First off, this weekend's "Pain & Gain" is shaping up to be a rousing financial success. Made for a relatively paltry $22 million, and with Michael Bay reportedly working for scale, it would seem this would be a case of a director returning to his roots – something to laud, appreciate, and ultimately reward. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and I'd like to break down the myriad reasons why Michael Bay entering the arena of low-budget cinema is a looming disaster.
1. $22 million is still an awful lot of money
The fascination with production budgets can be traced all the way back to "Ben Hur" in 1925, a film made for a now smallish-seeming $142 million (adjusted for inflation, natch). Then came "Cleopatra" which either cost $233 million or $325 million, depending on how you define budget and which source you're citing. Everyone remembers the "Waterworld" debacle, and even last year there was much hand-wringing around the sinking ship that was "John Carter". So it would be safe to say that production budgets have become a shorthand for expectations. Is this a huge summer tentpole a la "The Avengers" (made for $220 million)? Or is it an award-seeking fall drama looking to score with The Academy, something along the lines of "Black Swan" ($13 million)? Either way, you know where you stand.
Not so with "Pain & Gain" - a film looking for all the world like an action set piece, fast cars, ladies in bikinis, copious amounts of gun fire. All brought in for a reasonable price!
But there are only two outcomes here. The first one is that the film is horrible, everyone rolls their eyes, demanding Michael Bay go back to spending all the studio money he can get his hands on. This would make for a bummer of a weekend, but it wouldn't be half as troubling as the alternative. For what if "Pain & Gain" is awesome? Fun, fast, action-packed, adrenaline-fueled mayhem playing like the fondly remembered "Bad Boys"? That would mean Michael Bay has been stealing for the better part of two decades. Because it's one or the other - you can make a great film for a zillion dollars, because that's what it costs, or you can't, because greatness in the summer season costs money. The idea of a $22 million film that works on every level basically indicates sanctioned incompetence has ruled Hollywood ever since the '70s golden era ended. We'd all have to ask, "Where's the money, Michael Bay? Where's the money?"
But what of that noble deed that pushed down the budget, his smaller salary?
2. A 48-year old working below his pay grade isn't admirable, it artificially forces down all wages and destroys the leverage of the younger directors.
Now I know what you're saying, and let me disable you of a few notions straightaway. First off, could the technology have progressed to the point where huge budgets are no longer needed? Cameras are cheaper, they are handing out tax subsides for filmmaking as if they were Mentos, and frenetic handheld shots are cheap and en vogue. So perhaps Michael Bay needed almost $200 million for the third installment of "Transformers" but here, without CGI, he can afford to cut some corners?
However, even if I cede that point (which I don't), one of the ways Michael Bay brought in a cheaper movie was by paying himself scale. Scale, in this case, is around $100,000, not too shabby, but a far cry from the $40 million he made (overall) on "Pearl Harbor" and a pittance compared to the eight percent of all the "Transformers" toys sold he collects. Basically, Michael Bay can afford to work for nothing because he's worth an estimated $400 million. You know who can't afford to work for nothing? Directors just starting out. Directors who would kill for a budget of $22 million, directors who, once they've "made it" are hoping to cash in just once on a seven-figure payday. Michael Bay taking scale, likely with points on the back-end, is a luxury that about half a dozen people directing in Hollywood have.
Then there's this ludicrous argument that great artists should be willing to work for free, pay be damned, but this places all of the power in the hands of those who run commerce, and none in the hands of the artists. Michael Bay taking on "Pain & Gain" means there was one less chance for an aspiring director to get a job, and once they do get a job, they will be paid less. Bay could have easily, were he feeling charitable, handed out a huge gig to a director who showed promise, which would then allow that person to be choosy about his or her next project, meaning the next film down the road might have meant something to the individual.
