So much myth about the $44 million cost of Cleopatra has been bandied around since its June, 1963 premiere that you’d think someone would try to figure it out. Even now, on the Internet, there are claims it cost $60 million, without referencing inflation. Fox rather quietly printed a saner budget when it gave the movie a deluxe DVD release in 2001: in a six page booklet included with the disc of Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, a rational cost of $35 million is revealed. That suggests, at first glance, $9 million was originally added to the budget, likely Fox overhead—TV productions, Marilyn Monroe’s unfinished Something’s Got to Give, miscellaneous administrative costs. That revised budget could also indicate that Fox subtracted the $6.5 million by insurances companies for the London filming, and the British government’s estimated $2.5 million payout for union labor. We don’t know if these two separate sums were parts of the process to punch up the original total to $44 million. (If we deduct overhead and insurance payments, we’re talking a budget of $26 million.) Whatever the realistic assessment of cost, it still makes the epic the costliest movie made up to that time, and bait for the press to incessantly splash about. The world-wide coverage of the infamy of the Liz & Dick affair and the movie’s troubled making guaranteed early high returns without massive advertising dollars; from June through December 31, 1963 via roadshow engagements Cleopatra reportedly collected a record-breaking $24 million in rentals. When the subsequent and ruinous “popular prices” version was released, Fox ended up spending a reported $13 million on ads to stem the receding tide of viewership. Fox did something else too—it circumvented around the budget and b.o. totals, permitting opportunity for craftiness by allowing the damning assessment to spread that the $24 million b.o. figure (unchanged by Variety for years ) labeled it a bomb and bombs usually get special considerations in write offs, deferrals and credits. Complicated, if not Byzantine, and all perfectly legal if the accounting passes forensics. The lawsuit Fox filed against Liz and Burton for $50 million in April, 1964, might have been noticed by the IRS and not for its allegations—that the couples’s reckless personal behavior ruined the box office. Arousing interest was Fox having reported that, as of April, 1964, Cleopatra grossed $29.75 million in a 148 cities in 31 countries, from which Liz contractually received $20 million. How’s that again? Even with her contract as actress giving her the supposed million dollars plus perks and 10% of the gross, and even with the much less known additional contracts she signed as holder of the producing company MCL, as partner in Walwa Films, plus the fees she’d get as benefactress of TODD AO she inherited a chunk of when husband Mike Todd died, the compensation package, upfront or not, overshadows common sense and becomes accounting fantasy. If no one’s too sure where the publicized figure of $7.5 million as Liz’s share of the pie came from, it sounds closer to reality than Fox’s. Not until selling airing rights to ABC for $5 million (in installments starting in 1966 for a 1971 airing) did Fox report the movie went into the black and was making a slight profit. What portion of that did Liz get? Box Office Mojo lists the following updated results: as of June, 2013, Cleopatra earned a domestic take of nearly $58 million, and internationally $14 million. The domestic number doesn’t sound as if it’s been adjusted for inflation. But the same skepticism that greeted Fox’s long stagnant U.S. figures should greet the non-USA total. If the movie has earned roughly $72 million, what’s Liz’s take? She was proud to boast, “The movie never lost a dime.” Fox vs Liz and Richard Burton was resolved out of court and apparently amicably. Liz was also sued by a theatre chain in Oregon over the same charges of immoral behavior dampening box office. Paying a non-refundable $175,000 to Fox for the exclusive right to show Cleopatra, it bombed; wanting money back, the chain issued a subpoena to depose Liz for all the dirt. The court overseeing the matter sided with the plaintiff and demanded Liz’s appearance. She wasn’t having any of it, appealed and won. The famed Rivoli Theatre in N.Y. sued Fox in an effort to recover much of the $1,250,000 non-refundable it paid, claiming the studio didn’t live up to the promise of Cleopatra as a blockbuster. To this day we still don’t know how much it cost to make, how much it made at the box office world-wide, or how many millions Liz got for being a bad girl.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2017 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.