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production value   

Definition: Box office attributed to production as opposed to writing, acting and direction.

History: Production value was a concept theoretically inherent in Classic Hollywood’s dichotomy of feature films and B movies. However, star power and script quality were the factors by which moviegoers distinguished between the two. In the late 1930s, Warner Brothers’ “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), and MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Gone with the Wind” (1939) established color to be valuable for fantasy and epic spectaculars. Although the burning of Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind” did deliver Hollywood’s first color spectacle, this was not thought to contribute significantly to box office.

Motion Pictures vs. Television

Production ValueProduction value became a term of art in the 1950s when commercial television began undermining the motion picture industry’s bottom line. The onus was on production to make movies worth the cost and inconvenuience of admission to a theater. The studios' answer: Make fewer films in order to invest in big budget color epics. MGM led the way with “Quo Vadis” (1951), whose $7 million budget made it the most expensive movie ever made. The film became MGM’s biggest grossing movie after “Gone with the Wind” and inspired Hollywood spectaculars such as “The Robe” (1953), “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Ben-Hur” (1959), “Spartacus” (1960), “King of Kings” (1961), “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), "How the West was Won" (1962) and “Cleopatra” (1963)

These films embodied production elements not to be found in television programs:

  • Color (Not until the 1970s did color televisions outsell black-and-white televisions.),

  • Widescreen processes such as CinemaScope and Cinerama,

  • High-fidelity sound,

  • Casts of thousands in costume (“Quo Vadis” still holds the wardrobe record with 32,000 costumes.),

  • Elaborate sets, props and make-up,

  • Elaborate stunts,

  • Sountracks marketable as albums,

  • Exotic locations, and

  • Visual effects

Although prominent in Hollywood epics, the above elements were also increasingly embodied by other feature films. For instance, beginning in the 1950s, many of Hollywood’s most popular features were shot on locations abroad,  e.g., “Roman Holiday” (1953), “Mogambo” (1953), “Three Coins in Fountain” (1954), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “Lust for Life” (1956), “The Sun Also Rises” (1957), “Gigi” (1958), “It Started in Naples” (1960), “Come September” (1961), “Hatari” (1962), “The Pink Panther” (1963), “Charade” (1963), “The Yellow Rolls Royce” (1964), etc.  

The Bonanza of VFX and CGI

cgiA seminal feature film in the history of production value is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).  This film stars no-name actors performing a script of scant dialogue whose biggest part is that of a talking supercomputer. The film’s narrative owes as much to Kubrick the producer as it does to Kubrick the producer. Make-up, props and, above all, visual effects are this film’s true stars.   

Visual effects (VFX) and later computer-generated imagery (CGI) would combine to set new gold standards for production value. Leading the way would be Hollywood’s producer-directors, a growing breed that included George Lucas, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Bruckheimer, Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan. Visual effects were essential to the production of films such as “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” (1977), the initial trilogy of the Star Wars franchise, the Star Trek franchise, the Indiana Jones franchise, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), “The Abyss” (1989), etc.

The 1990s saw CGI pioneered by Pixar with the animated sensation “Toy Story” (1995) and by James Cameron in the epic “Titanic” (1997). Cameron would take CGI to a new level 12 years later with “Avatar” (2009), a blockbuster that has grossed almost $3 billion. Indeed, CGI has been behind the top grossing films of the new millennium. These include the Star Wars franchise, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit trilogy, the Harry Potter franchise, and Marvel Studios’ “The Avengers” (2012), “Iron Man 3” (2013), “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” (2015) and “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018). Today scores of companies, many of them multinational, contract with filmmakers to provide VFX and CGI. e.g., Industrial Light and Magic, Scanline VFX, Framestore and Weta Digital, to name but a few.

Related Terms:    above-the-line    Studio System   VFX   CGI   Three-strip Technicolor  

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