Surrounded by towering green-screens and a bubbling man-made ocean inside cavernous Stage 16 on the Warner Bros. lot, movie director Wolfgang Petersen took a breather one recent morning while scores of stuntmen spent hours setting up an action sequence on the set of Poseidon, his retooling of The Poseidon Adventure due next summer. ''We're a couple of million dollars under budget,'' boasted the man behind pricey blockbusters like The Perfect Storm and Troy. So just how much, he was asked, is all this costing? Petersen smiled. ''You will never get the answer when you ask what the budget is.'' He chuckled. ''It's over $100 million. No, it's substantially over $100 million.''
Used to be that studios trumpeted how much they spent. (A cast of thousands! the ads would scream. Millions of dollars to produce!) But these days, badgered by Wall Street to bring order to their famously chaotic trade, they finesse, spin, and flat-out dodge the question of budgets. Yet, while filmmakers may claim they're fiscally responsible, deep down many of them have the conviction of David O. Selznick that you gotta spend big to win big.
Thanks to a reliance on high-salaried brand-name talent and big-ticket special effects, production budgets have been high for years rising from an average of $39.8 million in 1996 to $63.6 million in 2004. But some recent tabs are threatening to make $200 million the new high-end standard. Poseidon: $175 million. Superman Returns: $185 million. Pirates of the Caribbean parts 2 and 3: a reported $200 million apiece. King Kong: $207 million. And this is before studios pour in marketing bucks, which, on tentpole flicks like these, can even double the $34.4 million average. Why so much? Simple: ''There is a can-you-top-this?! mentality in this business, always has been,'' says Mandalay Pictures chairman Peter Guber, who ran Sony Pictures in the early 1990s. But, he adds, ''nobody goes to a movie to see the budget. You never hear anyone say, 'Let's go down to the theater, I hear a budget is playing there.'''
Indeed, the impact of Hollywood's bigger-and-better philosophy on moviegoers and on the movies themselves is hard to parse. Some argue that creative risk taking, the great intangible that truly jazzes viewers and gets them coming back to theaters for more, is annihilated when studios and the megacorporations that own them place their fiduciary interests above all. ''Rupert Murdoch isn't looking at the quality of the script, I promise you,'' Guber says. ''He's looking at the quality of the return.'' And that can translate into manufactured movies that seek to repeat the financial success of a benchmark predecessor like Star Wars or The Matrix by delivering more of the same sans innovation or quirkiness.
''[Filmmakers] don't do the unexpected, they're too scared the prices are too high,'' says producer Robert Evans, who notes that, as head of Paramount Pictures in the 1970s, he risked the then-tidy sum of $6.3 million to make The Godfather. Today, he surmises, it would cost well in excess of $100 million a number that alone would scare most studios away from taking the kinds of gambles (i.e., a talented but generally unknown cast, honest depictions of graphic violence, shooting in real locations) that viewers respond to. ''When you pick up the dice, you don't want to go broke.''