No Big Budget Films for ‘District 9’ Director

Neill BlomkampAvatar is getting a lot of fanfare at the moment. As it passes the $700 Million mark, people can’t help but wonder if it will go on to beat The Dark Knight’s billion dollar box office take. However, as huge as Avatar is, I still maintain there was a much better film about aliens this year, District 9 (which, incidentally made it onto Chris’ Best Films of 2009 list).

With only an estimated $30 Million budget, District 9 made over $200 million worldwide.  Sure, that doesn’t hold a candle to Avatar’s current numbers, but keep in mind James Cameron’s epic cost well over $250 Million. Probably more when you factor in marketing expenses. Given that, District 9 could be considered just as successful.

One might think that with such success District 9 director Neill Blomkamp would be eager to take on a film the likes of  Avatar. His stance is quite the opposite, however.  Speaking with the L.A. Times, Blomkamp expressed little to no interest in high budget filmmaking, citing reluctance to bend to studio demands:

“That’s exactly right and that’s precisely the reason I don’t want to do high-budget films. I’ve said no already to doing the Hollywood movie thing with big budgets. And that is the exact reason.”

The “exact reason” Blomkamp is speaking of is the recent trend of studios emulating other films instead embracing original content:

“We seem to be in a place now where filmmakers make films based on other films because that’s where the stimuli and influence comes from…And that’s my goal, really, is not to draw from other films in terms of the overall inspiration and stimuli. You can in terms of design and tone and stuff, certainly, but not in terms of the idea and the genesis of that idea.”

I have to say this is refreshing to hear. Since Avatar‘s debut I, along with some other critics, have stated the film’s story was grossly juvenile. It drew from a plethora of other movies, all of which did a better job telling the story Avatar tried to. However, this shortcoming, while widely recognized, is being given a pass simply because Avatar‘s special effects are so good.

The irony in all this is that the special effects in District 9 were equally as good but far more subtle. While Avatar created a vast new environment, the entire world of Pandora, District 9 worked with a real world, our world.  Blomkamp seamlessly blended aliens into Johannesburg,  South Africa and had them interact with real actors.

This nuanced approach was a far greater achievement than Cameron’s creation of an entire computer generated world. In short, Cameron is being credited for making us watch a glorified video game. Nothing I haven’t already seen in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (and that came out nine years ago).

Another interesting point to address between these two films is the monetary one. It’s easy to claim Avatar as the greater success given the high ticket sales.  However, considering District 9′s shoe-string budget (by Hollywood standards) and hefty return on investment, I would challenge that Blomkamp’s film had greater gains.

Having just come out of a financial meltdown, studios have to optimize their cash flow moving forward. Sure, Avatar turned out to be a huge success but it also represented an enormous risk given the money involved.  When weighing future projects a $30 Million loss, while not good, is easier to stomach then a $250 Million one.  Studios can’t simply throw a vast amount of money at a project and hope they get it back these days.

Blomkamp himself said it best:

“As long as whoever put up the money for it got their money back and a little bit of profit that was good enough. It wasn’t like some completely capitalistic machine – it was ‘Get a return on your investment and let me be creative.’ That was the goal. I never want to be ruled by the size of the profit, that’s not how I approach it.”

For a time I thought District 9 (as well as Paranormal Activity) may have convinced Hollywood of this new business model (low budget, high return). With less money to work with more emphasis would have to be put on the story itself.  Avatar’s release may have undermined all that. Too bad because it will galvanize the notion that as long as a movie looks pretty quality storytelling doesn’t matter.

  • James Joyce III
    January 5, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    Thank you for this insightful look. I had a very similar thought(s), though your brevity is admirable.

    An excerpt:

    Movies have come a long way since The Birth of a Nation, which was arguably the first Hollywood blockbuster. In 1915 when that movie was made it cost the equivalent of about $2.2 million to produce. Now the average cost of a Hollywood film continues to climb over $100 million. That is just a shadow of the more than $300 million that is estimated to have gone into the production of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s also estimated that about $150 million was put towards the marketing of Avatar. And in the opening weekend along the movie brought in $232 million, so obviously there is big business in making movies.

