In an interview with Deadline last Friday, George Clooney expressed ire for Third Point hedge fund chief Daniel Loeb‘s criticism of Sony Pictures management, claiming Loeb didn’t know the first thing about the movie business. I didn’t have room for it in the article–George covered a lot of ground–but Clooney even criticized Loeb’s choice of historic flops to liken to two Sony summer misfires, After Earth and White House Down. Clooney said that he felt both After Earth (a $130 million budget film that has grossed $242 million worldwide) and White House Down (a $150 million budget film that grossed $117 million worldwide) would not end up as precedent-setting losers when all the money is counted down the line. But he also said that Loeb calling Waterworld, and maybe even Ishtar, all-time flops showed a naivete about the way studios cover their risk. In fairness to Loeb, both Waterworld and Ishtar have been easy targets because their production cost overruns made each big news in its day.
Ishtar cost $55 million and grossed $14 million domestic, and, well it’s tough to put a happy face on that film in any discussion. Clooney and others would argue that Waterworld is a much different story. Now, I can’t count to 20 without taking off my shoes, but an industry numbers cruncher shared with Deadline a cost/profit analysis on Waterworld, even adjusting the numbers for inflation and again to reflect ways that the tent pole business has grown more favorable to studios than back when Waterworld was released in 1995. The numbers make an argument consistent with Clooney’s point.
This insider said that the Waterworld numbers didn’t look that bad on paper back then, and would fare better on the bottom line if made today. Even though production and P&A costs would rise, studios now take advantage of co-financing that not only shares risk but brings a fee around 11%; mature ancillary markets, from DVD to VOD both domestic and especially foreign bring in more money than what back in 1995. Then it was a videocassette marketplace dominated by Blockbuster and other rental stores. Also helping is that actors routinely make breakeven participation deals on tent poles, instead of the high upfront salaries against first dollar gross that was standard for stars like Costner, who could command $10 million against 10% gross. Based on the numbers here, some studios wouldn’t mind having had a Waterworld this summer. Here is how it stacks up:
The left column gives estimates of revenues and costs, and the second column is adjusted for inflation. The third takes into account the changes that favor studios, and push profits to $67 million.
“Why didn’t [Loeb] choose a film like Cutthroat Island or The Adventures Of Pluto Nash,” Clooney asked last week. “It just shows he doesn’t understand the business he is criticizing.” Cutthroat Island, which cost $98 million and grossed $10 million, is a flop for the ages and so is Pluto Nash, which cost $100 million and grossed $4.4 million and $2.6 million foreign.
I covered the twists and turns of Waterworld closely; I recall that the shoot was a nightmare that included losing a set constructed on the water, after a vicious storm. The mission here isn’t to thump Third Point’s Loeb again; he has taken a pounding and seemed conciliatory in an interview yesterday with Deadline’s sister publication, Variety. If nothing else, it seems high time that director Kevin Reynolds and star Kevin Costner have the right to feel vindicated. And money guys might want to find another historic flop to pick on next time.