BLOCKBUSTERS ON A BUDGET - PART 1
by William C. Martell
I'm writing this column a week before "The Lost World"
kicks off the Summer of no return. Summers used to offer a
smorgasbord of entertainment, but for the past few years studios
have concentrated on big event films. This summer we have a
dozen films with budgets over a hundred million dollars. Though
"Speed" cost just over $20 million to make, the sequel cost $160
million. "Titanic" has broken the "Waterworld" barrier to become
the most expensive film ever made (over $200 million). By the
time you read this, some of these big budget films will already
have flopped. Some studios may end up in serious financial
trouble. Some producers may lose their jobs.
"The Lost World" isn't one of those $100 million films.
Strangely enough, it ended up one of the less expensive summer
films, coming in at only $74 million.
Producers say they have to make the kind of big event films
that audiences want to see. They have to make $100 million
films. But do they?
(2018 note: The average Hollywood film now costs $107 million by the
time it hits your screens., and summer blockbusters can cost $250 million or more.)
For years, low budget producers have been making films which
compete on video with big studio films. High concept
blockbusters without the big budget price tags. Is there
something the big studios can learn from the low budget world?
I'm going to explain how low budget screenwriting techniques
can be used to create blockbuster films on a budget. Producers
can use these screenwriting tricks to make a huge event film for
a third of that $100 million price tag... And I'm including a $20
million star in the price! It all starts with the script.
My example is going to be "Steel Sharks", a budget friendly
techno-thriller script of mine which was produced last year. The
film was shot on a cable TV movie budget and a tight shooting schedule - as an HBO World Premiere Movie.
Our budget was only $3 million, and the goal was to make a Tom Clancey movie for the price of
some standard HBO action flick.
I believe the same film could be shot as a studio film for around
$10-12 million. Add Tom Cruise at $20 million, and you've got a
big blockbuster film for around $32 million.
Before I show you how I did it, here's the trick:
An American chemical weapons scientist (Barry Livingston)
is kidnaped off the street and taken to Iran. CNN reports that
the CIA believes he will be forced to participate in Iran's
chemical weapons program. The clock is ticking.
A Navy SEAL Team is sent in to rescue him. New on the Team
is Bob Rogers (Billy Warlock from "Baywatch") who is our Tom
Cruise-like star. Rogers tangles with the tough second in
command of the SEALS, Lieutenant Cord, played by Tim Abel (star
of Bruckheimer's new "Soldier Of Fortune" TV series).
After the SEAL Team rescues the scientist, they are captured
by the Iranian Army in a HUGE action scene (with the biggest gas
explosion fireball ever put on film!) and taken hostage aboard
one of 3 Iranian submarines. Old Russian Kilo Class diesels.
The American 688 Attack Class sub which was supposed to pick
them up, commanded by Gary Busey, is trapped in the Persian Gulf
by the three subs. He plays a deadly shell game, only able to
fire on 2 of the 3 subs in self defense, as he follows the sub
with the hostages. Lots of large scale underwater submarine
warfare. Lots of torpedoes fired. Lots of countermeasures used.
Things generally explode. The sub battles are bigger than
anything in "Hunt For Red October".
Admiral Tom Perry (Billy Dee Williams) coordinates the
rescue operation from an Aircraft Carrier in the 5th fleet, using
heat registration spy satellites to help Busey evade subs and
keep track of the one our SEAL Team is on.
Williams sends F-14 fighter planes over the Gulf, and will
send choppers to rescue our heroes later. He also gets to call
The Pentagon. We used an actual aircraft carrier, actual Navy
helicopters, and actual F-14s in the film. This IS a big Tom
Clancy style techno-thriller, after all.
While the submarine battle rages outside, inside the Iranian
sub, Billy Warlock and the SEAL Team escape. Now it's "The
Warriors" on a submarine: 5 unarmed men have to travel close to
300 feet, past 100 enemy sailors, to escape. One of the men
(Cord) is wounded, and one is a geeky scientist.
