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The ‘Alien’ Franchise and the Changing Economics of Movies

In preparation for Prometheus, which looks just ridiculously awesome, I’ve been watching the movies in the Alien franchise I hadn’t seen before. And in the course of that, and related futzing around the web, I realized how striking the per-movie numbers were as an illustration of how the economics of blockbusters have changed:

Alien (1979)Budget: $11 million ($34.8 million in 2012 dollars)Domestic and International Box Office: $104,931,801 ($331.5 million in 2012 dollars)Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: Approximately $33,333 ($105,321 in 2012 dollars)

Aliens (1986)Budget: $18.5 million ($38.72 million in 2012 dollars)Domestic and International Box Office: $131,060,248 ($274.3 million in 2012 dollars)Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: $1 million ($2.1 million in 2012 dollars)

Alien 3 (1992)Budget: $50 million ($81.8 million in 2012 dollars)Domestic and International Box Office: $159,773,545 ($261.2 million in 2012 dollars)Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: $4 million plus a share of box office ($6.5 million in 2012 dollars)

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Alien Resurrection (1997)Budget: $70 million ($100 million in 2012 dollars)Domestic and International Box Office: $161,295,658 ($230.5 million in 2012 dollars)Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: $11 million ($15.7 million in 2012 dollars)

PrometheusBudget: Estimated at $100-$150 million

I don’t think there’s a direct relationship between expensiveness and badness — The Avengers cost $220 million, which doesn’t count the expensive advertising campaign around it, and is just jaw-droppingly great (it is killing me not to be able to talk to you guys about it yet. Friday cannot be here soon enough). But at the same time, you can afford to do weirder things if there’s less money sunk into them. The Avengers kind of earns back some of that freedom — and I think Prometheus does, too — to be funny and weird and interesting and frightening because it’s guaranteed to make all of the money even if it was wretched. But a lot of the time when someone like, say, Michael Bay is in that position, they take precisely zero advantage of it. It’s one thing to be creative because you have to be to have a prayer of getting noticed and loved. It’s another to be creative because you have the luxury to be. On bad days, it seems like everyone else is just checking boxes. But this year feels to me like a time when the movies are new and exciting. I could be proven wrong. But it’s been fun so far.