    Anymore it seems as if studios are putting out products that are just good enough for a theater run, with the anticipation of the shaking money maker — DVD sales.
    Bonus features. Director’s cut. Unrated. Deleted scenes. Alternate endings. It’s all a lure to get you to fork over $10 to see the movie in theaters, but then turn around and pay another $18 to watch the same movie on your own time, but oh (throwing my hands in the air waiving them like Mrs. Beasley praising his name) there are these extra frills for you too. There it is, the engine propelling the vicious cycle.
    Simply put; it doesn’t pay to make a good movie. It just pays to make a movie.

    • Bob Starr
      January 10, 2010 at 5:55 am

      @ James, Those are very insightful comments you’ve added to this conversation. Thank you very much for writing them up. Now…I have to get out of here before the Avatar fans realize I’m back 😉

  • Watch Ninja Assassin Online
    January 3, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    you can watch it at http://avatar.onlineforfree.net

    they make you do one of those survey things but after that it’s good to go

  • Bob Starr
    January 3, 2010 at 5:59 am

    @Shc, No problem at all in responding to comments. Everyone at The Flickcast values the input of our readers and wants to engage people as much as we can. I know I haven’t been able to respond to every comment made but have tried to respond to the one’s most directly
    related to the original post.

    That being said, let me try and get a final word in on this before I move onto other posts (which I’m sure could draw just as much fire).

    As for my Final Fantasy remark. My reference to this was simply to draw out the fact I know computer effects can be great. I saw it with Final Fantasy years ago. As such, when viewing Avatar it wasn’t really a surprise that Cameron could create such a fantastic world. It looked awesome, and it should have given the advancement in technology.

    As for the the comment about emotions made by Shc, they’re right, I felt very little for the characters in Avatar. There was not a single moment where I thought anyone was in peril and given the predictable nature of the script there was no sense of urgency. I’d get into more details about this but don’t want to risk spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen Avatar yet.

    Again, I felt District 9 did a better job putting characters in danger and making you believe it. I was able to develop a more emotional rapport with Sharlto Copley’s character then I could with Sam Worthington’s because of this. Even as the main character there were moments I thought Copley could actually get killed.

    Alright, I know you all want to hear me say, “You were right, I was wrong.” Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. My statements about Avatar still stand. I know, “Booo…hiss!” to me. That’s not to say I haven’t learned something from all this feedback though.

    Based on the comments, perhaps these films can’t (or shouldn’t) be compared as apples-to-apples. While both dealt with aliens and our associations with them there were clearly different visions at work here. In that it seems it’s the differences, rather than the similarities, that make each of these films uniquely enjoyable.

    Again, thanks for all the amazing comments! You’ve given everyone a lot to think about, me included. Thanks for being such dedicated Flickcast readers and taking the time to add your thoughts to this conversation.

  • Shc
    January 2, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Hey Bob Starr,

    just wanted to say thanks for the reply.
    Rare to see article author to reply to user comments!

    I disagree about the risk, and I disagree even more when people say “Avatar is just about visual effects”.

    James Cameron’s movies have always been about emotions.
    It heavily heavily relies on it.
    If a James Cameron movie doesn’t make you cry, he messed up.

    If you didn’t feel it, you won’t like Avatar.
    If you felt it, you would think its one of the best movies ever.

    And that is why James Cameron did put story over visuals.
    And whoever thinks he put visuals over story means they did not FEEL it. If you did not feel amazed by Pandora, you won’t feel a damn thing for the Home Tree’s death. If you were really really amazed, you will cry for Home Tree.

    And that pretty much sums up the reason why Titanic is loved by so many and hated by others. If you don’t FEEL it, you won’t get it.

