We sometimes talk about a low-budget Western or a big-budget one, or even a mid-budget oater. What did it mean?
I thought it might be interesting today to look at dollars and cents a bit.
Of course it’s very difficult to compare the budgets of Westerns from different years. Inflation is notoriously difficult to estimate, the overall figures sometimes given varying from industry to industry, so the costs aren’t directly comparable. Still, we can generalize a bit.
In the 1920s Paramount was spending on average $110,000 on its series Westerns, and Tom Mix’s pictures when he moved to Universal in the early 30s were similar. Ken Maynard had to manage with less, typically $75,000 per picture, but that was riches compared with some. Buck Jones in the 1930s had to make do with about 25 grand at Columbia (admittedly the poorest of the majors at that time) and Tim McCoy was allowed only $15 – 20,000.
In his very comprehensive 1976 book The Filming of the West, Jon Tuska interestingly (I thought) estimated that Buck Jones oaters usually got about 10,000 “play-offs” at $25 a time, so $250,000 went to the studio for each picture. That seems a good return but of course that money had to cover all overheads and studio costs, not just production expenses. Right at the bottom of the food chain were Monogram’s Lone Star Westerns, often with the young John Wayne, made for a budget of $5000 on a three-day shooting schedule. According to an inflation-adjustment calculator I found on line, that money in 1935 would be $94,202 today. Peanuts, in the scale of things.
Useful as a door-stop
As an example of the cost of a low-budget Western, Tuska cites PRC’s 1945 release Prairie Rustlers, a Buster Crabbe epic with which you are doubtless familiar. The picture came in at $23,304 ($3,304 over budget) for six days’ shooting. Crabbe got $3,000, a hefty sum, really, while his co-star Al St John made $1,000. All the rest of the cast together got just $827 between them, 25 actors being listed on IMDb, so that’s an average of 33 bucks each! Incredible. Fred Myton received a thousand dollars for the screenplay, director Sam Newfield was paid $1,250 and producer Sig Neufeld got twelve hundred dollars.
Buster and Al starred in Prairie Rustlers, surrounded by the highly paid support cast
PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) was often disparaging referred to as Poverty Row Corp, so what about a bigger studio? Higher up the pecking order at that time but still hardly lavish with its budgets was Republic, whose boss Herb Yates famously threw money about like a man with no arms. That studio broke down its annual budget by type of film, and then commissioned pictures according to the amount allowed per genre. The total for the 1943 – 44 season was $16 million. $2.8 million went to eight Roy Rogers oaters and there was a further $2 million for 24 miscellaneous Westerns starring the likes of Allan Lane, Bill Elliott and Sunset Carson. So Westerns took up a healthy 30% of the total (oh, happy day).
By 1950 budgets had grown considerably. The BFI Companion to the Western estimates a 60% rise during the decade of the 1940s; I hope the actors were getting more than $33. And Republic decided to push the boat out and finance a major John Ford/John Wayne picture, the last part of what became thought of as their cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande. It had a 32-day shooting schedule and a budget of $1.2 million. How was this divided out?
You gotta eat. Lunchtime on the set of Rio Grande.
Ben and Dobe look a bit uncomfortable.
The cast, including extras and bit-parts, came in at $318,433, easily the biggest chunk, with of course the main stars, Duke and Maureen O'Hara, taking the lion's share. ‘Staff’, which included director, producer and so on, was the next biggest outlay, put at $214,225. Other significant expenses were $25,000 for the story, $51,000 for the sets, $47,572 for the music and $68,000 location costs. Some of the expenses were surprisingly small, such as $5,595 for film stock, $1,950 for titles and opticals, and $210 for film processing. The picture grossed $2.25 million on release, so Yates must have been pretty pleased. Plus, it’s a stunningly good film.
It didn’t even come in the top ten of successful movies that year, though. If you compare with other genres, the top grossing movie of 1950 was the Disney musical Cinderella, released by RKO, which had a budget of $2.9m and grossed an amazing $52m. The best Western, box-office-wise, of that year was Universal’s Winchester ’73, which made $4.5m.
What about other major adult Westerns of the time? Let’s take another Wayne picture, Red River, directed by Howard Hawks and released by United Artists in August 1948 (though budgeted and shot in the summer of ’46). This was also a wonderful Western and it grossed over $9 million. It must have made a fortune, right? OK, yes, it did well, but the costs were far higher than Republic’s for Rio Grande. A full million dollars was spent on the Arizona locations, just for starters. Even so, several scenes were shot on a huge specially constructed 110 by 120 foot set back in Hollywood. Twenty tons of sand and rock were brought into it from Arizona to make the set ‘fit’, at a cost of $20,000. So they spent more than the entire budget of a Tim McCoy Western just on sand. Costumes cost $150,000 (or two Sunset Carson Westerns). The era of mega-budgets had arrived.
On the Arizona set of Red River
And stars were beginning to get serious money. Wayne, who had received $350 for Columbia’s Range Feud in 1931, made $75,000 plus a percentage of the gross on Red River – serious money for 1948. That went up exponentially. In the 1950s John Ford’s nose was put seriously out of joint when he discovered that Duke was being paid more than he was. For The Horse Soldiers in 1959, for example, Wayne got three quarters of a million dollars.
Series Westerns and second-feature ones, sometimes called (though not by me) B-Westerns, were in many ways a world of their own. They often had stars who only worked in that genre (though their supporting casts would usually take any work they could get, whatever the picture) and they had steady, reliable if un-huge audiences. Their costs were kept to a minimum and they made modest amounts of money.
So called A-Westerns, however, those made by the big studios for adult audiences and competing for ticket sales with musicals, comedies, thrillers, romances and all the rest, were in many ways a riskier business. They needed very large ticket sales to recoup their cost. In the 1920s the big studios had splashed out on ‘epic’ silent Westerns for adults, at huge expense. Paramount’s The Covered Wagon in 1923, Fox’s The Iron Horse the year after and, especially, another Fox picture, the early talkie The Big Trail, filmed in 1929, were enormously expensive, and they depended on bringing in large numbers of adults who were not habitually Western-goers. The Big Trail, particularly, nearly broke Fox. It was released just as the Great Depression hit, audiences stayed away and the picture lost money massively. It nearly dragged the studio under. RKO’s big picture Cimarron, made in 1930, released in 1931, lost half a million dollars on its $1.4 m budget. So for the rest of the 1930s Westerns would be kiddie-fodder or low-budget one-hour flicks released largely in the Mid-West, and the big studios and big stars steered well clear. The studios and theaters needed cheap fillers, and Westerns were well placed to be that.
Making The Iron Horse
At the end of the decade, though, the big Western came back into vogue, and all the majors started hiring well-known directors and glitzy stars to make one. In 1939 Warners put Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in the color Dodge City (Michael Curtiz), Paramount starred Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in Union Pacific (Cecil B DeMille), Universal released Destry Rides Again (George Marshall) with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, Fox put out the Technicolor Jesse James (Henry King) with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, and of course John Ford used Wayne again in United Artists’ Stagecoach. Budgets were back (these were all million dollar + pictures except Stagecoach, costed at $531,000) and the result was thousands of adults waiting in line round the block to see these hugely popular films.
But it was all a risk. The public’s taste was fickle. They might go and see a Western this year but pooh-pooh the genre the year after. And with so much money being laid out the studios didn’t take the decision to make a Western lightly.
There were reliable, bankable Westerns. The 1940s was the heyday of the singing cowboy, with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers especially very popular, The Outlaw (started in 1940 but released in 1943) brought sex into the Western, and The Ox-Bow Incident (though not a big box-office success, it received critical acclaim) introduced the serious, thoughtful, somber and the bleak into the form. Suddenly Westerns were saying something, and weren’t just shoot ‘em ups. The genre was adapting, and responding to public taste. The end of the decade brought us the psychological and noir Westerns that are still today some of the finest examples of the genre.
Hughes used Russell to bring sex to the Western
The most expensive Western of the 1940s was Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946), which cost a substantial $6m to make but which sold an astonishing 51 million tickets and made $20.4m at the box-office.
Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck on the set of the extraordinary Duel in the Sun
In many ways the 1950s were the golden age of the Western. Attendances went up at all kinds of Western movie, juvenile, adult, singing, and so on. Studios produced dozens every year. At the mid-point of the decade, for example, 1955, of a total of 2,050 movies released, eighty-seven were Westerns (4.2% of the total) according to IMDb - more than seven a month. Actually, I think it might have been even more than that: I’m not sure the IMDb list is complete.
The Tall Men (a dreary Western in my view) was among the top grossing films of 1955, making $4.2m (but The Lady and the Tramp grossed $66m!) ‘Average’ oaters that year, such as, say, Randolph Scott Westerns like A Lawless Street at Columbia or Tall Man Riding at Warners, pulled in less than that but were still profitable enterprises - Tall Man Riding grossed a healthy $1.4m. We'd call these mid-budget Westerns.
Big box-office hit of 1955
In 1959 John Wayne finally got to make his longed-for movie The Alamo (released 1960). United Artists fronted $2.5 million in return for distribution rights if Wayne’s company Batjac would match it. The Texan millionaires Wayne had lined up kicked in several millions and Wayne dropped in $1.2m of his personal wealth. Work started on a giant set near Fort Clark, TX. A stone Alamo was built. A 14,000-foot runway and 14 miles of roads were put in. Wells were dug and dikes built. At the height of the production around 2500 people were living and working in the area. The cost was staggering. Wayne didn’t seem to care. On September 9, 1959 production began.
Making The Alamo
Wayne knew that The Alamo needed to gross $17 million to make any money. It made $8m. With later sales abroad, and TV rights, it did eventually just about break even but by then Batjac had sold its interest to pay debts and Wayne had made a stinging loss. Westerns were not always reliable earners…
In more recent times, Heaven’s Gate in 1980 famously cost $44m to make as director/writer Michael Cimino seemed to throw financial caution to the winds. This dwarfs even Duel in the Sun: the inflation adjuster I mentioned gives Duel’s $6m 1946 dollars as $25.4m in 1980 values. But unlike Duel, Heaven’s Gate was a massive flop on release. After a sparsely attended one-week run, Cimino and United Artists pulled the film, completely postponing a full worldwide release. It had grossed only $3.5m. Transamerica Corporation, United Artists' corporate owner, abandoned film production altogether, selling United Artists to Kirk Kerkorian, who also owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which effectively ended UA's existence as an independent studio. The picture also had a catastrophic effect on the Western, as studios shied like unbroken broncs at the very idea of making another.
No expense spared
Still today studios have to be very wary. In the 1990s, Dances with Wolves grossed $184.2m on release for a budget of $19m, and since then it has gone one to make over 400 million dollars, so that went well for Costner, but more recently Disney's 2013 The Lone Ranger, for example, cost something in the region of $250m to make, with an additional $150m in marketing costs, and grossed 'only' $89,302,115 in the US (though it recouped losses significantly on worldwide release). A-Westerns are still a risky business.
This graphic (from BoxOfficeMojo.com) is interesting.
It appears that recent Westerns are making money alright, as long as they keep production costs to a million bucks or less.
Of course they are worth every cent.