J.J. Abrams Talks ‘Preposterous’ Movie Budgets

Published 3 years ago by , Updated July 17th, 2013 at 11:28 am,

Hollywood blockbusters continue to push past the $150 Million+ opening weekend and into the realm of Avengers‘ $200 Million three-day haul – and, at the same time, the budgets of future blockbusters will continue to balloon. Just this past year we’ve seen some pretty expensive gambles taken on unknown quantities like John Carter, only to have those films fail to return even a small percentage of that initial investment.

But some filmmakers think this approach is excessive. Among those directors is J.J. Abrams, prolific TV series creator and the man behind the resurgence of not one, but two popular franchises: Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.

For Abrams, the ever-expanding film budget is “preposterous and embarrassing,” and keeps filmmakers from thinking outside of the box. The challenges inherent to budget constraints, in Abrams’ mind, are what keep a director and their crew sharp.

Budget issues are part of the Hollywood movie-making process, but it’s when those filmmakers rise above – find new ways of making a particular shot or sequence cheaper, while still preserving its importance in the grander narrative – that they are the most rewarded.

“Certainly on ‘Star Trek’ and the sequel and on ‘Mission: Impossible’ three and four, we had massive budget issues always. Yet we always get it figured out before production starts and realize that the money you don’t get forces you to rethink something and challenges you to figure it out in a new way.”

The real testament to Abrams’ line of thinking is the end product – the films that were released. Viewers would hardly notice that Mission: Impossible 4 struggled to keep a tight budget while Tom Cruise is dangling from one of the world’s tallest buildings, or that Bad Robot Productions was pinching pennies as the crew of the Starship Enterprise zipped through deep space. It’s, as they say, all a part of movie magic.

mission impossible 4 tom cruise1 J.J. Abrams Talks Preposterous Movie Budgets

In some regards, though, studios get what they pay for, in that if they give a higher budget to a film bound to be a success, they end up with a larger return. Look at Marvel’s recent boost to the Iron Man 3 budget – surely in response to Avengers‘ record-breaking weekend. The expectation there is that much more money in the budget will help boost the quality of Iron Man 3‘s action (some of which was teased during Comic-Con) and thereby keeping its opening weekend from looking insignificant when compared to Avengers.

Abrams certainly has a compelling mindset when it comes to budgets – but he’s obviously speaking as a filmmaker who is in high demand. At the end of the day, though, all that matters to audiences is what they see on screen, no matter how much it costs.

Source: LA Times


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  1. I couldn’t agree more, restrictions force you to be creative, and when a director has a blank check and enough CGI to create whatever he or she wants they usually get lazy. Look at the star wars prequels. Huge budget, tons of unnecessary digital effects and in the end a disappointing movie, Green Lantern is also a good example.

    Back when the Hays Code was still in place directors had to be creative in order to tell the story they wanted, in addition to budget restictions they had major restrictions on what they could show, but they still were able to tell effective stories. Perfect Example is Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwick.

    Drive, which is one of the best movies and IMO best looking movies of 2011 was made on a budget of $13 million dollars. That’s one tenth of the cost of the average summer movie and the result was 10 times better.

    I’m ranting now but my point is that movies with restrictions are more interesting and you shouldn’t have to have $200 million + to tell a good story or make a good film, the principles of both are universal and completely independent of finance.

    • I somewhat disagree with your last thought – that a good story and a high budget are independent. You’re right, a good story can be good without the money. However, unless that good story has the budget necessary to tell it, that good story becomes can easily become a bad film. It’s a delicate balance.

      • Agreed. Well said.

      • well obviously you need money for film equipment and actors, but not $200 million dollars

        • Gotta agree with the Gooch, limits inspire creativity. The solution within limitations almost always looks better than what you originally had in mind. Ultimately, less is more.

  2. Hollywood is made up of the greediest people on the planet.

    • No…only some. The rest are in sports, music, and business.

      • And at the top is the government…

        • Exactly!!!

