Screen Or At Home
Cinemas In The US
History Of The Film
What Happens To Your Movie Money
This is no business for a piker.
Don't think because you have $15,000 you can make a picture. $15,000 would last you just long enough to meet Wallace Beery.
Today it costs $250,000 to make an average, every-evening movie. Super pictures run all the way up to four millions.
The film audience is the most pampered audience in the world. It pays an average admission price of thirty-five cents and expects to see at least a good portion of a million dollars blown in before its very eyes every evening.
A stage play can be produced for $10,000. An admission price of five or six dollars can be charged. There is hardly any gamble involved for the producer. The spoken theater audience can either take it or leave it alone.
Back in 1903 it cost $150 to make a movie- to be exact, to manufacture The Great Train Robbery. It costs $250,000 today for Famous Players to produce the films starring Richard Dix, Thomas Meighan, Bebe Daniels and its other luminaries. You paid ten cents to see The Great Train Robbery. If admission prices had kept pace with production costs you would pay a little more than $166 to get inside a screen theater today. The movie ticket costs would be about the same, too, in relative comparison with the spoken theater's low overhead and high admission price.
There are good reasons why producers can afford to make $250,000 pictures day in and day out. There are more movie theaters- and consequently greater distribution. Which means more money coming back in rentals. Exhibitors have bigger and better theaters and can afford to pay higher rentals for bigger and better films. And the foreign market has been developing rapidly since the end of the world war. This has become an important, and ever growing, source of revenue.
You can remember the first million dollar film. It was Erich Von Stroheim's Foolish Wives. Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, had not intended to spend the million, but Von Stroheim maneuvered him into the position of celluloid spendthrift. So Laemmle put up electric signs announcing the million.
Even the Germans are spending money on films today. Metropolis, the UFA feature, cost $2,000,000. Pretty soon you will hear of a Scotch studio making big one-reelers.
Nowhere but in a movie theater can you get such a marvelous return for your money. The pampered film-goer sneers at make-believe settings and any sort of sham. He must have the real thing in Saharas, silks and sapphires. Actually he gets a Rolls-Royce for the price of a scooter every time he goes around to his neighborhood screen theater.
Perhaps you have protested because you spend twenty-five cents at the theater around the corner. Or eighty cents downtown. Forget it. Only amazing business organizations make it possible at any price.
Hold tight, and listen to these figures. There is a total investment in the film business of $1,500,000,000. The capital invested in and around Hollywood alone runs to $1,125,000,000.
The annual cost of making photoplays ran to $165,000,000 in 1925. The cost for the present screen year will top $200,000,000. Authorities estimate the average weekly attendance in the 20,233 theaters of the country at 130,000,000. Assuming that the average admission is thirty-five cents, the annual paid admission total runs to $2,366,000,000.
Back in 1917, in an interview given me for "The Dramatic Mirror," an official of the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation named $20,000 as the average cost of production. He also said that production costs could not advance further. Needless to say, he is no longer with Famous Players.
Richard W. Saunders, comptroller of Famous Players-Lasky, places the sum of $250,000 as the average cost of all productions of his organization at the present time. This sum was $150,000 two years ago. Big specials run much higher, of course.
Mr. Saunders outlined for me some of the details of financing picture making. "The production cost of Old Ironsides ran to more than $2,000,000," he said. "Add to this the cost of exploitation and the carrying charge of five per cent upon the money tied up in the investment, along with the other incidentals to the presentation of the film. Old Ironsides will be far into its second year before the initial cost returns to us.
"Today big pictures are road showed for almost the entire first year of their existence. The road showing of Old Ironsides will bring in somewhere between a few hundred thousand and more than a million, dependent upon the extent of its success. Profits in the case of Old Ironsides will begin at about the end of the second year.
