watch. As such, I'm not sad that he's not making ATMOM. And honestly, I don't need that film, I have the book.

Jeff Allard said...

You know, Ivan, I've got to admit - I'm not del Toro's biggest fan myself. I've never seen anything from him that I've actively disliked (although I wasn't crazy about Hellboy II) but by the same token, I haven't loved anything he's done either.

Of all the "geek made good" directors out there - guys like Peter Jackson, Eli Roth, Adam Green - I like del Toro the best by far (I don't count Tarantino as strictly a geek-centric filmmaker because his films don't cater so hard to the AICN, Comic-Con crowd) but I'm still waiting for one of his films to really galvanize me. I was hoping that for ATMOM but - unless some other studio picks up the project - we'll never know how that would've went.

Bob Ignizio said...

I just wonder whatever happened to mid-budget horror (or any kind of movie, for that matter). Everything is either 20 million or less, or 100 million or more these days. You could make a pretty kick-ass 'At The Mountains of MAdness' for 50 mill, in my opinion, but no one seems to think on that scale anymore.

Jeff Allard said...

Bob, I read an article along those lines sometime back about how studios had kind of given up on developing films with mid-range budgets. It's too bad - I bet a lot of great projects will never come to pass because of that.

Unknown said...

I can't blame the studios for pulling the plug. On top of the $150 million, factor in at least another $100 million for marketing purposes. There was no way this film, with source material that might be the very definition of "niche market" was going to come close to recouping its mony, let alone turn a buck.

Jeff Allard said...

Sad but true, Mike.

Timmy Crabcakes said...

I don't think ATMOM is necessarily so 'niche'... 'expedition stumbles upon pre-human civilization in the Antarctic and find out the occupants are still around' doesn't sound particularly solitary in its appeal.

It also doesn't seem like it would necessitate all that cost... unless Del Toro was thinking of doing what Peter Jackson did with King Kong... recreating the '20s... huge set pieces... lots of extraneous crap that, truthfully, weakened the movie overall.
If that was his plan, along with including Tom Cruise, I'm inclined to say I'm happy that movie will NOT be 'coming soon'.

Really, I think they should give it Lars Von Trier or the guys who made Sauna... they could make it cheap and make it great.

Jeff Allard said...

Knob, I agree - the money spent on Kong was generally money wasted. As for del Toro's ATMOM...I'm sure the period setting would've contributed a lot to the budget. Still, I just can't believe there isn't a cheaper way to bring that book to the screen.

Anonymous said...

Wow...judging from the number of comments on this post, I'd say that everybody has already read it! Regardless, I enjoyed it so much that I chose it as one of my favorites of March and included a link to it in the latest "issue" of SPATTER ANALYSIS.

Check it out!


Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Jonny - I always appreciate getting a Splatter Analysis shout-out! Glad you enjoyed the post!

Film Liaison said...

All good points, I just wanted to point out how skewed the comparisons being used are; Shining, Thing, Aliens, etc. Most had budgets around 10mil while 1 or 2 were around 20. Would be higher today if adjusted for inflation, but not in the 120mil range. Budgets that high transcend genre; You gotta measure it against blockbusters. Also, Gordon has long been washed up and you later mention Jackson in the same sentence with Roth & Green, lolol.

Jeff Allard said...

Well, budgets that were in the 20 mil range were considered high-priced in the late '70s/early '80s. Many were appalled that Ridley Scott's Alien cost a then-astronomical $11 mil (the same as Star Wars' budget). By the end of the '80s, it was deemed an enormous financial gamble for Burton's first Batman movie to cost a reported $48 mil but that's barely more than what Scream 4 cost to make today.

As for Gordon being "washed up," I was referring to his talent not his commercial standing. His recent films have been as strong as anything he's done so I'd be all for having him take another crack at Lovecraft.

And lumping Jackson in with Roth and Green simply relates to the fact that all are fans-turned-filmmakers. "Geeks made good" as I described them. Keep in mind that Roth and Green are still relatively early in their careers - who knows where they'll be down the line. Certainly in the early '90s, few people would've guessed that the maker of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead-Alive would eventually be directing blockbusters.