Many have lamented the perceived demise of the mid-budget movie in recent years.
These movies – everything from romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle” to dramas like “Philadelphia” or “Good Will Hunting” – used to be common; theaters were filled with an assortment of comedies and biopics and whodunits.
Over the last few years, though, the film landscape has been changing, moving more toward the realm of big-budget movies with gargantuan marketing campaigns. The shift has been chronicled extensively – remakes of “The Lion King” or the upcoming “The Little Mermaid” signal a retreat to old ideas, and flicks about superheroes like Spider-Man are a dime a dozen.
There are many differing definitions of what exactly a “mid-budget” film is. Generally, it’s a movie that lies in the space between an art house indie flick and big-budget thriller, something like a “Home Alone” or a “Shawshank Redemption.” Some say they cost between $5 million and $75 million, others would say between $15 million to $60 million. Many are genre films, and they are widely consumed and loved, though sometimes without the artful aesthetics that make an indie darling.
“Courtroom dramas, all that stuff, they can’t get made,” actor Matt Damon said in an interview last year. “You want the most accessible thing you can make, in terms of language and culture. And what is that? A superhero movie.”
But to say that mid-budget movies don’t exist anymore isn’t completely true, film experts said. Like other art and media, they’ve changed. And the culture around movies has changed with them.
Big studios want big blockbusters, especially during Covid
Damon, who has long been outspoken about the decline of the mid-budget, middlebrow film, isn’t completely wrong though.
While still in production, horror, thriller, romance, biography and drama films all saw declines in their budgets, according to a 2017 analysis by film data researcher Stephen Follows.
Because of Covid-19, the budgets from those years are not directly comparable to film production budgets in a pandemic, Follows said. But they do demonstrate a declining trend in investment.
Daniel Loría is an editorial director at Boxoffice Pro, covering global cinema. Big studios, like Warner Bros. or Disney, are dabbling less and less in the mid-budget movie, he explained, opting to instead invest in larger blockbuster releases which will make more money. (Warner Bros. and CNN are both part of WarnerMedia.) But in order for these blockbusters to be successful, they need to appeal to international audiences, too. So movies that may be culturally specific to the US don’t necessarily get the same amount of investment, he said.
“What we’re seeing now, studios are releasing fewer movies to movie theaters,” Loría said. “But the ones they do … they’re swinging for the fences, they’re going for a home run.”
As Damon put it: “A superhero movie.”
This trend isn’t new, Loría said, but it’s one that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. Sure, there was a slowdown of these mid-budget movies before, but films like “Hustlers” or “Knives Out” were still in theaters and they still made money.
Now, those movies show up on streaming platforms – even “Knives Out 2” will come to Netflix this fall – where they may not be marketed as heavily, or simply get lost in the endless shuffle of movie titles. Unlike in the 1990s, the peak of mid-budget movies, these films have a lot more to compete with, too, making it even harder to make money, film writer Girish Shambu said.
“In a post-pandemic market, what makes $60 million isn’t the same,” Loría explained.
Mid-budget films move to streaming and get lost
Streaming’s rising influence in our culture plays a significant role here. Whereas movie studios typically want to reach as broad an audience as possible, streaming services are all about the niche: attempting to appeal to very specific audiences through algorithms. For that strategy to be successful, these services want to collect a wide variety of films within a specific genre. It’s in their best financial interest, industry experts previously told CNN.
That’s why, for example, more romantic comedies are seemingly released on streaming than in theaters. Streaming gives us more of the same, more of what “the algorithm” thinks we will want.
When mid-range movies get theatrical releases, there’s a leap of faith involved, said Maggie Hennefeld, a cultural studies professor at the University of Minnesota. Audiences can encounter something new or weird, even if it’s not that great.
There’s also community in a theater: the whole row erupting in laughter during a comedy, or the collective gasp during a horror movie. Streaming platforms erase these intangibles, often reducing the experience to consumption.