    Avatar managed quite successfully to hit those tones. That’s also why James Horner is the music composer. He’s probably the one that emphasizes the most on “emotional songs”.

    This “E M O T I O N S” is the EXACT reason why James Cameron is so successful in his movie. He takes something completely universal and applies to his movie.

    D9 had horrible reviews in Japan and South Korea, but excellent in North America and U.K. Less than half (40% I think) of D9’s income is worldwide while 2/3 of Avatar’s income is worldwide.

    That’s why Dark Knight can only barely reach 1 billion $ even with 530 million $ domestic. The psychopath story goes well with North American culture, but less with other countries. Its not compatible with that many countries.

    D9 is much more 18+ male oriented, while Avatar is 8-50 male/female.

    So coming back to my original point:
    They are just really different movies with different aims. Feel free to compare them, but just know that if D9 had a 300 million $ budget with the “same level of visual aweness” as Avatar, it would have failed because it doesn’t have any universal appeal. I would even argue that women loved Avatar much more than men (yet Avatar was advertised as “sci-fi war”)

    Both of these movies accomplished big based on their goals.

  • menimar
    January 2, 2010 at 10:05 am

    don’t understand the comparing! D9 was good but were you actually seating down in avatar getting agitated coz the story didn’t move you to where you kid yourself that you’re going to change your ways from then on!?!

    if that’s the case then let me begin with duncan jones’s feature killing D9 with story and originality, acting and your budget theory.

    stories get regurgitated in the same sense as music with there tunes like how the departed was branded as “an american classic” which was a straight out rip off of infernal affairs and it didn’t do justice to the original. So over 1/3 of avatar audience will get into the story coz they haven’t seen dances with the wolves.

    Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within wasn’t ground breaking it was just re-rendered graphics from the game but for the time you should have said reign of fire. but please tell me what game has what avatar had coz i’m blowing money on games which story make the final destination look like the good fellas but good graphics, not the so called good money that at price of few glasses of scotch no way near gave me the buzz that avatar had done.

    see my comparing getting anywhere, no.
    so quit bitching and showing people how intellectual you are and just admit that cameron gave you a good time.

  • frothygirl/shannon hood
    January 2, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Hey Bob,

    As I said, great write up. I think what is really bothering me the most about everyone giving this film a “pass” on story and dialogue is that it is a slippery slope, especially when you are a movie reviewer/critic. There is no way we can all be %100 objective when we see movies, but we should make every effort to bring our personal prejudices to the attention of the audience/readers. I have a lot more respect for a review who says, “yeah, I know that it has some problems, but I really liked it,” rather than toting the movie as the end all be all.

    I also think that once you give this film a pass, you have to start giving other films a pass also, which defeats the whole purpose of film criticism. When I was arguing with a male friend about why I was not giving avatar a perfect score, I pointed out that yes, it is beautiful, but the dialogue and story were cliched and lacking.

    I also thought Rob Marshall’s “Nine” was visually spectacular and beautiful. Do I give its lack of story a pass as well? If just sets a bad precedent. I think we all need to be consistent with our criticism, particularly when we are trying to inform an audience.

  • nick
    January 2, 2010 at 6:15 am

    I find it really funny how everyone says that Avatar story is painfully bad and cliched, while at the same time saying how awesome D9 was. they are so fucking similar when u think about it, just one had a gritty low budget approach and the other one had a more neat ‘hollywood’ look to it. they both had pretty much the same amount of characterization, actually avatar might win there. i dont know why everyone thinks if a story isnt totally original then its no good. some of the best movies out there have very similar stories

  • Bob Starr
    January 2, 2010 at 5:53 am

    @Micah, Thank you for that fantastic, well reasoned response. Those are all valid points and I think it sums up the difference between these two films perfectly.

