David Poland is pissed about Michael Cieply’s story in the New York Times about the budget of James Cameron’s Avatar. See, Cieply reports that the film cost about 500 million dollars when production and marketing are added in, a number I actually agree with. But Poland finds the claims spurious and then nitpicks Cieply’s entire article, which is a touch confused, and which is really about how Fox is sort of protected from taking a bath on this movie when it doesn’t make a billion dollars, which it will need to clear to be profitable.

This just underlines a running battle over the budget of this film; in the modern world nobody tells you what their movie actually cost. Paramount lied about Paranormal Activity‘s low budget – the 11 grand figure they touted didn’t include the reshoots, re-edits and special effects that were added, to say nothing of the marketing – and now Fox is lying about Avatar‘s budget. The film is being estimated at 230 million dollars, semi-officially, and anyone with a working knowledge of recent blockbuster budgets and James Cameron’s budget history must know this is a bullshit number.

Let’s put it this way: Pirates of the Caribbean 3 cost 300 million dollars. Spider-Man 3 cost 258, although I understand the budget to be closer to 300, if not over it. Yeah, these are sequels, which are susceptible to cost overruns as everybody’s salaries climb, and Pirates has a couple of big money actors hogging up cash, but the reality is that these films, these FX-heavy blockbusters, are unconscionably expensive. The idea that the guy who has spent his career making ludicrously expensive films has suddenly reigned in his habits is silly, especially when it comes to the budget of a film designed to be a game changer and to forever alter the way we watch movies.

I’ve heard from numerous sources, many of them incredibly in the know, that Avatar‘s negative cost – the cost of making the movie itself – is about 400 million dollars. People underestimate how unbelievably expensive it is to make a movie where there are no sets or props but rather teams of well-paid computer guys working around the clock to push the boundaries of what was deemed possible in computer animation. Your cost really blows up when you hit the final crunch, when you’re hiring a zillion extra people to work around the clock because you have a deadline to meet and your current rate of work will not meet it. I’ve talked to people involved in the production of Avatar who were saying some folks were skeptical the picture would hit its date way back in February. Being that far behind that far out means lots of spending in the end game to catch up, especially if you want to catch up with quality.

The 400 million number doesn’t include marketing, which is going to be monstrous for this film – well over 100 million in marketing, easily – or the R&D that went into creating the tech that was used on the set. Cieply mentions that Cameron and others went out of pocket on this stuff, and I’ve heard that up to 100 million dollars was spent on getting the 3D and the motion capture process – the one that gives a live feed of roughly rendered work as the actors do their thing – up to snuff. That seems to make basic sense.

Anyone with a knowledge of Hollywood history will know how much has changed over the decades. Once upon a time Fox would have been trumpeting the film’s cost – big costs and big casts of extras were once selling points to audiences craving lavish spectacle. Today, with investors and board members to make happy, studios downplay the costs of films to make theatrical profitability look more likely. Of course almost every Hollywood film becomes profitable at some point thanks to ancillaries and TV rights and home video and partnerships and etc, but this is a town as much about image as numbers, and the image of doing well in theatrical, which is the bragging rights portion of the release schedule, is very important.

I don’t know as much about the business side of things as Dave Poland, but I look at Avatar and see a movie that cannot possibly be expected to make its money back. If Cieply is right Fox has prepared for that eventuality and this won’t be the next Heaven’s Gate (or even the next The Golden Compass), but there will still be people in the funding chain getting hosed in a big way. Does that matter when it comes to the movie? Not particularly, but it does matter when it comes to movies getting made in the future. If Avatar is blowing through the cost envelope and it’s doing so using the once-touted-as-a-money-saver mocap technique, I think we’re looking at a blockbuster landscape that’s only going to keep getting more boring, more safe and more barren of interesting ideas.

I really feel that filmmakers who want to work on big canvasses have a responsibility to figure out a way to make that kind of filmmaking affordable. There’s no shame in wanting to make – or wanting to watch – big, sweeping fantastical movies. But if the cost of these films becomes such that they cannot make their money back except by being as mainstream and four quadrant oriented as possible, we’re going to see blockbusters that make Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen look like The Seven Samurai. It isn’t the taste of the audience that’s killing the movies, it’s the budgets that make it so the movies have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That’s the only reason the budget of Avatar matters.

Debate it while wearing skin tight mocap suits on our message board.