LETS GET THE BANNED BACK TOGETHER! Appendix a. Paying in blood – aka “Freaks-o-nomics” – an essay on the cost of doing bloody business

“Everybody wants money. That’s why it’s called ‘Money'”

HEIST (2001)

Hello. We’re taking a short break before I set up my TV and nestle in with a cuppa , some TUC biscuits, a notepad and George Romero’s 1968 black and white horror zombie cheapie classic Night Of The Living Dead. For a number of reasons.

First up, this movie is one that needs a little respect. Out of the 166 movies on the coming list, some fall firmly into the (summer) camp, marked “drivel.” Only notorious or even discussed because of their banning or reputation, without the Mary Whitehouse Experience, they would have vanished into nothing. Crumbled and faded and discarded into the trash-bag of pulpy nonsense. We’ll be visiting them, of course (I am nothing if not thorough, as no-one who has ever slept with me has ever said). But they are, like reading Chekov, a “tick-box exercise. (That’s a very clever Russian Literature pun. I hope you enjoyed it. Check Off. See what I nearly did there).

Others however are destined to live on forever as some kind of benchmark. Maybe the camera work (Evil Dead), maybe the shock-value (Cannibal Holocaust), maybe the ground-breaking genre invention (Friday The 13th) and so on. Night Of The Living Dead is one of these. I’ll watch it (not for the first time) in a bit and we can have some fun discussing why it is heralded the way it is.

Oh forgive my tone by the way. There are certain tropes in movie writing that the best reviewers and critics can side-step from time to time. However the art (if an art it is) of film criticism comes with its own clichés. Words like sweeping, epic, masterful, visual-feast, “doth-not-an-epic-make”, scenery-chewing and “not without flaws” are bread and marmite to the movie writer. We do our best not to employ them. But nobody, as someone once told Tony Curtis, is perfect.

I want to discuss the idea of “cheap” or “low budget” when it comes to film making. Because it’s a phrase that’s wafted about cack-handledly often enough. As if it explains everything. Or forgives everything. Or allows everything.

Listen. When we watch “Bay Of Blood” or “The Ghastly Ones” is very, very easy to wave away their faults and flaws and lighting and clunky dialogue with a “well it’s a low budget” picture. As if that’s all right then.

The fact is, shut up. C’mon, you don’t know much, if anything, about what movies cost. You don’t. You’ve read headlines. You’ve seen promo claims. Million dollar this, hundred million dollar that. But be honest, it’s almost impossible to understand the amount of cash that needs to change hands to get even the worst 90 mins of transparency flickering up on a public screen with audible sound and recognisable colour.

To help understand what we’re talking about, I’m going to share some reading I have done on this. Not much. In fact, one book. But it’s a good one. A very good one. It’s by a journalist you may have, but unlikely to have, heard of. It’s by Joe Queenan.

Joe Queenan is a grumpy American journo’ hailing from Tarrytown in New York. He has made his name and his fortune writing on every subject under the sun for every newspaper, periodical and magazine you can think of. He is best known, I believe, for his movie writing. He is a “take no prisoners” scathing, sarky, high-bar holding critic who has pulled to pieces blockbusters, art house flicks, comedies, horrors, dramas, actors and directors over his career.

The book of his I reference here is called “The Unkindest Cut” and I could not recommend this more highly for ANYONE remotely interested in the practise of film-making. The premise of the joyful romp through amateur movie-making is to put to bed the preposterous claims made by “guerrilla film maker and media darling” Robert Rodgriguez who burst onto the scene with his, ahem, “low budget” western El Mariachi in 1992.

The reason Rodriguez was so hailed was he claimed to have made this movie for $7,000. Now this was the nineties, so for inflation, we’re looking at a claim that people queued at their multiplex and payed their $5 and sat and watched a film that went from script to screen for the cost of what would now be $13,000.

Now this claim had many a person re-mortgage their house, take out a dozen credit cards, sell their prize possessions and come to Hollywood thinking the same. If he can do it, I can do it.

Joe Queenan’s book is a hilarious attempt to debunk this myth. As Joe decides to – with as little money possible, using local friends and free locations and rented equipment – make his own short movie for the same amount. Hilarity, chaos, arguments, over-spends, spiralling costs and nature all appear as Joe’s cheapie attempts to get his crime comedy “12 Steps TO Death” onto, if not a big screen, but at least some screen or other. For the same amount of money.

