Wednesday, October 31, 2007

James Cameron has more money than you


I was watching The Directors on Reelz channel recently and they were featuring James Cameron. And he told a story I keep thinking about as a lesson for us all.

When he was filming Titanic the budget began to spiral out of control. The studio told Cameron he'd have to cut some of the things he wanted in order to save money. He said he'd rather give up his salary than compromise on his film. They took his salary.

The budget kept spiraling so the studio told him he'd have to give up some of the things he wanted to make the film cheaper. Cameron said he'd rather make no money at all from the film than compromise and back a bad movie so they could have his entire back end profit. They agreed-

Except they didn't think this big-budget period piece love drama would make any money, so they never bothered to put the new deal in writing.

James Cameron made a few dollars there, I think.

He had such faith in his film that he was willing to give up all his financial gain. He was making Titanic out of love, and whether you like it or not, he was right about its appeal to the masses. Cameron could have compromised and kept his paycheck and made a mediocre film the world forgot. But he stuck to his guns.

Of course, he already had some money. He wasn't you or me with our paltry paychecks and hopeful daydreams. He'd made Aliens.

Still, that really says something when the director is willing to put his money where his mouth is. He must have felt so vindicated, especially when he realized the studio never signed that contract taking away all his profit.

5 comments:

  1. I'm still curious how he raised 25 million for TERMINATOR without having to sacrifice ay control at all.

    That's where the real mystery is imo.

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  2. In 1974, George Lucas had a hard time convincing anyone to invest in his little project that we now know as "Star Wars". He shopped it around to dozens of studios, returned for a second go to 20th Century Fox, and they greenlighted him. At 9.5 million dollars, he was a good several hundred thousand over his budget, and the studio didn't honestly think the film would succeed - and neither did Lucas, since he fled to Hawaii for time off and had a phone conversation with his old pal Steven Spielberg about a project with a rugged guy in a fedora who carries a whip and hunts artifacts. Fox hardly spent any money in the lead-up advertising prior to release.

    They played a lot of catch-up when the little movie they thought would flop was packing people into full houses from open to close - and in some major cities, around the clock. (They truly kicked themselves in their collective asses when they realized that while they owned the merchandising to that film, they'd surrendered rights to all subsequent sequels to Lucasfilm, Ltd.)

    The point of all this?

    By the time James Cameron was preparing "The Terminator" for the pitch, the world had seen the sci-fi explosion: all three "classic" Star Wars movies were out before his film was released, plus Star Trek, Close Encounters, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon... Studios were chomping at the bit for good sci-fi, and apparently his script was good enough to eat, to the tune of 25 million dollars - a very small sum, considering that "The Empire Strikes Back", released four ears earlier, cost 18 million, and "Return of the Jedi", released one year prior, cost 40 million. By the standards of the time, his film was a rather modestly budgeted one. One of the main reasons they used Arnold Schwarzenegger was that he was almost totally unknown, meaning he'd work for cheap, and his limited vocabulary and Austrian accent fit the part to a T.

    It surprises me not in the least that he got 25 million to make "The Terminator." Nor does it surprise me that he was willing to forgo his salary to make a better picture - he was at that time more concerned about the art, yes, but also more concerned about the small army of people that his production company had employed for this massive undertaking that was "Titanic". It's very empowering to have the kind of money that he does, considering the profits from "Terminator 2" alone, never mind his other works. I'm certain that if the studio decided to play hardball with him and yank his budget, he could have cracked open his own piggy bank and come up with the difference. Fortunately for him, he didn't have to - and someone at the studio was either piss-poor with the follow-through on the verbal agreements, or was simply goading him with false threats to get him to try to economize.

    OK, rant over, you can go about your business. Move along, move along...

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  3. I respect Cameron, and like almost everything he did before Titanic. It's a shame his risk wasn't in the service of a better film.

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  4. @james and matt k.

    how come I have another number for Terminator-Budget? Cameron got like only 6 Mio. Dollar to make Terminator.

    Get your facts right!!

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  5. I was taking James at his word for that figure - it could be lower or higher. IMDB has fairly reliable numbers - though with Hollywood bookkeeping, it's hard to say with precision exactly what any movie costs to make...

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