Tortoise and the Hare

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

Slow and steady wins the race is the moral of the famous fable about the tortoise and the hare, but the folks in Hollywood clearly aren't big on Aesop.

A better analogy might actually be baseball. The studios like the home runs, even though a lot of singles are arguably a safer and surer way to score points.

Case in point: James Cameron's sci-fi action epic Avatar. This highly anticipated film has been a decade and something like $400 million in the making. Now why would anyone spend $400 million on a movie? Because Cameron's last movie – Titanic? Remember that one? – was the most successful film of all time – earning $1.8 billion at the box office worldwide.

That's something like a grand-slam home run in the bottom of the ninth in the last game of the World Series. And who can say no to the man who won the game in so spectacular a fashion?

But any ninth grader who's ever played Little League can tell you that those kinds of things happen in baseball very, very rarely. And that might be even more true in the movie business.

Even in light of the facts, the executives can't help themselves, and they keep swinging for the fences. Sure, these days the studios cover themselves somewhat by sharing some of the costs, but no matter how you slice it, Avatar is the biggest bet in the history of Hollywood.

Now, let's look at the other end of the spectrum. The studios have largely retreated from the indie business because there just isn't enough money in it for them. And even when there was a runaway hit – a Slumdog Millionaire or a Juno – in the grand scheme of things, these were doubles – triples at best.

But Slumdog cost $15 million; Juno half of that. Consider how many times you could step to the plate with films like these if you had $400 million to toss around.

It's a less glamorous way to go for sure. You'd never get to say, "I was the guy behind the biggest grossing film of all time" – which is ironic since the execs who now take credit for Titanic actually battled with James Cameron over budget and delivery dates.

I'm overstating the case here for sure. There will always be a place for the big-budget action film. But some of the biggest stories of the last year have been about expensive movies that have not fared well at the box office and smaller films that have blindsided everyone – like The Blind Side – which cost something like $30 million and has made $130 million in its first two weeks.

Look, Avatar will make money, if for no other reason than people will want to see the most expensive movie ever made. Which gives me an idea. Make a great little movie like Slumdog Millionaire for $25 million, but tell everyone it cost $500 million. Batter up!

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's Business Brief or subscribe to the podcast at For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman