The Budgets for the 2015 Best Picture Oscar Nominees

Oscars statues crop
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • February 26, 2015 at 4:08 PM

While Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) might have taken home the Oscar for Best Picture, the filmmakers had to walk a financial tightrope to get there.

Before getting to the production process, the team behind Birdman (like every other film), would have considered exactly how much it would cost to make and the potential revenue. From the eyes of the studios, this quirky drama would not always be seen as “big ticket” material – and neither would many of the other 2015 nominees.

The 87th Annual Academy Awards Best Picture nominations blended traditional and independent filmmaking, taking risks that a lot of more conventional films avoid. Would people engage with the story of Birdman? Would they be interested in following the real growing pains explored in Boyhood? Would American Sniper be seen as just another war movie?

The eight films up for nomination in the Best Picture category in 2015 all took their own risks – some bigger than others – and it has mostly paid off. But just how much of a gamble did they take?

Here we take a look at the official and estimated budgets (in US dollars) for all of the Best Picture nominees for the Oscars in 2015.

American Sniper

Warner Bros. set the budget for this film based on the experiences and biography of US Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle at $60 million well before director Clint Eastwood had even signed onto the project.

In fact, a feature in The Hollywood Reporter explains that Steven Spielberg was signed on to direct before Eastwood was involved, and the “slender” budget is one of the reasons Spielberg decided to pull out of the project.

“Ultimately, Spielberg felt he couldn’t bring his vision of the story to the screen for that amount of money and dropped out of the project,” reporter Alex Ben Block writes.

The film’s star, Bradley Cooper had been attached before it even went to Warner Bros. and had been mentioning Clint Eastwood before any director had signed on. So when Spielberg moved on, Warner Bros. approached Eastwood and the initial team for the film was formed.

But this budget was just an estimate at that stage – often movie budget estimates can balloon into even more money when films go into production. In the case of American Sniper, however, estimates from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) put its actual budget at $58 million, or $2 million better than the initial estimate.

With worldwide box office revenue of $365 million the weekend before the Oscars, it is clearly a big hit both creatively and financially.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The Oscar winning film for 2015 was made for $18 million, or a shoestring budget by Hollywood standards. To put it into perspective, that’s about a third of the budget for American Sniper.

With elements including filming in a Broadway theatre and shooting in continuous takes, Birdman had its challenges cut out for it from the start, both technically and financially. In an interview with Deadline.com, producer John Lesher explains that even getting the money to make the movie was a challenge.

“Whenever you’re trying to do something that someone hasn’t done before, it’s challenging,” he says, going on it explain that starring actors often help secure financiers, but it was different with Michael Keaton because he “hadn’t been in a big hit for a while”.

“A lot of times people base if they will make your film on past performance and what they perceive for foreign and international value. And we kept saying that we’re going to put this incredible ensemble together, but until you actually do that, it’s sometimes difficult for people to take that leap of faith,” he says.

“It was only financed because three different people came in, each with a third of the budget: New Regency, Searchlight and Worldview Entertainment.”

The investment of these three companies, along with everyone involved has paid of significantly: as well as a vast array of nominations and awards, Birdman has so far grossed $76.8 million, or just over four times the actual budget amount.

Boyhood

If Birdman’s budget is considered a “shoestring” in Hollywood, the budget for Boyhood is just a thread in that string. This film, which was shot over 12 years, had a production budget of $4 million, with Academy Award-winner Patricia Arquette telling American news site WENN that it was more of a passion project for her and most of the team.

“It’s important to me as an actor to be able to make a living (but) I’m going to tell you something – I paid more money to my babysitter and my dog walker than I made on Boyhood,” she says.

But Arquette also points out that this film was financed by many of the creatives involved, including director Richard Linklater, so the critical and commercial success it has received is even more rewarding.

I’m so happy for Rick (Linklater) and so happy for the producers, because they gave four million dollars. They gambled on a movie with no safety net, no contracts past seven years…You could’ve ended up with nothing.”

Their investment has paid off tenfold, with Boyhood making over $44 million at the box office to date, and getting critical acknowledgements in the form of award nominations and wins at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, SAG Awards, DGA Awards and the Academy Awards, where Arquette won a gold statue for her work on this project.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This quirky Wes Anderson film has a bit of mystery around the budget. The official figure has not been widely released and isn’t even listed on IMDb or Box Office Mojo (which are both known for this type of information).

What’s more is that most interviews with Anderson and other production team members touch on budget challenges but do not list an actual dollar value. But a 2013 report from German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau during production actually lists the budget as €23 million (US$30 million or around AUD$33 million).

Anderson himself says they actually made The Grand Budapest Hotel for “sort of a thirdish of the budget”. In an interview with Firstshowing.net, he says it is important for him to consider other ways to create everything in his movies so there is less pressure (from financiers) for huge box office results.

“I mean it’s not just us saying here’s the most money that we can raise to do this. It’s here’s the amount of money we want to spend on this movie,” he says.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where the expectation is that the movie has to make more money than we think it’s really ever going to make, because then there’s a certain pressure that you have to change the movie.”

As it turns out, Anderson and his team had nothing to worry about in that regard. The film had a hugely successful box office release and has so far made over $174.6 million worldwide.

The Imitation Game

This biopic exploring the life of mathematician Alan Turing and starring british actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley is another of the 2015 Oscar nominated films made on a “tight” budget.

According to Vanity Fair, the $14-15 million (reports vary) that made The Imitation Game is “a number so small that several audience members gasped when director Morten Tyldum revealed the budget [at a press event]”. Comments from the film’s director also suggest even he was surprised that they managed to make this hugely successful film for so little.

“I’m amazed at so many things,” Tyldum says.

“There was so little drama, everybody was so prepared, everybody worked so hard. Everybody wanted to do right on the legacy of Alan Turing, it was sort of like his spirit was with us and it’s been a very unique experience.”

The Imitation Game has gone on to make $178 million worldwide. According to Forbes, these figures make it the Oscar-nominated movie with the highest-percentage return (over 1000%) so far.

Selma

This film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights in the US had a budget of $20 million, or what could be referred to as “respectable” (but still at the lower end of things) in Hollywood.

For director Ava DuVernay, it was a significant jump in financing compared to her last feature, Middle of Nowhere, which was made for $200,000. But the driving force of starring actor David Oyelowo (who first read the script in 2007), along with backing from Oprah, helped get this movie the financial backing needed to recreate this period in American history.

According to DuVernay, a lot of the budget was taken up with making sure things were historically accurate (the events in the film take place in 1965). In an interview with CBS News, she indicates her experience with smaller budgets were actually a huge advantage because of the complexities of the period piece.

“Every single garment has to be made to of the time,” the director explains.

“You have to recreate streets to be 1965 so the money went quickly and after a while it started to feel like an independent film in a lot of ways.”

As of 24th February 2015 Selma has made $49.7 million at the box office, although it is worth noting there are not yet any figures accounting for international revenue. The film had a February release for most countries outside the US (include Australia, where it came out on the 5th of February), so it’s revenue is expected to jump once more box office data comes in.

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything is another Best Picture nominated film made for less than $20 million. Like The Imitation Game, this UK-based film’s budget was around the $15 million mark.

When discussing the financial side of The Theory of Everything, producer Lisa Bruce has said the project had “the right amount of money and time” but also that it was still a “modest budget”. As a result, shooting lasted from September 2013 to October of the same year and was demanding for the film’s stars Eddie Redmayne (who plays Stephen Hawking) and Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking).

“It was a great shoot, but it was also difficult for Eddie and Felicity,” Bruce tells Deadline.com.

“It was traumatic in terms of work, but luckily most of the drama happened on film and not on the set.”

Both actors received Academy Award nominations for their hard work, with Eddie Redmayne winning the Oscar for Actor In A Leading Role. The film’s total earnings are $104 million so far.

Whiplash

While there was already a lot of buzz around other Oscar contenders like American Sniper and The Grand Budapest Hotel, not as many people had heard of Whiplash before the Oscar nominations were announced.

That probably has something to do with its budget of $3.3 million, which didn’t leave much money for anything except the bare necessities such as cast and crew wages. According to producer Jason Blum – who is known for making microbudget films – the key was to spend as little as possible and work with people that accepted that, including the actors.

“Executive producer Jason Reitman had a relationship with J.K. Simmons. Our director Damien Chazelle liked J.K.,” he says in an interview with the New York Post.

“There was pressure to get someone more famous. But we didn’t go after anyone else, so instead of paying $10 million we loved J.K. and brought the budget down.”

The film was also shot over a 19 day period, with filming often lasting 14 hours a day. So far it has made $12.2 million at the box office, with a very limited release in less than 600 theatres worldwide. In comparison, Boyhood’s widest release is 775 theatres, while most other films – including American Sniper, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything – are released in 1000 to 3000 (or more) cinemas around the world.

So there you have it: the budgets for the Best Picture Oscar nominees for 2015. While some are made for small change by Hollywood standards, others had big bucks behind them. But the variety of budgets really proves one thing: it’s not so much about how much the movie costs to make as it is the creativity and artistry that goes into making it.

Images: The Oscars statues, credit: Richard Harbaugh/©A.M.P.A.S.; the official Birdman poster, credit: Fox Searchlight

Birdman
Comments (1)
  • March 05, 2015 at 10:46 AM

    It’s so interesting to see the variations in budget sizes for these films. I know heaps of people that think the only way to get a film made is to have millions and millions of dollars, but then films like Whiplash and Boyhood come along and prove everyone wrong. At the end of the day it’s not about the money, it’s about the art.