Ingredients of a Hollywood movie: money, power, expertise and magic

Hollywood feature films originate in the chaos of creative egos and live or die by public whim. Only in production, when a film falls into the hands of technicians, are there firm rules.

The whole process breaks down into major stages: conception, pre-production, production, post-production.

The concept

The basic idea, or concept, for a film sometimes comes from a novel, but may simply be an idea, often expressed as little more than a title, sometimes in conjunction with a star’s name.

In the words of the director-writer Steven Spielberg: ‘If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie.’

Usually the concept is written up in the form of a brief presentation, which evokes the plot, characters and appeal in a few pages.

Some ideas move with astonishing ease. When, in 1976, Dino de Laurentis decided to remake the 1933 version of King Kong, he gave screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr the go-ahead in a ten-minute meeting. On the other hand, the writer William Goldman researched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) for eight years on and off before he even started the screenplay.


The pre-production period may take years, during which deals are discussed and stars and directors approached. This is followed by months of rewriting, location finding, budgeting, designing sets, rehearsing and scheduling transport and shooting.

The first essential is ‘the deal’. Decades ago, major film studios such as Paramount, MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox controlled ideas, production, stars and budgets. Now the studios concentrate on financing and distribution, and all the other elements must be pulled together by ‘the deal’.

As an investment, a film is a gamble. Those who control access to film finance like agents and managers – have assumed huge influence. Agents often become independent producers, who are the forces behind some Hollywood deals. With his `elements’ – the idea (or sometimes a script), a star or two and a director – the producer sells the package to a major studio for development money (which would be around $100,000). By getting the deal off the ground, the producer can at least cover his expenses – the major one being the creation or purchase of the script.

At this stage, most projects are either shelved, or are rejected by the studio and go back into the marketplace. However, if the studio approves the script, it goes into production. Only then does the producer who receives much of his fee when the cameras start to roll – start to make money.

The basic script remains the skeleton of the film. As a piece of writing, it is sparse around 135 pages is considered a rough standard – containing little but the dialogue and simple directions to suggest character and atmosphere.

The images presented by the script can only live when fleshed out by the director the person who chooses the camera angles, commands the actors, and gives the film its artistic shape. The script is usually heavily rewritten once the cast, director, budget and location are known. It frequently evolves further during shooting, into the final shooting script.

The stars used to be controlled by studios, who could use a contract to enforce whatever they wanted, including extensions to the contract. As David Niven wrote: ‘Some of us gave 12 or 14 sulphurous years of our short actor’s lives working off a seven-year contract.’ Now major stars, the keys to success, wield enormous power. At any one time, there are about 15 important stars whom everybody wants. Since they can make huge sums for the film, they are paid accordingly. Robert Redford, who received $500 for his first film, War Hunt, in 1961, earned $100,000 a day for A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Negotiations may last for months, with offers and demands in the millions. Many stars depend on their images, and refuse to be bought unless the part is right. Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, James Caan and Warren Beatty all refused $4 million to play Superman (1978).

The Missouri Breaks (1976) teamed Marlon Brando (who was to receive $1.25 million plus 11.3 per cent gross receipts over $8,850,000) with Jack Nicholson ($1.25 million, plus 10 per cent of gross receipts over $12,500,000). The deal took almost a year to set up and the film was a box-office failure.

Directors, too, are a part of the star system. Success breeds success; but equally important in Hollywood is ‘word of mouth’. When George Lucas made American Graffiti (1973) his studio, Universal, described it as a ‘disgrace’, and almost did not release it.

Lucas had at this point received just $20,000 in three years, and was in debt.

But Graffiti was a hit, and he used his new-found status to work a deal with Twentieth Century-Fox. The film was Star Wars (1977). It made him a millionaire.

Budgets of feature films are a constant source of fascination to both film makers and the public. No two are the same. `Below the line’ costs – those directly related to the craft of movie-making, such as sets and technicians – are estimated from the script. ‘Above the line’ costs of producer, director, stars and writer are open to negotiation. Both run into millions. One of the most expensive films ever was Cleopatra (1963), which cost $44 million in 1962, and lost money at the box office. Average budgets for American films in the 1980s were around $10 million, of which $7-8 million might be ‘below the line’ and the remaining $2-3 million ‘above the line’.

After the elements are in place and the deal agreed in principle, contracts are drawn up, an epic operation in itself. The negotiations are so tortuous that they themselves may become books and films.

Even relatively straightforward films may take years to evolve. The Dogs of War, the film of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 best seller, was six years in pre-production. Developed with money from United Artists, it had two writers and two producers before John Irvin was contracted as director. A third script acted as a basis for location research. The producer, Larry de Waay, contracted to shoot in the Seychelles in cooperation with the country’s president, James Mancham. But Mancham was ousted in a coup before work started. De

Waay finally settled on Belize, in Central America. This time, shooting went ahead. The film was released in 1980.


A major feature demands a small army of specialist departments. The main ones are sound, camera, lighting, art, make-up, hair and wardrobe, publicity and script.