In a word, a-hahahahahahaha.

Spoiler alert, you CAN’T make a watchable film for $13k. You CAN’T. At least, not then. (the book was published in 1996. Nowadays? With digital and phones and laptop editing? Sure. Maybe. But in the nineties? Never. In the eighties? Nope. In the seventies? You can fuck right off. And the 60’s? Hahahahahahahahaha etc.

So why not? Where is the cost? Why are films so damned pricey to make? Get a camera, get some film, write a story, ask some friends to learn some lines, spend a weekend getting it shot. Stick a microphone on the end of a broom and hold it over their heads. Take the film to Boots (showing my age now). Come home with a reel. Pop into the Odeon and ask them to spool it into the machine. Badabing.  What’s the biggie?

Well we’ll discuss this now. Because as we enter into film 3 on my 166 film list, I’m going to need you to understand that “good” is “expensive.” It’s that simple, as Jack Nicholson once said. Are we clear? Are we CLEAR?!

Good (by which I mean remotely watchable) is FUCKING EXPENSIVE.

Sidebar. Quick fact. A big movie. I mean a HUGE movie. A worldwide tent-pole franchise of a glossy SFX blockbuster (eg, Avengers Endgame) has 10,000 people in the credits. Yep. Ten Thousand names. To produce an extravaganza of dazzling Marvel Franchise Blockbuster amazingness, 10,000 people were hired to do some work. Not all big budget actors. Infact very few of the 10,000 appeared on screen. Only 32 actually. 32 people were in front of the camera. Leaving 9,968 folk behind the camera doing their best to make the movie event of 2019’s biggest hit.

So let’s imagine they all did 6 months work. Each. Just 6 months. I mean the movie was in production for YEARS. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s say everyone turned up to the studio to do their editing, carpentry, painting, lighting, make-up, programming, sewing, pyrotechnics, sound and everything else for just 6 months. And then let’s put them all on minimum wage. I mean these people are NOT on minimum wage. But for the sake of the exercise, let’s put them on the now USA minimum wage. Which is $7.25 per hour.

$7.25 x 8hrs x 5 days a week x 20 weeks x 10,000 people = any idea?

Well I’ll tell you. Paycheques for Avengers Assemble would have been $58m dollars. FIFTY EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS. And that’s just wages. Without spending ANY MONEY at all on ANYTHING, your budget is already absurd. To earn this amount yourself, on a £20,000 a year job, would take 2000 years work.

Now. These people need feeding. Catering carts. Travel. Lunch. Coffee. $10 a day each? That’s another TEN MILLION DOLLARS.

Now okay okay okay, I’m talking big movies here. Very few motion pictures have the epic scale or the 3hr 2m runtime. But regrettably, or perhaps not, it is this kind of gloss and quality and sparkling sharpness and slick digital effects and lush look that now passes for “ordinary cinema.” This is what movies are now “supposed” to look like. Hey, even I have been guilty of watching a movie like, say, Spider-Man III (on a budget of $250m) and whined that “it looks a bit cheap.” I am an idiot. A spoiled little tantrummy idiot.

Okay. So let’s bring it back. The shlocky gruesome splattery bloody nasty grimness of Night Of The Living Dead, Friday The 13th, Bay Of Blood, Driller Killer are NOT comparable to Avengers Endgame. Obviously.

The budget of the 1981 classic The Evil Dead for example, was a reported $375,000. In today’s money, about $800k. Or the price of this house in London:

Or this house in Dorset. For fuck’s sake…

This amount of money would have paid for 0.26 minutes of the Avengers. Seriously. A movie with a cost of $208,333 a minute. 30 seconds. THIRTY SECONDS of the Avengers Endgame is enough money to make The Evil Dead.


Why do movies cost so much? Well that brings us nicely back to Joe Queenan and his honest attempt to try and make a 90 min movie, in his home town, with borrows locations, borrowed costumes, free “actors” and a whole bargain-bucket worth of goodwill. Based on Rodriguez’s claim, he figured it could be done for $30,000. And promptly put that amount on his credit card and went forth. An example of some of the “unexpected” costs that befell him. (This doesn’t happen to the TickTock generation with their iPhones and YouTube uploads).

