Why are movies so expensive? Did they used to be? Do they need to be?

August 10, JDN 2457611

One of the better arguments in favor of copyright involves film production. Films are extraordinarily expensive to produce; without copyright, how would they recover their costs? $100 million is a common budget these days.

It is commonly thought that film budgets used to be much smaller, so I looked at some data from The Numbers on over 5,000 films going back to 1915, and inflation-adjusted the budgets using the CPI. (I learned some interesting LibreOffice Calc functions in the process of merging the data; also LibreOffice crashed a few times trying to make the graphs, so that’s fun. I finally realized it had copied over all the 10,000 hyperlinks from the HTML data set.)

If you just look at the nominal figures, there does seem to be some sort of upward trend:


But once you do the proper inflation adjustment, this trend basically disappears:


In real terms, the grosses of some early movies are quite large. Adjusted to 2015 dollars, Gone with the Wind grossed $6.659 billion—still the highest ever. In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs grossed over $3.043 billion in 2015 dollars. In 1950, Cinderella made it to $2.592 billion in today’s money. (Horrifyingly, The Birth of a Nation grossed $258 million in today’s money.)

Nor is there any evidence that movie production has gotten more expensive. The linear trend is actually negative, though with a very small slope that is not statistically significant. On average, the real budget of a movie falls by $1752 per year.


While the two most expensive movies came out recently (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Avatar), the third most expensive was released in 1963 (Cleopatra). The really hugely expensive movies do seem to cluster relatively recently—but then so do the really cheap films, some of which have budgets under $10,000. It may just be that more movies are produced in general, and overall the cost of producing a film doesn’t seem to have changed in real terms. The best return on investment is My Date with Drew, released in 2005, which had a budget of $1,100 but grossed $181,000, giving it an ROI of 16,358%. The highest real profit was of course Gone with the Wind, which made an astonishing $6.592 billion, though Titanic, Avatar, Aliens and Terminator 2 combined actually beat it with a total profit of $6.651 billion, which may explain why James Cameron can now basically make any movie he wants and already has four sequels lined up for Avatar.

The biggest real loss was 1970’s Waterloo, which made back only $18 million of its $153 million budget, losing $135 million and having an ROI of -87.7%. This was not quite as bad an ROI as 2002’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which had an ROI of -92.91%.

But making movies has always been expensive, at least for big blockbusters. (The $8,900 budget of Primer is something I could probably put on credit cards if I had to.) It’s nothing new to spend $100 million in today’s money.

When considering the ethics and economics of copyright, it’s useful to think about what Michele Boldrin calls “pizzaright”: you can’t copy my pizza, or you are guilty of pizzaright infringement. Many of the arguments for copyright are so general—this is a valuable service, it carries some risk of failure, it wouldn’t be as profitable without the monopoly, so fewer companies might enter the business—that they would also apply to pizza. Yet somehow nobody thinks that pizzaright should be a thing. If there is a justification for copyrights, it must come from the special circumstances of works of art (broadly conceived, including writing, film, music, etc.), and the only one that really seems strong enough is the high upfront cost of certain types of art—and indeed, the only ones that really seem to fit that are films and video games.

Painting, writing, and music just aren’t that expensive. People are willing to create these things for very little money, and can do so more or less on their own, especially nowadays. If the prices are reasonable, people will still want to buy from the creators directly—and sure enough, widespread music piracy hasn’t killed music, it has only killed the corporate record industry. But movies and video games really can easily cost $100 million to make, so there’s a serious concern of what might happen if they couldn’t use copyright to recover their costs.

The question for me is, did we really need copyright to fund these budgets?

Let’s take a look at how Star Wars made its money. $6.249 billion came from box office revenue, while $873 million came from VHS and DVD sales; those would probably be substantially reduced if not for copyright. But even before The Force Awakens was released, the Star Wars franchise had already made some $12 billion in toy sales alone. “Merchandizing, merchandizing, where the real money from the movie is made!”

Did they need intellectual property to do that? Well, yes—but all they needed was trademark. Defenders of “intellectual property” like to use that term because it elides fundamental distinctions between the three types: trademark, copyright, and patent.
Trademark is unproblematic. You can’t lie about who you are or where you products came from when you’re selling something. So if you are claiming to sell official Star Wars merchandise, you’d better be selling official Star Wars merchandise, and trademark protects that.

Copyright is problematic, but may be necessary in some cases. Copyright protects the content of the movies from being copied or modified without Lucasfilm’s permission. So now rather than simply protecting against the claim that you represent Lucasfilm, we are protecting against people buying the movie, copying it, and reselling the copies—even though that is a real economic service they are providing, and is in no way fraudulent as long as they are clear about the fact that they made the copies.