  • Micah
    January 2, 2010 at 5:31 am

    “Painfully archetypal story, terrible dialogue and acting…”

    Sounds remarkably like all 6 Star Wars movies. Yet the general consensus, which I agree with, is that they are great movies (yes, I think the first 3 episodes are just as good as the earlier ones; shock, horror). In my opinion, this is because they are based on very generic archetypes which all people can relate to. Wrap these ideas in a pretty package and its something that most of the movie going public will enjoy. Immerse them in ground-breaking technology and a meticulously detailed fantasy world and you have something amazing.

    Was District 9 a great, even brilliant, film? Undoubtedly; I absolutely loved it and was buzzing for days after seeing it. Is Avatar my favourite movie? No. But you simply cannot say that its much weaker than District 9 because its story isn’t as good. Lets face it, the story isn’t as good. But that’s missing the point. If they were books, hands down D9 would and should be considered better. But the movies provide us with a level of escapism and voyeurism that is unique to books, and a movie’s critical “success” should not be solely judged on its script.

    D9 has a better script and story, but Avatar is in an entirely different league when it comes the joy and pleasure of returning to the days of your childhood when the imagination was unfettered. District 9 was a pleasure to watch and made me think and question, but so have many other movies. Avatar simply blew me away and left me weak-kneed from awe. This is something that is very, very rare.

  • Bob Starr
    January 2, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Man, you guys are relentless 😉 That’s a good thing though.

    From LasseK: “No, Avatar is does not have an original story, but it provides an original cinematic experience, and that makes it the best SF-film of 2009.” Thank you for proving my point.

    I know it’s old but Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was ground breaking at the time. No one had ever seen computer graphics on that level before. Avatar had the same effect for me. The effects were over the top, it just didn’t have the story to keep me interested in them.

    I also stand by my video game comment. We spent a considerable amount of time watching Jake “level up” in his new environment until he was skilled enough to fight the “boss” at the end of the movie. I kept expecting someone to grab a game controller and enter: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A.

    Rest assured I’m certainly not faulting anyone for liking Avatar. I’m simply bringing up issues that nobody else seems to want to talk about. Moreover, all your comments have been great and given all our readers something to think about. Even this “District 9 fan”.

    • Justin Jump
      January 2, 2010 at 11:28 am

      But that’s not what you said in the article. In your article you did not say that you “felt the same” as when you saw Final Fantasy. You clearly said that what you saw in Avatar was no different than what you saw in Final Fantasy. And you know that isn’t true.

      District 9 is great but it’s not without it’s problems, same with Avatar. It kinda sucks that you can’t enjoy them both for what they are.

  • lxkeem
    January 2, 2010 at 2:38 am

    District 9 is a good movie,
    and one of the most overrated films, as well.

    But I loled reading your article, where you compared 2 films.
    I think this article fits better with Rotten Tomatoes kinda sites.
    That is where movies like District 9 has a higher ratings than true masterpieces like Jurassic park, Avatar etc 🙂 L.O.L.

  • LasseK
    January 2, 2010 at 2:32 am

    I thought District 9 was an awesome film (though not as original as people make it out to be – it is essentially a man-on-the-run film in unusual settings) but it doesn’t come close to the experience I had watching Avatar. In terms of immersion into another world(for me,one of film’s primary tasks) Avatar is perhaps the greatest prodcut since Lord of the Rings.

    No, Avatar is does not have an original story, but it provides an original cinematic experience, and that makes it the best SF-film of 2009.

  • Daniel
    January 2, 2010 at 1:58 am

    I’ve stopped reading after the part where you called Avatar “a glorified video game”. I did enjoy District 9 and thought it was excellent, but the sheer scope of Avatar is something unseen and unheard of before. Avatar was more than a movie, it was an experience, while District 9 was simply an excellent movie, one of the best sci-fi of recent years. Give credit when credit’s due.

    • lxkeem
      January 2, 2010 at 2:39 am

      Daniel, don’t bother. He’s a District 9 fan. Case closed. lol

  • Justin Jump
    January 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Like or dislike Avatar, but saying it had nothing, visually, that you hadn’t seen already in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is so wrong it’s silly.