Do you have a camera? Want to rent one? Plus a camera operator? And just one? And a sound man? Here’s some of today;s numbers. And this is just the staff. Not the kit…

Swing Day Rate: $385 to $435

Camera Operator Day Rate: $285 to $535

Digital Image Technician Day Rate: $535 to $785

Gaffer/Key Grip Day Rate: $535 to $635

Director of Photography Day Rate: $1,035 to $2,535 

Grip/Electric Day Rate: $435 to $535

Sound Recordist Day Rate: $335-$735

Do you have quality film stock? Need to buy some? Here’s some costing for you:

“A good estimate for a 90 minute movie shot on Super 16 at a 4-1 ratio would be $8,865.00 for film stock if you pay $197 per roll from Kodak.”

By the way, you can’t show that film. It needs to be processed and transferred to the right format.

Oh and while we’re about it…

Development or Scripting:

As the name suggests, the filmmaking cost begins with a script. If you are looking at adaptations or buying scripts, these costs add up here. Usually, the development charge is approximately 5% – 10% of the total expense. It includes the licensing, hiring of the leading casts, producers, and the director.


While making the film, the production stage eats into the significant chunk of the budgeting pie. Whether it be the salaries of the crew, the equipment, shooting logistics, hiring services, buying insurance, or food, production covers it all. It is the most significant chunk of the film’s cost. It is estimated somewhere between 35-40% of the full cost

Post – Production:

Nowadays, post-production plays a critical role in bringing down the costly production by putting colored screens behind the actor. Those backgrounds are created under the special or visual effects category. The post has become expensive, but it saves a lot of money as a whole. Post-production also includes editing, sound, music, and printing costs. Estimation is about 10 to 15% of the total cost.

Marketing & Distribution:

Marketing and distribution is key to a low budget indie. It needs a lot of dollars to market a film. In today’s estimate, producers spend around 30% of the total cost towards marketing and distributing the film. Many consider not to include this cost in the total cost of production. But imagine if the movie grosses $500000 in profits and the marketing and distribution cost were the same. So in actuals, it just breaks even. The whole economics of moviemaking changes if the cost is not taken into account.”

And on and on and on…

The fact is, Joe Queenan’s little short film (sadly not available on YouTube) that was under-lit, lots of bad-takes, fluffed lines, wobbly shots, wigs and stand-ins and was largely comically unwatchable, ended up costing him $60,000. Because, and I believe I mentioned this, film-making is FUCKING EXPENSIVE.

Okay. So that’s why films without major budgets, studio backing and crew running into the millions of dollars worth tend to have the giveaway signs of cost-cutting. Dull lighting, wobbly cameras, odd focus pulling, iffy make-up, cheapy thrift-store costumes, one-take shots of performances, fluffed lines, hurried shooting. If you;ve ever tried to film your friends on your phone in a way that wasn;t silly and shaky and didn’t need re-doing, then you’ll know what a horrible labour getting a film shot is.

And anyone who’s ever said “do another one,” after a photo or video at a party or wedding (when doing another one is £1000 a second, will understand why sometimes one-take is enough.

Watch “Bay Of Blood” again. They’re doing what they can.

Which brings me to my more interesting point. Performances. Acting. Line reading. Being on screen.

Now. There is an argument here, and a well worn one, that it’s things like scripts and acting that surely have no cost. You know what I mean. Standing infront of a camera, waiting for some clapper loader to yell “aaaaaaand, action!” and then saying the words you’ve learned, doesn’t cost any money.

You know what I mean. Technically. Talk is cheap. Talking is free. It costs no electricity, gas, programming, RAM, lighting. It’s just humans doing that jaw-jaw yacking thing.

So why should “budget” or “cost” have any impact on whether the acting is good?

It’s a fair point. I mean, it’s nonsense. But it’s fair nonsense. Let’s dig in…

Hugh Laurie wrote a marvellous comic spy thriller back in 1996. A gloriously sarcastic boys-own Robert Ludlum-meets-PG Wodehouse romp of girls and guns and conspiracies and exotic locales and derring do. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Jeeves meets James Bond. Jeeves Bond, if you will.

