Does it matter to us if a movie costs $ 250 million to make?

As they say, you have to spend money to make money. But the amount you dispense is not often proportional to the amount you earn. This is why out-of-control movie budgets continue to scare both Hollywood executives and those of us following the industry, even though many of the most expensive films of all time also ended up the most lucrative.

For every success (“Avatar” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) there’s a big bust (“John Carter” and “Cutthroat Island”), and right now, after incurring a writedown loss on “John Carter,” Disney has good reason to worry that their “Lone Ranger” movie, starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, will be like the latter two.

Recent reports show that the “Ranger” production is behind schedule and costs are back up to $ 250 million, a price that was previously considered a deal-breaker for the studio. Although there may be more cuts made to “Ranger” action sequences deemed disposable, the filmmakers — who include “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott — might be wary of eliminating too much of the movie’s value in the process. After all, some of that excised spectacle may just be what attracts a larger audience.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say how much it attracts them. While the average moviegoer isn’t always drawn to expensive material over inexpensive (especially since a film’s production cost has no effect on its ticket price for the consumer), audiences frequenting cinemas in these pickier times want some bang for the studio’s buck, as well as for their own. If they don’t see where the money went, chances are they’ll choose something when it looks like more care and effort went into it.

That’s why James Cameron can go to town with his budgets. He may spend a lot of money and take a lot of time with his movies, but the passion he has for giving us something we’ve never seen before shows up on the screen. By comparison, “Men in Black III” — regardless of the profit being made from its worldwide grosses — offers viewers very little that’s fresh, let alone worth the $ 225 million it is said to have cost, as most everyone involved with the film just seemed to be going through the motions of getting a product out there. A fun time making films often translates to a fun time watching them, and similarly, the care put in can correspond to the care felt by those experiencing it.

That said, passionate projects shouldn’t be confused for passion projects, as a flop like John Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth” proved in the past. The thing about the former is that passionate filmmakers can take a property nobody seems to want (perhaps even themselves), such as an adaptation of a theme park ride, or a genre that typically fares badly, such as a pirate adventure, and deliver an enormously popular piece of entertainment.

Sadly, the constant proof that nobody in Hollywood knows anything is still at play with these recent big-budget projects. Because domestic audiences aren’t flocking to expectant hits with name-recognition and seemingly built-in-audiences like “Battleship,” “John Carter” and “MIB3,” studio suits think that they should be more careful. However, as we now see with the current “Lone Ranger” news, being careful isn’t always the path they take.

Another huge box-office disappointment will likely happen in the near future. Therefore, the best thing for studios to do now is to pull back on tentpole budgets for new properties, even those based on popular existing material, and wait to see what sells. Then they can throw big money at proven titles as they’ve done with the “Pirates,” “Harry Potter” and “Dark Knight” sequels (but only if the original, likely passionate talent, returns).

However, the studios shouldn’t, nor will they, completely scale back the way they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Right now, more than ever, we want big blockbuster event movies. Otherwise, we’ll stay at home with our more interesting TV programs. It’s a bigger deal to us that we have to make the effort to get to the cinema these days than pay whatever the ticket costs, and likewise it should be a bigger deal for Hollywood to have to make the effort to get us to the cinema than pay whatever the production costs. In the end, we just want the movies to be well-made, whether that means script-wise, effects-wise or both. As they say, you have to give a lot if you want to get a lot.

Quick Poll

Does a movie’s budget matter to you?

  • “Cutthroat Island,” 1995

    Cost: $ 115 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 18.5 million
    Total losses: $ 96.5 million

    The movie that sunk (sorry) both Renny Harlin’s directing career and production company Carolco, though who could be surprised? Even Harlin and star Geena Davis knew “Cutthroat Island” — about a female pirate — was bad news from the start. “We begged to be let go. We begged that we didn’t have to make this movie,” he told KCRW last year. “We felt that a pirate movie with a female lead was suicidal, but we were contractually obligated.”

  • “Ishtar,” 1987

    Cost: $ 55 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 14.3 million
    Total losses: $ 40.7 million

    The road to ruin. The Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman comedy (from director Elaine May) was rife with post-production woes, which led to bad pre-release buzz. As Mike Nichols, May’s former comedy partner, said: “[‘Ishtar’] is the prime example that I know of in Hollywood of studio suicide.”

  • “How Do You Know,” 2010

    Cost: $ 120 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 48.6 million
    Total losses: $ 71.4 million

    How do you know this James L. Brooks romcom was doomed for disaster from the start? Look at the budget, which spiraled out of control after reshoots.

  • “Battlefield Earth,” 2000

    Cost: $ 103 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 29.7 million
    Total losses: $ 73.3 million

    Based on the book by L. Ron Hubbard, “Battlefield Earth” was one of the worst-reviewed films ever. Perhaps star John Travolta would have had better luck bringing “Dianetics” to the big screen?

  • “Green Lantern,” 2011

    Cost: $ 325 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 219.9 million
    Total losses: $ 105.1 million

    Despite over $ 100 million in domestic grosses, “Green Lantern” wound up being a write-off for Warner Bros. Worse, any hope to turn this fringe comic character into a franchise like “Iron Man” — one that could produce income for the studio for years to come — was lost. Hal Jordan wasn’t kidding about that whole “blackest night” thing.

  • “The 13th Warrior,” 1999

    Cost: $ 160 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 61.9 million
    Total losses: $ 98.1 million

    Directed by John McTiernan (“Die Hard”) and eventually re-cut by author Michael Crichton (who wrote “Eaters of the Dead,” which the film was based on), “The 13th Warrior” was another career-altering bust. The film left such a sour taste in the mouth of co-star Omar Sharif that he retired from acting for four years.

  • “Town & Country,” 2001

    Cost: $ 105 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 10.3 million
    Total losses: $ 94.7

    Thanks to director and star Warren Beatty’s meticulous nature, this romantic comedy took three years and millions of dollars to produce. When it was finally released in 2001, audiences didn’t care: “Town & Country” was an all-time bust and marks the last time Beatty appeared onscreen.

  • “Gigli,” 2003

    Cost: $ 74 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 7.2 million
    Total losses: $ 66.8 million

    Jennifer Lopez was right: It was “turkey time.”

  • “Mars Needs Moms,” 2011

    Cost: $ 175 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 38.9 million
    Total losses: $ 136.1 million

    Lost in the uncanny valley. The Robert Zemeckis-produced motion-capture spectacle, “Mars Needs Moms,” was such a costly mistake, Disney canceled the director’s plans to remake “Yellow Submarine” in a similar fashion.

  • “Pluto Nash,” 2002

    Cost: $ 120 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 7.1 million
    Total losses: $ 112.9 million

    From “Holy Man” to “Showtime” to “Meet Dave” to the recent release “A Thousand Words,” Eddie Murphy is dependable for one thing: box-office washouts. “Pluto Nash” was his most notorious, a $ 100 million space “comedy” that couldn’t even gross $ 5 million total at the domestic box office.

  • “The Alamo,” 2004

    Cost: $ 145 million
    Worldwide gross: $ 25.8 million
    Total losses: $ 119.2 million

    Forget “The Alamo.”

  • “Heaven’s Gate,” 1980

    Cost: $ 44 million
    Worldwide gross $ 3.4 million
    Total losses: $ 40.6 million

    Director Michael Cimino had all sorts of cachet following his Oscar-winning work on “The Deer Hunter.” His next feature? This costly mess, which is still synonymous with Hollywood hubris gone mad, 32 years after its release. Like “Cutthroat Island” did with Carolco, this film eventually led studio United Artists to shutter its doors.

Earlier on Moviefone:

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