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 sort it out. Even now, on the Internet, there are claims it cost $60 million. The studio 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 more 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. Fox was paid $6.5 million by insurances companies for the London filming, and the British government insured the roughly $2.5 million paid for union labor constructing sets and making costumes, etc.; we don’t know if these sums were a part of the process to punch up the total to $44 million. Whatever the realistic assessment of true cost, it still makes the epic the costliest movie ever made up to that time, and bait for the press to constantly splash about. The world-wide coverage of the infamy of the Liz & Dick affair and the movie’s troubled making guaranteed high initial returns without a lot of advertising dollars; when the subsequent and ruinous cuts were made, Fox ended up spending a reported $13 million on ads to stem the receding tide of viewership. Fox did something else too—its circumvention on actual budget provided opportunity for crafty accounting. From June through December 31, 1963, via roadshow engagements, Cleopatra collected a record-breaking $24 million in rentals, but damning word was permitted to spread that the figure labeled it a bomb and bombs usually get special considerations in tax reductions, deferrals and credits. Complicated, if not Byzantine, and all perfectly legal if using verifiably documented figures. Not until Fox sold airing rights to ABC for $5 million (in installments starting in 1966 for a 1971 airing) did it report the movie went into the black and was making a slight profit. But in American and a few international cities the roadshow continued into the first six months of 1964—it played at L.A.’s Pantages for 72 weeks—and in the summer of ‘64 the 3 hour “popular prices, continuous performances” cut went into wide release, for runs of up to four weeks. Yet, from the beginning of 1964 to the end of 1969, during which the movie remained on screen in theatres throughout the world, there were no officially released figures to show revised b.o. results. For those years and many after Variety and other media counters kept the gross at $24 million. Of course, just the 1964 intake alone makes that impossible, to say nothing of the royalties Liz would continue to receive as proof of b.o. receipts. (A trifecta, she collected on her contract as actress, as holder of the producing company MCL and benefactress of TODD AO, the process—used for filming Cleopatra—she inherited a chunk of when husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane accident.) Box Office Mojo lists more reasonable updated results: as of June, 2013, Cleopatra earned a domestic take of nearly $58 million, and internationally $14 million. Those numbers don’t sound as if they’ve been adjusted for inflation. Nor is the total broken down by sources of gross, and the same skepticism that greeted Fox’s stagnant U.S. figures should greet the non-USA total. (B.O. Mojo also publishes the ballyhooed $44 million budget.) As Liz was proud to boast, “The movie never lost a dime.” When Fox attempted to sue her and Richard Burton over the purported loss of box office due to their scandalous behavior during the movie’s making, she was armed with financial and managerial incompetence memoranda that reportedly knocked cold the complainants who, hoping to null and void that trifecta, quietly dropped legal redress. She sorta pulled a Joan Crawford: “Don’t fuck with me, fellas.”
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