Patent is, frankly, ridiculous. The concept of “owning” ideas is absurd. You came up with a good way to do something? Great! Go do it then. But don’t expect other people to pay you simply for the privilege of hearing your good idea. Of course I want to financially support researchers, but there are much, much better ways of doing that, like government grants and universities. Patents only raise revenue for research that sells, first of all—so vaccines and basic research can’t be funded that way, even though they are the most important research by far. Furthermore, there’s nothing to guarantee that the person who actually invented the idea is the one who makes the profit from it—and in our current system where corporations can own patents (and do own almost 90% of patents), it typically isn’t. Even if it were, the whole concept of owning ideas is nonsensical, and it has driven us to the insane extremes of corporations owning patents on human DNA. The best argument I’ve heard for patents is that they are a second-best solution that incentivizes transparency and avoids trade secrets from becoming commonplace; but in that case they should definitely be short, and we should never extend them. Companies should not be able to make basically cosmetic modifications and renew the patent, and expiring patents should be a cause for celebration.

Hollywood actually formed in Los Angeles precisely to escape patents, but of course they love copyright and trademark. So do they like “intellectual property”?

Could blockbuster films be produced profitably using only trademark, in the absence of copyright?

Clearly Star Wars would have still turned a profit. But not every movie can do such merchandizing, and when movies start getting written purely for merchandizing it can be painful to watch.

The real question is whether a film like Gone with the Wind or Avatar could still be made, and make a reasonable profit (if a much smaller one).

Well, there’s always porn. Porn raises over $400 million per year in revenue, despite having essentially unenforceable copyright. They too are outraged over piracy, yet somehow I don’t think porn will ever cease to exist. A top porn star can make over $200,000 per year.Then there are of course independent films that never turn a profit at all, yet people keep making them.

So clearly it is possible to make some films without copyright protection, and something like Gone with the Wind needn’t cost $100 million to make. The only reason it cost as much as it did (about $66 million in today’s money) was that movie stars could command huge winner-takes-all salaries, which would no longer be true if copyright went away. And don’t tell me people wouldn’t be willing to be movie stars for $200,000 a year instead of $1.8 million (what Clark Gable made for Gone with the Wind, adjusted for inflation).

Yet some Hollywood blockbuster budgets are genuinely necessary. The real question is whether we could have Avatar without copyright. Not having films like Avatar is something I would count as a substantial loss to our society; we would lose important pieces of our art and culture.

So, where did all that money go? I don’t have a breakdown for Avatar in particular, but I do have a full budget breakdown for The Village. Of its $71.7 million, $33.5 million was “above the line”, which basically means the winner-takes-all superstar salaries for the director, producer, and cast. That amount could be dramatically reduced with no real cost to society—let’s drop it to say $3 million. Shooting costs were $28.8 million, post-production was $8.4 million, and miscellaneous expenses added about $1 million; all of those would be much harder to reduce (they mainly go to technical staff who make reasonable salaries, not to superstars), so let’s assume the full amount is necessary. That’s about $38 million in real cost to produce. Avatar had a lot more (and better) post-production, so let’s go ahead and multiply the post-production budget by an order of magnitude to $84 million. Our new total budget is $113.8 million.
That sounds like a lot, and it is; but this could be made back without copyright. Avatar sold over 14.5 million DVDs and over 8 million Blu-Rays. Conservatively assuming that the price elasticity of demand is zero (which is ridiculous—assuming the monopoly pricing is optimal it should be -1), if those DVDs were sold for $2 each and the Blu-Rays were sold for $5 each, with 50% of those prices being profit, this would yield a total profit of $14.5 million from DVDs and $20 million from Blu-Rays. That’s already $34.5 million. With realistic assumptions about elasticity of demand, cutting the prices this much (DVDs down from an average of $16, Blu-Rays down from an average of $20) would multiply the number of DVDs sold by at least 5 and the number of Blu-Rays sold by at least 3, which would get us all the way up to $132 million—enough to cover our new budget. (Of course this is much less than they actually made, which is why they set the prices they did—but that doesn’t mean it’s optimal from society’s perspective.)

But okay, suppose I’m wrong about the elasticity, and dropping the price from $16 to $2 for a DVD somehow wouldn’t actually increase the number purchased. What other sources of revenue would they have? Well, box office tickets would still be a thing. They’d have to come down in price, but given the high-quality high-fidelity versions that cinemas require—making them quite hard to pirate—they would still get decent money from each cinema. Let’s say the price drops by 90%—all cinemas are now $1 cinemas!—and the sales again somehow remain exactly the same (rather than dramatically increasing as they actually would). What would Avatar’s worldwide box office gross be then? $278 million. They could give the DVDs away for free and still turn a profit.

And that’s Avatar, one of the most expensive movies ever made. By cutting out the winner-takes-all salaries and huge corporate profits, the budget can be substantially reduced, and then what real costs remain can be quite well covered by box office and DVD sales at reasonable prices. If you imagine that piracy somehow undercuts everything until you have to give away things for free, you might think this is impossible; but in reality pirated versions are of unreliable quality, people do want to support artists and they are willing to pay something for their entertainment. They’re just tired of paying monopoly prices to benefit the shareholders of Viacom.

Would this end the era of the multi-millionaire movie star? Yes, I suppose it might. But it would also put about $10 billion per year back in the pockets of American consumers—and there’s little reason to think it would take away future Avatars, much less future Gone with the Winds.


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