"We figure the average so-called program picture to bring back two and a half times its cost in its gross. That means a $250,000 picture should return almost $700,000 in its gross. Naturally this difference in totals is not, by any means, entirely profit, or anywhere near that. Add twenty-five per cent to the picture's cost for distribution and advertising. There are other items, as the overhead of the home office, taxes, and so on.
"Until recently we figured that the average so-called program picture returned the large portion of its earnings in the first ninety days of its release. The major portion of the earnings come in quicker now, because we issue more prints. Only the rare film earns anything after its first year and a half. Even such an extraordinary success as The Miracle Man brings in only a little here and there after the first eighteen months."
Famous Players issue 150 prints of each regular release. Fifty more prints go abroad, with titles and cutting adaptable to the country of release. Some years ago fifty prints was considered a record number for domestic release, Charlie Chaplin being the first star to achieve the fifty mark in prints.
Mr. Saunders brings out another reason why a big film corporation can afford to put a quarter of a million into each regular release. "While every picture can not be a success," he said, "an organization as large as Famous Players-Lasky can eliminate the failure. If a picture turns out badly, it has a big battery of experts to fix the production. The picture becomes a mere incident to the organization where it would break a small concern. In this way, our organization can absorb the lesser picture. Indeed, with a big organization, it is impossible to have a real bloomer."
The cost of the super-feature has advanced even more rapidly than the average release. The fourteen great money makers of the screen can easily be listed. The Ten Commandments, The Four Horsemen and The Birth of a Nation probably lead at about $4,500,000 each. Way Down East is said to have gathered $3,500,000. The earnings of The Gold Rush are placed at this figure, one million coming from Great Britain. Behind these films come The Covered Wagon at $3,000,000, and such notable pictures as Over the Hill, Robin Hood, The Miracle Man, Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk and The Iron Horse. The Big Parade has already grossed more than $1,000,000 in one New York theater alone. Ben-Hur is due to run a huge international gross.
Comparisons are interesting. Cecil B. De Mille spent $1,700,000 in making The Ten Commandments. He is spending more than $2,000,000 in filming The King of Kings. The Kalem Company once sent a company to the Holy Land and produced a life of Christ for $2,500. This film is still playing churches in various parts of America.
The Covered Wagon, as directed by James Cruze, cost $700,000. Three years later Cruze ran over the $2,000,000 mark in making Old Ironsides.
Consider the case of D.W. Griffith, maker of more big successes and big failures than any other one screen figure. The Birth of a Nation cost less than $100,000, and has earned over $4,000,000. Way Down East cost $800,000 ($125,000 of which was for the story) and has earned close to $4,000,000.
Intolerance, rated a Griffith failure, cost $700,000. The same film would cost over $2,000,000 today to make. Broken Blossoms cost Griffith $80,000. America, which brought his independent production career temporarily to an end, put Griffith in the hole for $500,000.
Samuel Goldwyn recently stated that The Winning of Barbara Worth cost him $900,000. At the same time he pointed out the tremendously advancing cost of film making. When he was the head of Goldwyn Pictures he produced Carmen for a cost of $20,000, Maria Rosa at $15,000 and Temptation for $18,000. This included everything, among the items being Geraldine Farrar's stellar salary of $20,000 for three pictures. Mr. Goldwyn estimates that Carmen could not be done now for $450,000.
Cecil B. De Mille's career has not been completely one of successes, despite the tremendous record of The Ten Commandments. The Whispering Chorus, although it has always been looked upon as an artistic success and possibly De Mille's best picture, lost money, even at a production cost of $100,000. Joan The Woman, starring Miss Farrar, lost, despite its comparative low cost, $250,000.
Over the Hill, made in 1919, cost William Fox just $50,000. It earned $2,500,000. The Iron Horse, made by Fox five years later, cost $450,000. In making What Price Glory Mr. Fox had to go away beyond the cost of The Big Parade, produced by Metro-Goldwyn.
You see, the picture business is no place for a piker. Better invest that $15,000 in a chicken farm and lose the money slowly.
The Movie Dollar