I have many copies of this book and continue to recommend and push it on friends and colleagues as a great beach read.

Anyhoo, why are we talking about British comedy actors’ novels.

There is a scene in the book that has stayed with me for 25 years. The hero, Thomas Lang, is facing a classic brassy femme fetale and she’s spinning him some bad-luck story. Im going to paraphrase, but the dialogue goes a bt like this:

“Sarah, do you know who Meg Ryan is,” I interrupted.

Sarah nodded.

“Well Meg Ryan gets paid millions of dollars a movie to do what you’re trying to do now. To pretend. It’s a very very difficult thing to do, especially up close. And there are only about a half dozen people who could do it convincingly at this range. Tell me the truth.”

Something like that. Apologies to lovely Hugh for mangling his words. But you get the idea.

This idea, of how staggeringly difficult it is to be “convincing” up-close, has lingered. Mainly because it’s a great tense scene. But also, and perhaps more obviously, because it’s true.

Acting is hard. To act well, and I mean really well. To be able to say words that aren’t yours in make-up that feels weird under lights that are too bright infront of people you don’t know in a cavernous room you’ve never been in while being watched by 20-30 people who know, just as you do, that it’s costing $208,000 a minute to film you.

There are probably, like legendary sports stars, only about a dozen people who can do it. And do it over and over again, in character after character, year after year, take after take. On a screen 100ft wide. Every single one completely mesmerising, captivating, gripping, believable and extraordinary. It’s impossible. Honestly. And if you’ve seen TV Dramas or stagey theatre or Soap Operas, you’ll have seen talented people “have a go.” But it’ll be “actory.” Or “stagey.” Or “wooden.” Or “phoney.” Or all the other cruel words we come up with to criticise people who are trying their best to do the impossible.

Point is, if you can do it? And do it well? You can charge the fucking earth.

A quick google search on actor earnings. Will Smith, $40million. Jennifer Lawrence $25million. They’ve given RobertPattinson $3million to play Batman. They’ve given Keanu Reeves $13million for the 4th Matrix movie. Nobody WANTS to spend this much. But actors’ ability to keep us coming back, film after film, sequel after sequel, to watch them 100ft high in painful close-up pretending to be other people and buying every damned second of it? If you are one of the few lucky enough to have this gift, this look and this opportunity? The world is yours.

Or in other words, of COURSE acting in cheaper movies is bad. Of course it is. Good actors are expensive. And they get other work. They won’t work in bad conditions for low wages and long hours in poor productions with no hope of making profit or making an impact. If you;ve got, as the makers of the Evil Dead did, only $375,000 and Director Of Photography cost $2500 a DAY? Well you ain;t bothering Meryl Streep ($15m per movie) or Brad Pitt ($20m per movie) with your jiffy bag full of script.

So. What have we learned.

Well watching these horror movies is going to take some…what? Consideration? Forgiveness? Allowances? All of the above. If one starts up every cheapie slasher or cannibal craving craziness and start kvetching about production values, scenery, lighting, focus, one-take fumbles and shoddy effects, I think one has to pause. Comparing “modern” multi-million dollar productions of the last 20 years that spend more on their catering budget than Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven had to write, cast, shoot, produce, market and distribute their entire picture? It’s not even apple and oranges. It’s apples and…pips. Apples and…shit. Apples and…a bit of dust in a ball you found under the bed when you were reaching for your slippers.

If you can’t cope with the change of aesthetic? No problem. If you have taste buds and likings for the modern movie and just have no damned PATIENCE for the slow, the lumbering, the out of focus, the badly written, the hastily shot, the cheaply lit? Then god bless you. Go forth. The world has plenty of delights to await. Don’t mind us.

Oh, and anyone judging these people? Oh you can piss off. Taste is taste. Life is short. Watch what makes you happy, what makes you laugh, what makes you weep or whimper or wail. No-one is impressed with your snooty film-snobbery. You happen to like those movies, just as some people like Marmite. It doesn’t make you smart or wise or clever or educated. Some people enjoy the cheapy clunk, others find it irritating. Live and let live.

Unless you’re a Video Nasty. Then letting people live is the last of your aims…

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