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I have seen on a million occasions that the actual figures are kept hidden. If a cheque is offered to a character, he often looks at it and says something along the lines of "That's a lot of money!" without ever revealing the actual amount.

Why do they never let the audience know the exact figure?

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I've never noticed this, can you give some examples? –  Liath Sep 14 '13 at 20:34
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Perhaps it's partly about inflation. What seems like a large amount of money when a movie is produced might not seem so big to viewers decades later. –  Keith Thompson Sep 15 '13 at 2:59
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Sometimes it's probably just lazyness. It saves the trouble to research what an appropriate amount would be, e.g. "Hey, here is your signing bonus?" - "How much is it?" - "Well, whatever is the right amount for a person in your line of work, in this particular city, in this particular year." - I guess being vague is less embarrassing than saying the wrong amount. –  Oliver_C Sep 15 '13 at 9:28
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Read this (related) answer movies.stackexchange.com/a/13002/3327. –  KeyBrd Basher Sep 16 '13 at 8:44
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@Liath - for an example, check out Monk - Season 8, Ep 10 - Mr. Monk and Sharona (I was coincidentally watching this last night). Sharona gets a settlement amount written on a piece of paper (which they do not disclose) and she thinks is a LOT of money. –  saurabhj Sep 17 '13 at 4:16

5 Answers 5

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Simply because every one has a different idea of what "a lot of money" is. And, unless the actual number is important to the plot, there's no need for the audience to know it.

If the movie is well written the audience will be emotionally attached to the character, so, for example, if that character is later handed a supposedly huge check for some reason and he/she gets all super excited about it, they will too. Now, imagine you show that number to the audience. If $1,000 is a life-changing amount to the character, the richer part of the audience might not be as excited as if it would've been $10,000, or maybe even $100,000, and that might make them feel less connected to the character.

Why not just put a huge amount on the check, then?

Well, depending on the reason why the character is given the check, such an amount might be unrealistic. The thing is, even if we know that the check couldn't possibly be bigger than $500, seeing the character jumping up and down from excitement will make the audience feel like they won a million dollars, which, obviously, they wouldn't have if they saw "$500" written on it.

Like @Paulster2 said in his comment, yet another reason for leaving out the actual amount is because whatever it is, it might not be as big (or small) in the future as it is today.

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This makes a lot of sense. Do you mind if I ask for the source of this information? –  NSFeaster Sep 14 '13 at 21:01
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@NSFeaster Having read a whole bunch of articles and books on screenwriting, film techniques etc. I'm fairly familiar with how one should think when writing and producing movies, so I have no one specific source –  Tom Sep 14 '13 at 21:45
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Take for instance Austin Powers where Dr. Evil is asking for a ransom of one million dollars and everyone laughs at him. He is thinking of terms of 30-40 years in the past. If a movie is made with a dollar amount today and is viewed twenty years from now, that amount may not seem like much of an amount. As stated above, if the amount is left up to the imagination, the sky is the limit. Twenty years from now, it's still the same, but the the altitude will have changed to match the current rate of exchange. –  Paulster2 Sep 14 '13 at 21:53
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@Paulster2 Good point. Didn't think of that when I posted the answer, but it's definitely another valid reason for leaving out the actual amount –  Tom Sep 14 '13 at 21:56
    
Another good example of this is when characters (usually the villains) are discussing what cut they get from doing X deed). They never actually say an amount, it's always "20%" or 'half' etc, and depending on how the other party reacts we determine how much it is (20 percent?! outrageous! I demand at least 35!) –  Robotnik Sep 20 '13 at 4:09

Without telling real sum you can avoid misunderstandings.

I remember an acquisition in an old French film and I wondered the high sum. I needed some time until I realized they talked abut the old French Franc.

If there would be only a lot of money you have no problem, if the currency changes or if inflation change the nominal value. The number is not important, but the rating of the value.

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Wow, this answer has spurred up controversy...Here's a redrafting and clarification of why this answer is not a generalization.

I have provided extensive citation (from Princeton.edu, a Vanity Fair George Lucas Interview, A Hitchcock interview, Merriam-Webster and others) in the links below to support my answer (I have researched this answer...it's not just my opinion):

Film makers that avoid showing the value of money show that they know about film making and film history, and by so doing, are paying homage to Hitchcockian theroy of MacGuffin & respect to their craft.

This answer relies on clearly stating and showing why this situation is a MacGuffin, and why it is crucial to understand the rationale filmmakers use to determine whether or not to show the true nature of the MacGuffin.