    • “Hollywood is made up of the greediest people on the planet” Sorry but that title is won hands down by the fortune 500 corporate elite.
      The ones who accept corporate welfare (where the government takes from all fo us and goves to the lobbyists with the best bribes).

  3. Agreed, Gooch. I’m an actor independent film, and I’m always amazed how great some low/no budget film can be. I starred in the film “Hand of Glory” (www.handofgloryfilm.com) that’s win several awards and even more nominations, yet we spent only about $5000 on the film. Our next project, “Slay Utterly” is expected to be much larger in scale, but we’re hoping to keep it under $50,000.

    • Looks like you’re saving some of that budget money with free advertising…

      • It’s not egregious, remains mostly on topic, more power to him.

      • Have to agree with Tim this time. It at least pertains to the conversation and he gave his personal life as an example. More power, and luck, to him.

  4. I think the scope of your trope (theme really) has a lot to do with it. If the story starts looking expansive whether you cover allot of ground on Earth or in heaven the costs mount. Cost centers are attacked and every attempt made to reduce the overhead whether it’s personnel salaries including actors or finding the cheapest place to film to competitive bidding structures to the nails and film used but the thing is it’s expensive to undertake anything anymore. Try to remodel a house or overhaul a car engine, it’s surprising how much money and time it takes to get it done. On top of that work philosophy has went down the drain on both sides of the employment desk. Employers want a totally mold-able, disposable workforce and employees want maximum benefit for the least amount of time and effort invested. Both sides of that equation have become more hardened over the years. Top that with lean and mean operations that work on scheduled delivery instead of on-demand delivery and multipliers have to be used to get anything done. Glad I got mine before the sad state of affairs got really bad…

  5. These budgets are not just out of control due to special effects or CGI. The money that is spent on the actors, directors and sometimes scripts can end up being much of certain movies budgets. In those cases the actual money spent on what goes on screen is probably less than it should be.

    The focus always is on the potential blockbusters like Green Lantern and John Carter (and I say potential because no film is blockbuster until it actually makes a ton of money). But when you look at the fact that the the last two Adam Sandler films, Jack & Jill at 79 million and That’s My Boy at 70 million, cost what they did then you really have to ask who is watching the books at these studios. In the case of these two films and many others I can’t even see where this money is being spent.

  6. Its always funny when I we go back to 80’s cinema. I due think that certain stories have to have a volume of CGI. I mean look at the “Transformers” franchise? Had that been made even 15yrs ago I dont think we could have had the visual look we have now. Sony got crap for rebooting (Spiderman) but whell they were looking at (20mill for Toby…10-13mil for Kirstin and 6-8mil for Sam. Thats approx 40mil for just 3 people so you can see how that budget could really get out of control. I think studios may have to consider that the movie experience must be unique and as technoligies change. That the needs and wants of movie viewers do also. Just because you have a big name actor dont mean anything unless yes the story is good but what your seeing backs up your expectations.

  7. how does sinking more money into IM3 ensure that itll see a higher return just like the avengers? sure the increase will allow for slicker CG’s and action sequences but there’s gotta be a limit to all that stuff, no? It’s still gotta have a solid story

    • Transformers 3 didn’t exactly have a good story (IMO), but that movie is #5 in the all-time world-wide box office.
      Why? Because it had big set pieces and lots of special effects and action.
      – and those things costs more money.

      Bigger explosions and better effects = big box office returns.
      Good story, good acting and good dialogue = critical praise.

      That’s what makes the good movies (who get critical praise and big box office results) all the more special…

      • I’ve been on this site for a few years now. Avenger, you’re the most intelligent independent thinking regular poster on this site.

        • Thanks :)

        • His head is already big enough, don’t inflate it anymore. 😉

    • More well known actors and More Advertising are two big things directly connected to money that will cause bigger returns.

  8. Watch his next movie have an enormous budget lol

    • It Will lol

    • Lol. I still think 150 mil for Star Trek is firmly within the big budget arena.

    • His commentary does seem a bit hypocritical considering Star Treks budget. Practice what you preach?