By the end of this film, Iran will lose all 3 submarines (we
explodes 'em!), a bunch of planes flyover, our SEAL Team uses
kitchen chemicals to fight their way through the sub to the
escape trunk (hatch), there's an underwater rescue operation,
helicopters transport our Team to the Carrier, and everyone goes
to 5th Fleet Command in Bahrain to get a medal.
That may sound complicated, but I'm trying to give you an
idea of the scope of the film. It's a mock Tom Clancy techno-
thriller. Billy Warlock is the lead, he gets the character arc
(though other characters also get arcs). Lots of hardware, lots
of REAL F-14s, lots of things get blowed up real good.
Hard to believe a story this big is a cheapie, right? Hard
to believe it cost 1/80th of what "Speed 2" cost. The secret is
in the script.
A staple in action films is the CAR CHASE. We've seen a
million of them, and every new one has to be BIGGER (and more
expensive) than the ones before it. THE ROCK started with the
BULLITT/San Francisco car chase, then began a path of destruction
which included driving the car through a window, over other cars,
knocking a cable car off its tracks and blasting it into the air,
crashing about 20 cars, and blowing up anything which didn't
crash and burn.
Expensive. Because they REALLY had to do the chase. It
couldn't have been done on a computer or in miniature.
One key to a "big budget" film which can be shot cheap is to
come up with BIG ACTION which doesn't have to be done for real.
"ID4" blew up the White House... Done in miniature.
It's also important to keep your actors and effects
separate! Two reasons for this:
1) To combine real actors and miniatures or computer effects is
expensive and time consuming.
2) Real actors make CGI and miniatures look fake. They give us
a point of comparison. This is why Stan Winston built LIFE SIZE
dinosaurs for the petting/touching/standing next to scenes in
"The Lost World". We aren't doing ANYTHING for real!
This DOES limit your palate. You have to find a story where
the big action takes place 'outside' and the actors work
'inside'. "DIE HARD" type movies work well for this. But so
would "ALIEN" and "ALIENS", "CRIMSON TIDE , "EXECUTIVE DECISION",
any Star Trek film, and Hawks version of "THE THING".
My previous HBO World Premiere Movie "Crash Dive" was DIE HARD on a
submarine. A terrorist group takes over a U.S. 688 submarine and
aims nuclear missiles at Washington DC, a retired Navy engineer
sneaks onboard the submarine, using his knowledge of the
submarine to stop the terrorists.
My idea was to have hand to hand fighting and shoot outs
going on Inside the submarine, and a submarine chase and torpedo
exchange going on Outside. The outside stuff was all shot in
miniature (we used one of the models from "Hunt For Red October")
and a three-storey set was built for the Inside stuff.
"Crimson Tide" built their set on a gimble, so that it could
tilt from side to side. On "Crash Dive" we just rented a rocker
device so that the CAMERA could tilt from side to side, and saved
a ton of money. Our three-storey set was designed to be
different parts of the submarine from different angles. Some of
the rooms could be re-dressed as Crew Quarters, Machine Rooms,
the Galley, and the Torpedo Room. The camera could be placed
UNDER the lower deck, so that it could shoot up through the floor
grates and capture all three storeys on film. A terrorist on the
upper floor could shoot down at the hero on the lower floor.
One entire room was built in a tank, so that it could
gradually be filled with water.
The submarine's Control Room was a separate set. That way,
we could film action on the main set at the same time we were
rigging lighting on the Control Room set. Even the set was
designed to ease production and save money.
In the golden age, movies were all shot on sound stages,
with 2nd unit (or stock footage) for exteriors. They made
thousands of great films using this method. I often wonder why
today's producers don't use the cost saving techniques from
yesterday's hit films. Low budget films have been using golden
age studio tricks for years to stretch their budgets.
In "ALIENS" we can show the transport ship leaving the big
space ship and landing on the dusty planet in miniature.
