did 30% less business than Episode I
. That's a loss of something like $300 million. The franchise rebounded somewhat with Episode III
which, tellingly, was the best-reviewed of the prequels, but it still fell short of Episode I
by almost $80 million worldwide. So, it's not as if no one was unhappy. And I have to emphasize again the enormous scale of those films. They were simply chock-full of eye candy for discerning geeks and ordinary moviegoers alike. If you paid to see stunning visuals, you got your money's worth. None of the TOS- or even TNG-era movies ever came close to them in terms of pure spectacle.
Depends on how high a budget you're talking about. $100 million? More? I think a souped-up NEM would have done considerably more box office just from the heightened interest of Trekkies alone, since -- as you point out -- it would've been the first truly big-budget attempt at Trek
since STTMP. A bigger budget changes the equation in a number of ways. NEM might have been a very different film if it had cost an additional $30-$50 million. Probably not different enough, but who knows?
It's also interesting to note that, worldwide, STTMP was the highest-grossing film of the franchise
until the release of First Contact
almost 20 years later. After that, as they say, it was all downhill. And if one adjusted the numbers for inflation, STTMP would almost certainly remain (excluding J.J.'s) the biggest-budgeted and, I believe not coincidentally, the highest-grossing film of the franchise to this very day. Paramount clearly acknowledges the often proportional relationship between the size of a sci-fi film's budget and its box-office take. Why else would they be dropping $150 million on this one? Why not just spend a third of that and see if you can pull off another TWOK?