      Of course he will probably come back with……”If I wasn’t there the budget would have soared to over 200 mil!”

  9. You can’t really compare movies with different budgets and say “see, this movie had a small budget and I really liked it so that means a big budget isn’t necessary”. Different kinds of movies will require different budgets.

    It’s true that larger budgets CAN make film makers lazy, but if they’re good film makers then they won’t be, and can take that budget and still be creative, and make something that would cost others more to make.

    Transformers had a $150 Million budget but if you see the behind the scenes footage, Bay described how they still struggled to make the movie with the budget they had. Pan the sequels all you want, but I still loved the first one and thought it was a really fun movie with lots of action eye candy, and was worth the money they put into it. Abd before all the Bay haters come out, that was just one example.

    Can some films go overboard? Sure. But just because a film has a big budget doesn’t mean that it wastes money. It just needs a system to watch over how money is spent and try to do the most with what they have.

    • Yess a “big” budget is relative but at the same time no matter how much you think you need, you can probably do it for less.

      • Can you? I think you can always find examples of big budget films that flopped and generally cost too much. But you can also find great examples where the big budget was used to it’s full potential and resulted in visuals and scope so spellbinding.

    • Your comment fails because Transformers is a BAD EXAMPLE. The only reason that budget was $150 million was because Bay’s payment for directing that movie was $70-80 million, so only the other $80-70 million went into the film’s actual production, so it WASN’T a high-budget movie at all. If Bay was only paid $10 million (like he should’ve) then the other $140 movie could’ve actually been used to create an incredibly effects-spectacular experience, which Transformers was NOT thanks to Bay’s idiocy and laziness.

      Bay is a horrible director, and he deserves every hater he gets, and the only people who like him are the ones who don’t understand that movies can be mindless fun (like The Avengers) WITHOUT being corny, obnoxious, disgusting, and stupid (I.E. all of Bay’s movies).

  10. Like i’ve said this is why we can’t get Wonder Woman or Hawkman or anyone else but Batman or Superman on the big screen. They are gaurinteed to make money the others not so much. So the studios won’t risk the cost with no chance of return on the investment. It all comes down to one thing M O N E Y.

  11. And another point to make is once one movie puts a price to their production every production after that uses that movie as a benchmark. No movie exec looks at a production and says “Hey we can make this for 1/10 the price”. No its always more, more, more. Thats why Hollywood never is able to take a risk.

    I heard that Hungary is the cheapest place in the world to film. Does anyone know if that’s true?

  12. I remember Ridley Scott’s commentary on ALIEN, it was the egg chamber scene where Kane see’s the face hugger moving through the translucent egg. He explained that it was actually himself lying down with his hand in a rubber glove making it move, and he said (or words this effect) “You can spend a fortune on something to make that scene look real, you don’t need it. It’s just me with my hand in a glove, it looks real and it’s cost effective”.

    I guess he didn’t apply that principle on Prometheus.

    • Actually Alien and Prometheus are two related examples that proves Abrams is right. Prometheus’ budget is over 10 times the budget of Alien and has made a 3 times what Alien made so far.

    • They actually built the ship as a whole set because Scott said trying to shoot all of that on green screen would have cost too much money., especially if he had to do re-shoots. And at the 130 million the studio held him to he still bought the movie in at lower price tag then most of the other movies in the genre.

      • @darthstich, @Slayer

        And yet ALIEN is the better movie, at a budget of only $11,000,000 they managed to build the physical set of the planet, derelict ship interior’s and all the interior sets of the Nostromo.

        If they’d made it now, wow can you imagine how crappy the CG effects would be if they’d thrown that kind of money at it.

        For a measly $11 million they ended up with a great film that holds up even today, IMO Prometheus is no where near as good, in quality, story, acting, character development, the list is endless.

        Prometheus may have made more money but I can’t tell you why because it’s not as good.

        But that’s just my opinion.


