Why does Spike Lee not receive bigger budgets?
If you sat and watched Da 5 Bloods last week, you were treated with an inventive film steeped in history and trauma. It tells its story through multiple aspect ratios and timelines. It has a cast of interesting characters. It's deeply political, explores race and justice issues, all while taking us on a thrilling treasure hunt.
With a reported budget of $35–45 million, you'd think that was standard for Spike Lee, but it's actually one of the largest budgets he's dealt with in his 30+ year career.
Lee has delivered Award-worthy films, genre pieces, indie fodder, and some of the greatest movie moments of all time...but he's yet to be given the kind of money and leeway that someone like Martin Scorsese gets.
Both of them had Netflix films. Scorsese's budget was north of $160 million. Lee got around $40 million.
Lee had to fight to shoot sections of his movie in 16mm, Scorsese got to de-age 3 septuagenarians.
I hate pitting filmmakers against each other because I think it's unfair when the real "enemies" here are the studios. Filmmakers get penalized for bombs, but they also get penalized if studios think they serve niche audiences.
For far too long they have undervalued Lee's voice, casting, and pro-black mentality.
Sure, Da 5 Bloods is not blockbuster material, it's a contemplative study on generational trauma. But it's not like Lee doesn't know how to play the hits. Blackklansman, my favorite film of 2018, was made for a mere $15 million and returned $93 million at the worldwide box office. That's a massive hit.
Now, I don't want to lose Lee to studios... I like that he has room to chase his more challenging films. Even if I don't love them. And I especially want room for him to tell his more creatively daring stories like Chi-Raq or Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, but even if you look at filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, who you could argue has a more similar pathway to Lee than Scorsese, that guy did 3 Oceans movies.
So why are studios not clamoring for Lee?
Why is he fighting to get $45 million from Netflix?
Newton Thomas Sigel, the cinematographer for Da 5 Bloods, told The Playlist about some of the troubles they had with Netflix while shooting the movie—especially the 16mm scenes. “There was pushback because it opened up a lot of challenges,” Sigel said. “But Spike was pretty adamant. I would never have been able to do it without such fervent support from him.”
Lee didn’t originally plan the flashbacks to be shot on 16mm. Sigel suggested the use of the film so that it mirrored what soldiers saw on newsreels in that time.
“I think what really sold Spike on it was that this is what would have been used if a crew was there in Vietnam shooting during the war,” Sigel explained.
We don't have that many artists left like Lee. He's a trailblazer who has a lot to say. And I had hoped the rise in streamers would allow people like him to work through their passion projects and see if they have any more masterpieces to deliver.
Hopefully, the numbers behind Da 5 Bloods are great and Netflix lets him do whatever he wants next.
But you'd think the guy who can do both Malcolm X and Inside Man would get more love and bigger budgets.
Who knows, maybe the best is yet to come?
What's a franchise you want to see Spike Lee tackle?
Let us know in the comments.