Why Don't Studios Give Spike Lee More Money?

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 movieespecially 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.      

Your Comment

13 Comments

His movies are mostly aimed at the American black community, so he's market is target at 13% of the American population. Thats why he is getting lower budgets. That is how a business works.

June 19, 2020 at 11:58AM

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Pignose Dennis
Camerapig
100

Agree but after seeing his commitment to the film medium in Da 5 Bloods I'm more excited than ever to his next film.

June 19, 2020 at 2:14PM

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TJ
93

"Commitment to the film medium" is not a business statement. It does not equal bringing in a lot of audience.

June 25, 2020 at 12:48PM

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Matt Pacini
Writer/Director/Composer
136

His target audience hasn't changed since he started in the '80s though. The only change is Hollywood's stronger focus on producing movies for international markets with strong IP and franchise potential. A lot of directors and producers targeting mainstream audiences are unemployed altogether for that reason.

June 21, 2020 at 7:48AM

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Franky
13

I can't tell if this is trolling or just another very poorly reasoned article by NFS's weakest link. While the implication of this article seems to be trying to ride wave of some news fad, the reality is that Lee is an independent filmmaker in an age where independent filmmakers are less valued by the masses. In the 90's independent movies were all the rage and were fairly mainstream. Slowly that trend switched back to your big blockbusters being preferred by millenial masses. The switch to disposable superhero trash vs an original story is 100% about making money. If Lee really wanted to do Black Panther movies, they would probably let him, but it would probably be bad for both. Lee is an artsy, creative, and provocative independent filmmaker. He would add elements that confuse the generic fanbase that eats up superhero punching stuff trash. He would also probably be bored. Anyway the issue of course is mainly just money. Look at the box office numbers and you have your answer. If Lee's movies made as much consistently as say Madea Goes to Jail, he would probably get a bigger budget. Mo money, mo problems though, so if he has a bigger budget, he has more responsibility to make more money. As to why Lee doesn't get as much as Scorsese, Lee would probably be the first one to tell you he is not Scorsese.

June 19, 2020 at 2:15PM

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Jake
621

He does well for himself and can easily finance movies either on his own or get people to help him. Also he’s NOT the greatest person either.

If you want to be supportive of African American film makers Why not give money to other other African American film makers instead? Quality ones that perhaps can be the next spike lee. Spike Lee doesn’t need any help that’s my point and this whole article is a wasted argument.

June 19, 2020 at 5:13PM, Edited June 19, 5:14PM

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Do you know him personally?

June 20, 2020 at 7:23AM

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Paolo Mugnaini
Director/DP/Editor
234

Because he is black and more often than not talks about the black experience in the USA and white people do not like to be reminded of how racist and oppressive this nation has been and continues to be to black and overall minorities.

June 20, 2020 at 7:17AM

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Paolo Mugnaini
Director/DP/Editor
234

Nope. You could not be more wrong. Where are you getting this terrible information that you posted here? Ever heard of 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight, Crash, Driving Miss Daisy, and Green Book? Those are all modern Oscar winning movies that only focus on "black experience in the USA and how racist and oppressive this nation has been". There is huge money in the genre and Hollywood seems to be milking it more than ever before. Go see some movies and educate yourself better.

June 24, 2020 at 1:11PM

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Jake
621

NFS should start another website for all of these cool political articles. I hate digging through articles about film technique and new gear reviews to find them.

June 20, 2020 at 2:10PM

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Spike Lee’s cousin gets bigger budgets than Spike because his films have made wayyy more profit while Spike’s films have failed to break even over 85% of the time. From an investment standpoint, Spike is still seen as a dice roll strictly from a business standpoint.

June 22, 2020 at 10:12AM, Edited June 22, 10:12AM

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June 25, 2020 at 3:22AM, Edited June 25, 3:22AM

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Simple:
1. His movies do not make much money. His appeal is to a small, niche audience.
2. He's a pain in the ass to work with. That 'angry guy who takes no sh*t from anyone" does not bid well when you're trying to convince an investor to back your movie, rather than invest in some other business with an infinitely greater chance of ROI.

June 25, 2020 at 12:50PM

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Matt Pacini
Writer/Director/Composer
136