        • Well recent movies making a lot of money doesn’t mean much overall. The same reason they cost more to make are the reason they make more on paper, inflation. When Alien came out movie tickets were maybe 5 dollars for adults if I remember correctly, with 3D and Imax tacked on ticket in New York now can be as high as 16 dollars.

          When movies hit 20-25 dollars per adult future movies will have higher box offices then we have seen recently, I just hope the movies are better. At the very least they could do what they used to do and show a short film or cartoon before the movie instead of commercials and 10 movies trailers.

          • That’s true, usually when they compare a movie from now to one in the past they usually say “but that doesn’t account for inflation” and then tell you what it would have made in today’s money.

            So I’m not sure what ALIEN’s budget of $11 mil is in today’s terms, probably still no where near $130 million though.

            • Inflation is a magical thing, so it works how they want it to work. The original Star Wars cost 11 million too, but the sequels ran about 30 a piece just a few years later. Clearly the investment paid off for what was spent. Alien cost 11 million to make and Aliens cost 18. Alien 3 cost 50 to make and Resurrection cost 70, and both managed to make a profit.

              Whatever they are spending the money on to make movies now is being passed on to the audience. With all the 3D and IMAX added to the mix I can see tickets getting up to 20 dollars in the next five years for regular showings here in New York. So when they make a film for 300 million and make 1.5 billion, it will look good on the balance sheet but if a family of four is spending nearly 100 for a movie they will start to get more selective in what they go see.

  13. I agree. I’m going to art school, and they don’t give us everything. We are actually restricted from having certain tools, equipment, computer. Yes I said computers. It helps us to get creative and it’s quite useful.

  14. He should use some of those huge budgets to fix his phallic looking nose.

    • Lol, goodness.

  15. Point Abrams is making that budget constraints forces film makers to be creative.Just look on youtube what is achieved with simple video editing software.It’s not the tool that makes it happen but the one who is using the tool.Sam Raimi made this little horror movie which only turned out to be on of the most epic ever only with a budget off $375,000.And it still holds up pretty well today.It also makes film makers humble.Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi always talk in their interviews how they had to struggle to collect money for their projects.But in a way it has helped them immensely.

  16. A lot of stuff folk here like to cite as examples would not fly today.
    Everyone seems to hate cgi but practical effects are just as expensive and good cgi right now looks better and more realistic than most practical effects.

    Also a lot of stuff they did back in the day was only because the technology wasn’t there to make it work not because it was inexpensive.

    Yeah some directors could use some limits but if you think we’d get what we do today for 20million dollars is just dreaming. Budgets just need to match the stories better, but that isn’t a science either

    • I disagree.I don’t have a preference when it comes to effects.Whether it be practical or CGI.That all is on how the director uses these effects.From what I have seen is that most practical effects like makeup,robotics and such look far more realistic than CGI.So even if it were possible to use it back then I am not so sure if the film makers would use them.But you are missing the whole point.It’s not the effects themselves that matter.It’s how the director uses these to enhance the movie magic.A film maker who is restricted usually is more creative which ultimately will improve on the quality of his work.I literally fail to understand why some people on here actually defend these high budgets when it is obvious that it’s not always needed to make good movies.

  17. Seriously? Directors are now complaining they have too much money? Sounds like more rich people complaining about how hard it is to be rich. If you don’t need 120 million, don’t spend it. Spend 100 million if you really believe you can deliver a product in equal quality and give the studio back 20 million. Or give it to me.

    • Or I could use it to make something blow up, or to hire a hot girl to stand there for the entire movie…

      I know! How about I use that 20 million to get ‘Linkin Park’ to play a song during the credits?

  18. I take offense of this… If the people didn’t give me more money then I know what to do with for the movies I do, what would I roll around in while thinking of different ways to make things blow up?

    I hate when studios and directors, with talent, make great low budget films, they always make guys like me, without talent, look bad :(

    Signed, Michael Bay

  19. Off topic but, Rest In Peace Tony Scott.

  20. am i the only one that wants to see j.j. make a DC movie???