    I loved Avatar, and I’m not in any way condemning you for disliking it, it’s all a matter of opinion, but come on. That statement is retarded.

  • jim jones
    January 1, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Cameron’s worked with all budget sizes. 6 mill for the first terminator, so please give me a break. He’s earned his stripes. Blomkamp’s just starting out.

  • Bob Starr
    January 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Wow! When I wrote this I hadn’t considered this kind of response. So, let me say thanks for all the great comments everyone has left on the matter. You guys know your stuff and your opinions are greatly appreciated!

    Let me start by addressing the fanboy remark from Shc. Yeah, I can be a huge fanboy when I want to be but this isn’t one of those occasions. If I were I’d be going on at length about how great Avatar is, but I’m not.

    As for Henry’s comment about 98,000 people not knowing crap about movies, I absolutely can believe that.

    That said, keep in mind I’m known for writing articles from an adversarial perspective. I get all cantankerous because it helps stimulate debate (this post proves that). I can also be an opinionated jerk. However, I recognize the fact there’s no right or wrong answer here. There never is in film. Everything is subjective.

    I do maintain that Avatar was an enormous risk even if they didn’t greenlight a $300 million budget up front. Going in they knew this was a huge investment in technology and that doesn’t come cheap. So, even if Cameron was only given $10 million up front, I have no doubt the accountants knew this was going to be a costly venture over the course of production. With every dollar that went into it the risk increased. As smart as we want to think Hollywood producers are nothing is a sure thing (e.g. Speed Racer).

    The real concern for me is the weakness of the script (Justin’s remarks hit the nail on the head). Worse yet, critics are practically ignoring the fact the script was crap simply because of the effects. That’s not an exaggeration either. I can’t tell you the number of reviews I’ve read which lambasted the story and dialogue but still gave the film huge praise because of how magnificent it looked.

    What we’re witnessing is the degradation of story. It’s been bad enough with all the remakes but this takes things to another level. Cameron wrapped a poorly written script in unbelievable eye candy and successfully sold it to the masses. Good for him and the studios, bad for us. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, Transformers 1 and 2, Avatar, all really bad scripts hidden behind glossy effects and stunts. Are we seriously willing to pay good money to watch special effects demo reels?

    What District 9 did was give us a compelling story with really good special effects. While the short film it was based on may have been superior in that iteration the feature was good in fleshing out a very specific idea. Of course it had to encompass some stereotypical sci-fi moments but it did so without sacrificing the overall tale. Blomkamp never forgot he was making a movie.

    In contrast Avatar spent a ridiculous amount of time showing off. Cameron, so amazed by his own fake world, gave us many heavy-handed scenes that played like a travel documentary to a destination we could never visit. We were left waiting for his indulgence over Pandora to pass before we finally got back to why we were there-to watch a movie.

    There is an interesting dichotomy occurring with this debate though. Whether you hated Avatar or loved it we all stand firmly on common ground; we’re passionate about film and want movies to be the best they can be. In that everyone is right.

    Thanks again for the great comments, you guys rock!

  • Shc
    January 1, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    And one last thing:

    To say that Avatar is vastly more of a risk based on its budget is also wrong. You have to examine HOW Fox managed to write its cheques to James Cameron. If they greenlighted him a 300 million $ from the very onset, then yes, it is a huge risk. But what studios do is give 10 million $ to give them a testing, then another batch of 30 million $ to develop the mocap and the new tech, then another batch…. rince and repeat.

    To come back to the stocks analogy. I invest in bio stocks, but I always put it in batches. Say I’l put 1k in HGSI initially… as more news are out and I do even more research, if I see there’s a lot of potential and profitability, I’l increase it thus mitigating the risk.

    By the time it exceeded 125 million $, the 3D images were proven to its now “glorified” state.
    Fox Studios are not stupid as you think they are :P.