Intercut some cockpit shots showing the actors. Once the
transport ship is at the factory building, we take our actors
inside for the rest of the film, showing the occasional exterior
shot to remind us of the big picture.
The "ALIENS" concept could have been done as a cheapie!
(Corman did an "Aliens" type story for "Carnosaur 2".)
"Steel Sharks" began with the set. They wanted to re-use
that amazing submarine set from "Crash Dive" and asked me to
pitch ideas. I came up with 5 new sub stories, careful to avoid
anything similar to "Crash Dive". Each of the 5 concepts had big
'event movie' action going on outside the submarine, and fast
paced action inside the submarine. After a misfire, the story
chosen was "The Warriors" on a submarine, and it went to script.
In "Steel Sharks" I could have Gary Busey's 688 Sub involved
in underwater chases, hide and seek, and big battles with the 3
enemy Diesel subs because it was all shot in miniature. We could
blow up all 3 enemy subs, because we only had to blow up MODEL
subs, not the real thing. Busey can give the order to fire
torpedoes, then we go to miniature to SEE the torpedoes fire, and
SEE the enemy sub get hit and explode. We can also see the enemy
sub's torpedoes hit the ridge behind Busey's sub, and SEE Busey
and his crew almost knocked off their feet by the concussion.
This is BIG SCALE ACTION... bigger than that car chase from
"The Rock"... but MUCH cheaper to film. I'll bet that car chase
cost more than our entire below the line budget on "Steel
Sharks"! Because their CONCEPT required them to do the big
expensive action scenes FOR REAL... instead of taking advantage
of miniature effects and CGI.
Even though the "Speed" concept required real bus stunts, by
separating the big action from the actors, they kept their budget
reasonable. Keanu and Sandra could be shot driving around on Bus
#1 reacting to obstacles, while a second unit crew could shoot a
stunt driver in Bus #2 actually swerving to avoid (or hitting)
the obstacles. Most of "Speed"s Act 2 is Keanu and Sandra in the
same exact spot on Bus #1 reacting. Very easy to shoot.
But if they would have replaced the real bus with a
miniature submarine, they could have decreased the costs and
increased the production value. Just by changing the Outside
The most important element in bringing budgets down is to
find a concept where the big, expensive action takes place
OUTSIDE (where it can be done with CGI or miniature) and the
actors work INSIDE (on a set built to match the miniature).
Finding a concept for this kind of story is easy. I make a
living doing it, as do many other low budget writers. You start
with the Outside location. My "Moonlight Express" script is
about the hunt for a killer onboard a non-stop express train from
Los Angeles at San Francisco. I used a 727 Chicago to DC shuttle
for "Altitude", the story of passengers who must band together to
fight hijackers. "Black Thunder" uses F-117 stealth fighter
planes (shot in miniature) for the big action scenes in Act 1
(where a top secret plane is stolen) and Act 3 (where our hero
steals the plane back and is chased) to augment the sneaking
behind enemy lines "traditional" action in Act 2 which was filmed
in the desert.
Other good Outside locations include boats, space stations,
under water labs, tunnels, space ships, trains, planes,
submarines, subways, monorails, the space shuttle, a mining
colony on Mars, that Stealth ship the Navy isn't talking about,
and dozens of other places where actors on a set can be combined
with big Outside action to create blockbuster movies on a budget.
Not every film can be made this way, but if a third of all
the studio's big summer event films used this method, they could
cut costs without sacrificing the scope or entertainment value of
their blockbusters. They could make a $100 million film for $32
million, and make more profit if the film was a hit. Event films
in this budget range are guaranteed to make a profit. Last year
the average studio film made $35 million domestic. Unfortunately,
it cost $78 million to make and market.
By using these simple techniques, plus a pair of writing
techniques I'll discuss in the next issue, studios can give the
audience the films they crave, give name actors the $20 million
they demand, and spend a third of the cost of this summer's big
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