Why a check with an undisclosed amount has to be and can only be a MacGuffin

The check with undisclosed amount used to entice a character into action is a variation of a cliche. As a cliche, this situation occurs in the first act. The protagonist receiving money is a plot device that's referred to as a MacGuffin. In the story a check handed to him could be anything. It could be his fathers gold watch that was smuggled out of 'Nam. It could be plans for building the Death Star. It only needs to be something that will prompt the character to initiate an action. It doesn't need to be a check. But if it is, it doesn't need to have an amount - the amount is only important to the character (not the audience). Since it is something that is shown (a check), but it's true nature is not revealed (we don't know the amount), it can only - and has to be a MacGuffin (the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and Ronin...in a jewel heist movie it's the necklace, in a spy movie it's the papers). This is the definition of MacGuffin and the reason the term exists. If it was important to the plot for the amount to be shown, it wouldn't be a MacGuffin. Since it's not shown, it's not important to the plot - it has to (and can only) be a MacGuffin

In this instance the payment gets the protagonist to start the ball rolling, after that the plot develops on it's own without further need of catalyst.

How and Why film makers deal with the decision of revealing or not revealing the true nature of the MacGuffin:

Hitchcock said that what the MacGuffin is doesn't matter to the audience. It could be anything.

George Lucas says the audience should care about the MacGuffin (in Star Wars, it's R2-D2; everybody is looking for R2-D2) as much as they do about the hero and villain. Then he does this.

Rationale Film makers use to determine to show, or not to show the true nature of the MacGuffin

The film maker can choose to:

  1. show an amount and tell viewers and critics that he is from the George Lucas school of thought (the guy that brought you Jar-Jar Binks and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

    or

  2. not show an amount and show critics and viewers he's from the Alfred "True King of Filmmaking" Hitchcock school of thought.

Not a tough choice to make. It has to be one of these two rationalizations because Hitchcock and Lucas are on record about their feelings of the MacGuffin and this is taught on day one of Film History 101. All directors know about the MacGuffin and the relevance to film history.

In conclusion...The answer to the question:

Film makers that avoid showing the value of money show that they know about film making and film history, and by so doing, are paying homage to Hitchcockian theroy of MacGuffin & respect to their craft.

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I'd say it would be a bit overgeneralizing to say every usage of paid money where the sum is not shown is an instance of a MacGuffin. It doesn't neccessarily need to bring the story any much further or provide any motivation or goal for the characters, it could just be a payment whose actual amount is hidden for completely different reasons. –  Napoleon Wilson Sep 15 '13 at 0:01
    
With regards to the situation the OP has described, this is a MacGuffin used to entice a character into action. When a character receives money in the denouement, the character already knows how much it will be, and hardly ever mentions the amount (If they even show the exchange of money at that point in the film). If you can name a movie where this situation happens and it's not a MacGuffin, I'd be impressed. –  Ben Plont Sep 15 '13 at 0:15
    
Well, whether it's a McGuffin or not is not the point. The question is why the amount is usually hidden when it could just as easily be shown to the audience. –  Tom Sep 15 '13 at 0:24
    
To reiterate, Hitchcock answers that question when he says "what the MacGuffin is, doesn't matter". Because of this, the amount doesn't need to be shown. It doesn't matter to the story what the amount is. That's why I included the link to Hitchcock explaining it. Now I know what he means when he says he has a hard time convincing others what it is... –  Ben Plont Sep 15 '13 at 0:31
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it is indeed a great answer for why a check is a McGuffin, but the reason for the amount being hidden (which is what the question is all about) is still just "because it's not important," and not "because it's a McGuffin..." Just sayin' –  Tom Sep 15 '13 at 15:01

You'll find that figures tend not to be mentioned if the story is set in a contemporary setting so as not to date it. If the story could be taking place now (even if costumes are a bit out of date etc), the mind will suspend disbelief.

For example, in the Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy (tv/radio/book) Ford Prefect is buying Arthur Dent beer in a pub to prepare his system for teleportation before destruction of the Earth, he buys 6 pints of beer (3 each) plus a packet of nuts, hands over money to the barman, and requests him to keep the change.

The barman answers "from a fiver (£5)?, thank you", which would have been a generous tip at the time (beer was about £0.08 at that time, so the bill would have been less than £0.60), however today the same pub may be charging best part of £5 a pint, so the barman would be expecting several times the £5, dating the story which is otherwise not set in any time period (and indeed been updated in other media to remain contemporary)

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It is done because suspense is the biggest element for any movie and they keep you engaged with the doubt in your mind.

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