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Studios' Latest Special Effect: Budgets Out the Window

May 13, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

At first, Larry and Andy Wachowski were merely flattered. Then the "Matrix" filmmakers grew annoyed -- the dazzling visuals from their 1999 blockbuster were being ripped off by everything from "Shrek" to a TV car commercial. So the brothers decided the next time around there would be one thing other directors couldn't filch: a stratospheric budget.

The Wachowskis went out and spent a staggering $100 million on computer effects for their two upcoming "Matrix" movies. For a centerpiece 14-minute car chase in the first sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded," previewing late Wednesday night and officially opening Thursday, they built their very own six-lane freeway in Alameda at a cost of $2.5 million, filmed on it for nearly three months and destroyed $2 million in cars. The second "Matrix" sequel, "The Matrix Revolutions," due Nov. 7, concludes with a 17-minute battle scene that alone cost $40 million -- more than two-thirds the price tag of the average studio movie. All told, the two sequels combined will cost more than $300 million.

The competition, far from being deterred by the Wachowskis' free spending, has only been drawn deeper into the game. This time, instead of simply cloning the famous "Matrix" fight choreography and "bullet-time" visual effects, other filmmakers are outpacing their own extravagant spending patterns as the Wachowskis throw down a can-you-top-this fiscal dare.

The result is a summer movie season as outlandish in its own way as the futuristic world in which "The Matrix" is set. More money than ever is being poured into a concentrated number of films, many opening only days apart. A movie budgeted at more than $100 million used to be cause for widespread concern; this summer more than half a dozen titles -- from "The Hulk" to "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" -- easily exceed that.

These mega-movies have become a Hollywood habit, but their risks are poised to surpass their rewards. As with any other addiction, show business may soon be in need of big-budget rehab. "There will be some calamities -- there have to be," Universal Pictures Chairwoman Stacey Snider says of the franchise- and sequel-filled summer season.

Seeking 'Wow' Value

Movie budgets have climbed so quickly, up 23.3% in 2002 from the previous year, that "The Matrix Reloaded" is no longer the summer's most expensive release. That honor goes to "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," which cost about $200 million to make. Even a lesser sequel such as next summer's "Riddick" will cost at least $110 million, more than four times the price of the original film, 2000's "Pitch Black."

Hollywood seems to believe it's money well spent. Executives at rival studios say that, based on audience surveys circulated last week, "The Matrix Reloaded" could surpass the all-time opening-weekend record of $114.8 million, set by last summer's "Spider-Man."

"You have to drive the audience into the theater, and they won't be driven into the theater unless you can show them something that they haven't seen before and must see right now," says Joel Silver, producer of all three "Matrix" films. "You have to wow them."

For the last several years, sequels and so-called franchise movies such as "Spider-Man," "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" have been Hollywood's surest way to bring predictable profits to an unpredictable business. With 449 movies released last year, sequels and franchises deliver built-in awareness, and, as discerning moviegoers certainly have noticed, don't necessarily have to be all that good to perform well. They can sell tons of merchandise, help launch theme-park rides and lead to television series.

The problem is that the budget bar is being raised to such heights that the fall for those who miss will be much more painful, especially as studios invest huge sums in largely untested ideas.

Mega-movies have become so central to a studio's year-round schedule that they are squeezing out modestly budgeted adult dramas. Consequently, talent agents complain that they can't find good scripts for their A-list actors. Frustrated by the scarcity of compelling material, top agents at Creative Artists Agency recently were sent on a quest: Each agent sifted through stacks of books, scripts and articles, looking for just one great piece of writing that could be made into a smart movie.

The upcoming slate at Village Roadshow Pictures, which co-produced the "Matrix" trilogy with Warner Bros., reveals the shift. Its titles next year include a sequel to "Ocean's Eleven," the "Batman" spinoff "Catwoman," and "Troy," a historical epic starring Brad Pitt. Village Roadshow co-financed October's Clint Eastwood-directed film "Mystic River," but that kind of drama is fading from the spotlight. "We are making fewer movies, but they have bigger budgets," says Bruce Berman, Village Roadshow's chairman. "

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