    Anyway, again. I’m not taking anything away from D9’s success. I just think these articles need to be less short-sighted in their analysis.

    🙂

    • Justin
      January 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm

      I agree. I actually think Avatar was a safe bet, and they made sure of it with their marketing. But you know, District 9 had a pretty aggressive marketing campaign too, which might explain its hefty returns. The bottom line is a movie studio can sell you any movie they want to. They just have to WANT to. This is where a lot of those smaller films get left behind.

  • aloha
    January 1, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Everyone has an opinion, You give James Cameron 30 million I guarantee you he can make a great movie. JC track record is pretty amazing. Titanic, Aliens, Abyss n Terminator “thats real world w Aliens.” Dont hate the player hate the game.. Movie people are alot smarter and they want to be entertain. They have the final say because they pay for it!! Sorry

  • Shc
    January 1, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Same genre, maybe even same message.

    Very different movies and very different goals.
    To say that District 9 is a better financially is wrong. They are incredibly different. The problem with 30 million dollar is: for every District 9 success story, you have 10 others that failed miserably.

    The studios know this.
    Don’t get me wrong, D9 was a great success.
    But the whole point I’m saying is you can’t really compare them financially because they have different endpoints.
    I can invest in penny stocks, bio stocks, bank stocks, large diversified stocks (e.g: GE). They are all different in their own rights with their own risks. I consider a 10% gain in large diversified stocks to be a HUGE win, while a 10% gain in penny stocks to be a very meager gain. Different goals, different gains.

    And its clear what James Cameron want to achieve: he wants to change the next generation of the world. He’s not going to say it out loud, but he’s founding elementary schools that are his vision of the world. The aim is beyond cinematic.

    Coming from a guy who loved both movies, but hates this nerd fanboyism (which I think the author of this article is doing)

  • L. Duderino
    January 1, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Hi Bob,

    District 9 has a truly original subtext for the first 20 minutes. Then Blomkamp seems to forget about it and turns District 9 into, ironically, a wannabe action/sci-fi of the ’80s. Kind of a cross between Verhoeven and, ahem, James Cameron.

    • Justin
      January 1, 2010 at 3:00 pm

      I loved District 9, but I will agree with that point. Blomkamp based this on a short film he did, and while I haven’t seen it, I can imagine it focused on the subtext and not the action. It seems like he was unsure of how to flesh the concept out into feature length and chose a “safer” route. That said, I’m anxious to see what he does with the story for the sequel and I hope it gets back on track, because there are a lot of intriguing concepts yet to be explored in this world he has created.

  • Justin
    January 1, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    If they are suggesting that Avatar is a vastly superior film to, say, To Kill a Mockingbird or The Graduate or even Magnolia (which are all much lower in the IMDB rankings) then, yes, I’d say they’re morons.

    • Justin
      January 1, 2010 at 2:31 pm

      Also, I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that Transformers 2 is complete rubbish as a movie, yet it was the second highest grossing film of 2009. The fact is, people really don’t know much about film, nor do they care to. I just find it sad that someone like James Cameron, who has the talent to take storytelling more seriously, doesn’t. He describes Avatar as the movie he’s wanted to see since he was 14, and unfortunately it is stuck in that mentality. Luckily for him, so is the rest of the country.

  • Henry
    January 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I don’t know it seems 98,000 other people on the IMDB ratings system liked Avatar.. I guess they are morons who don’t know crap about movies. Yeah that’s it. All 98,000 and counting.

  • tommy
    January 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    District 9 was a great movie. But Avatar is out of that league, is a GIGANTIC CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE!

  • Justin
    January 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for not letting me be the only person to negatively review Avatar! Painfully archetypal story, terrible dialogue and acting. I feel like James Cameron wrote one version of this script after “Titanic” and said, “The technology hasn’t caught up yet, no need to improve the script until that happens.” Then in 2005 he blew the dust off it and proceeded without so much as a cursory glance at the crap he was actually putting forth.

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