The headline at Slashfilm reads “Paramount Has Spent $280 Million On The Last Airbender.”
That number comes from an LA Times article on the film, which talks about the movie as a risk for Paramount and M Night Shymalan, who has never worked at this budget level before. But the reality is that while the number Slashfilm quotes – a combination of the movie’s budget and it’s marketing (called P&A, for prints & advertising) – is high, it’s about in line with what modern blockbusters cost today, and especially what it costs to sell them.
Movies are insanely expensive now, but the really crazy expense comes when the marketing kicks in. The real numbers behind any Hollywood release – budget or marketing numbers – are zealously guarded like state secrets, so any amounts that get bandied about can be wrong. But sometimes we can get glimpses at the costs of movies; for instance, Spider-Man 3 cost in the area of 300 million dollars in production, to say nothing of marketing. I believe that The Dark Knight cost about 150 million in P&A. Inception - a two and a half hour action movie that’s basically about psychoanalysis – cost at least 160 million in budget, and probably more. I imagine that Warner Bros, who has been doing saturation advertising for the film, will spend about the movie’s budget on TV ads, billboards, and other promotions.
This is the dirty secret of the movie business that we rarely talk about. You can make a movie for 40 million dollars, but if it’s going to be a major wide release it’s going to cost twice that to sell it. And then there’s the point where you get really nuts – if a studio has a movie they’re not happy with but that they spent a lot of money to make, they’ll pump even more money into marketing in an attempt to game the opening weekend.
So 280 million total for an effects heavy, potential franchise starter that’s based on a popular cartoon with an inexplicable adult fanbase? I don’t think that’s too crazy. I don’t know if the movie is any good at all, but a budget of $150 million feels almost conservative in this day and age, and pumping $130 million into the marketing sounds about right. Hollywood math never quite adds up because half of it is smoke and mirrors, and the other half is image. It’s important to hit certain numbers – 100 million is the first, and even if you don’t break even, hitting 100 keeps your movie from being a disaster – and if The Last Airbender makes 150 or so it’ll be seen as a break even move. That’s because the revenue stream for the movie doesn’t end when the last ticket is sold, and there are other avenues to make money on it – merch, for instance, or foreign or TV sales or home video.
So yeah, they’re spending a lot of money selling The Last Airbender. Just like they’ve spent a lot of money selling every single other big blockbuster over the last few years. The question of whether it was worth it can only be answered on opening weekend.