In fact, Michael Bay is all too familiar with this method of farming out work, because he founded Platinum Dunes, and they specialize in horror remakes that come in costing around $20 million. Michael Bay is already out there cashing in on horror remakes (everyone loves those!) but now he's actively hurting the careers of those who will come afterward. I'm not even mad, I'm impressed.
But what of ...
3. The "Bad Boys" Conundrum
"Bad Boys" was made for something under $30 million in 1995. In 2003? "Bad Boys II" cost $130 million, meaning the cost of being bad and also boys quintupled. Might "Pain & Gain II" bring Michael Bay right back to a huge budget, rendering any slick nods toward more efficient filmmaking massively irrelevant? (don't take this too literally, as "Pain & Gain" isn't exactly the most sequel-friendly film Bay has made).
Then there is ...
4. The "change agent" aspect of indie film
We're only now starting to see the fruits of lean and mean filmmaking, crowd-sourcing, cheap high definition cameras and the de-localization of movie production pivoting out of Hollywood. "Pain & Gain" presents a serious challenge to all of that, however, in that studios don't need to change, don't need to recruit new talent, and will show very healthy financial statements by merely giving every established action director a few bucks to deliver rote entertainment with. In a very real sense, Hollywood's continued building up of budgets allows for the smaller filmmaking to stand out in juxtaposition, the vibrant ecosystem existing beneath the towering canopy jungle. If Michael Bay can deliver a profitable action film on the cheap, why do we need Sundance? The continued expectation of increased budget has made the wounds much deeper on the misses, which often necessitates firings, new blood, and encourages new ways of doing things. These "new" ways are often great news for audiences, because commercial art informs out culture, and culture is not a statue, it's a river. Mikey Bay wants to clog that river up!
Speaking of ...
5. "Pain & Gain" will likely be free of artistic merit
There's something to be said for the struggle of making the industry a healthier and more dynamic place. Young filmmakers are doing this, look no further than "Upstream Color" - a haunting film that cost $7,000 for Shane Carruth to make and delivered a more effective mood in the first ten minutes than all of Michael Bay's films put together. "Pain & Gain" costs much much more than "Upstream Color" and there's no reason we shouldn't have let 2,500 people attempt their own version of small-budget film. Yes, even at $22 million, "Pain & Gain" isn't really helping matters, it's still far too much money on a film we've all seen before, a film whose ceiling is something around the admittedly great "Three Kings" but with a floor around "The Big Hit".
While "Pain & Gain" might entertain you, there's very little chance it will add anything to the language of cinema. And for a $22 million outlay, that's a shame.
6. Critics will go easy on it.
This is being teed up for adoration. The headlines can already be predicted, "A fine return to form!" and "Efficient, spartan action filmmaking at its best!" Sigh. We'd just gotten to the point where people weren't going to put up with huge "Transformers" films that were terrible, but the process will have to start anew after the super-coddle Bay will be on the receiving end of this weekend.
7. The lessons of the "Transformers" franchise might be lost to history
There is a butterfly effect at work here as well. Simply put, we need Michael Bay to be terrible so that young persons will be inspired to do something better. If a teen in Wisconsin (mathematically, the next great young director will come from Wisconsin) sees "Pain & Gain" this weekend and loves it, we'll never know what he might have accomplished if subjected to "Transformers IV: The Quest for Robot Love." If there's no big inefficient spectacle to rail against, there's no frustration, and no reason for anyone to reach higher. Michael Bay is a living, breathing gift of a motivation for an industry that occasionally lapses into apathy.
Yes, in attempting to subsume lower budget fare, Michael Bay has fired a warning shot over the bow of any who would dare to oppose him. He has access to far more than the $22 million it cost to make "Pain & Gain", he could fund an army of these sorts of films, and his gain this weekend could lead to much more pain for all of us down the road, when the zombie apocalypse of copy-cat action films swarm the sky, blocking out the sun, a great and terrible financial engine grinding up those who would hope for better.
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism would kill for abs like Mark Wahlberg.