The Cost of Creativity

Gilliam is a hero to some, an insane man to the bean countersWhat does it cost to be an artist? A writer? Any creative type?
If you are into the written word, you need, at minimum, a pencil and several pieces of paper. You could write a play or a whole book for about ten bucks. If you dance or sing, you just need a practice space. Playing music would require buying an instrument, which in most cases would be under a thousand dollars. Leaving aside the issue of distribution for the moment, it seems that artsy endeavours can be pursued on the cheap. If you want to be creative, all you have to do is go after it.
Except if you want to make movies.

Making a movie (and to much the same extent, a TV show) requires the services of a whole assortment of people, as well as a lot of equipment, mostly expensive equipment if you want the finished product to look any good. So if you fancy yourself a director, you are going to have to rustle up a fair chunk of coin.
I was thinking about this because I recently watched the documentary Lost in La Mancha. It’s about a failed movie project by noted director Terry Gilliam — Gilliam was a member of Monty Python back in the 60s and since then he’s made such films as Brazil and 12 Monkeys. In 2000, he was in the process of making a project partially adapted from Don Quixote when disaster struck. Make that: a series of disasters, some due to poor planning. The film died after 2 days of shooting.
The documentary was intended to bulk up the eventual DVD release of the movie, but it soon became the sole record of the project. The directors of the doc, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, had fantastic access to the set, and there was one frankly-spoken factoid in particular that struck me: money.
It turns out that most European movies cost about $5 million or less. Usually less. Gilliam and his producers managed to get a financing deal for $32 million, purely from European sources. These sources were extremely nervous! Especially since Gilliam just laughed and said he would need about double that budget to do full justice to his vision of what the film could be. The bankers were trembling, but Gilliam was only speaking the truth of his experience.
Gilliam is a hero to some, an insane man to the bean countersSince directing movies is Gilliam’s artistic passion, he’s stuck if he doesn’t get his funding. He’d been working on his Don Quixote idea for ten years, but despite the fact that the script was finished and he’d storyboarded every scene of the movie, for him it’s not complete until the big bucks have been spent and the film is in the theatres.
Other artsy types don’t have this problem. If I want to write a book, I go ahead and do it.
Reality intrudes on my argument, of course. The situation isn’t quite as simple as all that due to the issue of distribution. For example, getting a book published is always a barrier; even if you are self-publishing, getting your stuff out to the people who might want it is always hard too. I can fill infinite reams of paper and still break my heart trying to get published.
But the fact remains that directing a movie (as opposed to writing the script) is hundreds of times more expensive than other artistic endeavours. Take a look at what Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press had to say in his article How to Start a Small Press: he comes up with the total of ten thousand bucks for a decently produced book.
Ironically, the figure that Gilliam quotes in Lost in La Mancha — sixty million — is close to the average budget for a Hollywood film. Why doesn’t Gilliam just go to Hollywood? That’s a bit of a long story, with a lot of blood on the floor. Gilliam’s been there, and the results weren’t pretty.
To me, the mismatch boils down to this: when there’s that much money at stake, there is an inevitable smoothing out of rough edges, a process of micro-managing and focus grouping and test marketing and homogenization. That’s not to say that a low-budget flick is inevitably good, or that having as many rough edges as Gilliam is a good thing! But Gilliam has to be admired for his fierceness and his stubbornness, even if it’s meant all kinds of trouble for his beloved movies.
Would Gilliam’s Don Quixote have been a good film? It could have been a classic like Brazil or a clunker like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — there’s little way to tell from the scant footage in existence. Happily, Lost in La Mancha is not the last word on Gilliam’s career: we can expect two films from him, possibly both this year. His genre fans will be looking forward to The Brothers Grimm, a fantasy film, to be released later this year, and he’s just wrapped up filming in Saskatchewan of a more literary flick called Tideland.
That means two possible sequels to Lost in La Mancha that didn’t happen. Tragedy averted, millions spent, and soon we’ll know if it was worth it.

2 replies »

  1. It boils my blood to hear that pathetic films have so much funding while I’m struggling to get my novel to at least be read.
    Another look at this will suggest that maybe there needs to be a few failures to make the concept of success exist!
    In the mean time,… I will read. read. read. and write a better book. It is not easy at all to get a book published.


  2. Hey Vanessa,
    I didn’t mean to make your blood boil! Sure, it’s crazy-making to think about all of the money spent/wasted in the movie industry. But I think you’ve got it right when you are determined to stay focused on your own creative endeavour. Part of what I like about Gilliam is his persistence (even in the face of all evidence), and anyone needs that if they want to get their stuff out there.


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