On different films, different specialities acquire particular significance. Stanley Kubrick’s design department for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had three production designers and an art director to oversee the sets. Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977) needed 60 arc lights strung 80ft (24m) above the ground. Franklin Schaffner’s Sphinx (1981) needed dozens of live bats.

Direction has been compared to war -hours of mind-numbing boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of pure terror. One shot of a battle scene in a war movie may cost millions. Possibly the budget will not allow for a reshoot. Perhaps the director is contractually liable to repay costs that are over budget.

A major source of stress for the director is that many of the people under him, or her, can make or break the film. This is particularly true of the cameraman. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was crucially dependent on Vittorio Storaro’s ability to control anything up to ten cameras at once.

Since camera work is so important and so expensive, sound has come to take second place on the set. The sacrifice must be redeemed later, and dialogue is dubbed on after shooting.

The art department may have to solve demands like Franklin Schaffner’s for Sphinx: produce an Egyptian tomb with 800-900 jewellery artefacts. Jaws (1975) required a 25f, (7.6m) automatic shark.

Location managers have an equally vital role. For Apocalypse Now, Vietnam was re-created in the Philippines; but the difficulties drove an original budget of $13 million up to $31 million. Location managers can save costs by doing deals in North Africa or Eastern Europe, where studio and location costs may be under half those in America or Britain.

After shooting, the immense amount of film must all be carefully processed. The loss of any one of the hundreds of reels can be fatal for the movie. The potential for disaster is huge – in August 1978, masked men robbed a Boston studio of 15 unedited reels from The Brinks Job (1978), and demanded a ransom of $600,000 (the money was not paid; the film was edited without the reels; and it lost $9 million).

Creating special effects and stunts

Special effects are a particularly demanding area, in whichever country a film is made. Back in 1966, in One Million Years BC, the British special-effects man Les Bowie created the world in six days for £1200, using porridge for lava. But today’s special effects demand high technology. In 1988 a sequence showing asteroids in The Empire Strikes Back included 40 shots, some of them with up to 28 separate optical effects, involving 100 pieces of film.

Stunts have always been important to film makers. Stunting is a dangerous and highly paid occupation. In Highpoint (1984), Dar Robinson was paid $100,000 to leap off the 1815ft (553m) CN Tower in Toronto, breaking his fall with a `decelerated cable’. For Steel (1979), A. J. Bakunas jumped off a 350ft (107m) building into a huge air pad; his fall split the bag, and he was killed. Car crashes, fires, fights, explosions – all demand their own skills, and have their own dangers.

One particularly controversial area is stunting with animals. In the first version of Ben Hur (1925), 100 horses were killed. As a result of this and other similar abuses, controls were tightened.


Editing – in which a film is cut and then assembled ready for release – can also make or break a movie. Scenes will have been shot in many different ways to provide a wide choice. Stanley Kubrick shot over 200 miles (320km) of film for The Shining (1980), of which only about 1 per cent was used. A typical shooting ratio is between 10 and 20 to 1.

One vital element remains to be added: music. The American composer Bernard Herrmann once said: ‘Music is the connecting link between Celluloid and audience,’ completing the film’s psychological effect. It can only be written when editing is almost complete.

Because of the pressure of time, the composer usually works with assistants who fill out his musical sketches by writing the dozens of orchestral parts required. John Williams’ 90 minute score for Star Wars ran to 900 pages, written by himself and four orchestrators.

After editing, another huge machine promotion – swings into action: this involves advertising, printing and distribution. For Alien (1979), for instance, Fox spent over $18 million on so-called `overheads’ – $15 million on advertising and $3 million on prints for distribution to over 2000 cinemas.

Only then is a film ready for its audience. Only then will the army of people involved in its creation know whether they have made a disaster or something magical.

One reason why up-front money is so huge and the negotiations so demanding is that studios are notoriously slow to pay any share of profits to the stars, writers, producers and directors. They refuse to declare a profit, setting income against `overheads’. Alien, which cost Twentieth Century-Fox $10.8 million, brought in almost $50 million in its first year (1979), and still Fox did not declare a profit.

A major reason for the ‘no-profit’ mentality is that films not only cost hugely and earn hugely – they lose hugely, and do so more frequently than they earn. In the 1980s only three out of seven major features made money – a reminder that the public’s taste in subject and stars is notoriously fickle.

No one dares predict success. Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981), the story of a dying cripple, was highly successful as a play. As a film, it flopped. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), one of the most successful films ever, was turned down by every major studio except Paramount. Columbia researched ET (1982), concluded there would be no audience, and turned it down.

Why? Because as scriptwriter William Goldman writes emphatically in his book Adventures in the Screentrade, the ‘single most important fact of the entire movie industry’ is:


– anything, that is, about what the audience will want next year. Despite the millions of dollars, the tons of scripts, the heart-stopping negotiations, the scrupulous technicalities, movie people do not really know how to make a movie work; they only know how particular movies have worked, and hope against hope that the future will be like the past.