“When you make a decision to go out of your house, to go to a movie theater … you’re not going out to watch content, you’re going to watch a movie,” Loría said.
Simply the act of going to the movies and all that entails – the tickets, the drive, maybe the babysitter – requires some sort of time and energy investment from the viewer, he said. But because of the ambient nature of television, and our cultural habit of using the TV as background noise, deciding to stay home and stream is an inherently different and less immersive experience.
Even if a mid-budget movie on a streaming service manages to break through the noise, and manages to be well-made and interesting, there can still be a disconnect.
“When you’re at home, that relationship is much less special,” Loría said.
Still, it’s not an easy path forward. Mid-budget movies released in theaters can still get lost, as some viewers may avoid seeing a movie in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Loría used the recently released “Marry Me” as an example. Three years ago, that film would have only been in theaters, at least for the first few months. Now, it’s simultaneously on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, meaning a lot of people will choose to watch it that way instead.
Unlike mid-budget movies, expensive blockbuster movies need movie theaters in order to do well – it’s just the way the business model is set up, Loría said. It’s why these big movies, like “No Time To Die” or “Spider-Man: No Way Home” are still getting theatrical releases, rather than going straight to streaming.
But the movie theaters themselves can’t survive through blockbusters alone. There’s simply not enough of them, and the shift could result in less movies being shown theatrically, which could spell trouble for smaller local theaters.
Fewer movies at the theater means many people will simply go less often, opting instead to watch something on a streaming service. In small and medium-sized cities, where there’s less of a demand for art house and indie movies to help fill space between big releases, that could be a problem, Loría said.
Shifting to streaming changes film culture
At the end of the day, Hollywood is like any industry: It wants to make money. The superhero movies, the remakes – they work.
But the effect all this has on film writ large is a bit messier.
“You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn’t been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money,” said director Francis Ford Coppola in 2011. “That tells me that although the cinema in the next 100 years is going to change a lot, it will slow down because they don’t want you to risk anymore. They don’t want you to take chances.”
Of course, funding has always been an issue for directors. Kelly Reichardt (known for “First Cow”) told GQ in 2020 that she had at one point given up on feature filmmaking after spending 10 years trying to get a movie made. In 2018, Debra Granik also spoke of the challenges that face her and other directors.
“Some of the subject matters that I like to make stories about are definitely not inherently commercial,” said Granik, who directed “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace.” “So I have to look for very special kind of financing and go down a very gentle path in order to make my films, as do basically all social-realist filmmakers. It’s a long process.”
The joy of a theatrical mid-budget, with the backing of a big studio, is the money. These movies can be made for $30 million and can attract high-profile actors – all leading to a fuller realization of a director’s vision, explained Shambu. That studios are decreasing their investments in those types of mid-budgets, just as more women and people of color are being offered more opportunities to direct and create their own films, is a trend Shambu finds ironic.
Shambu pointed to Jane Campion, the second woman ever to be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards in 1993 for “The Piano,” and the first to be nominated twice – most recently, for “Power of the Dog” – as an example.
“Why aren’t there 20 like her being given money?” he said. “Why is Hollywood going back to the same well-known names?”
Well-known names are struggling, too. Even Spike Lee – prolific since the 1980s – had trouble getting funding for his latest movie, 2020’s “Da 5 Bloods,” about four Black Vietnam war veterans. The Oscar-winning director said he went to every studio, but received rejection after rejection. Eventually, the film found a home on Netflix.
“We barely got this film made,” Lee said in 2020. “There was nowhere to go after Netflix.”
There’s some good, though.
More people have been discovering films from decades past, revisiting underappreciated classics, Hennefeld said. She has noticed more theaters dedicated to playing classic films, as well as the rise of streamers like Criterion and Mubi. Though their appeal is still kind of niche, she thinks that’s changing.
“The archives are the future,” she said.
There’s also easier access to foreign films, Shambu said, noting that Netflix has acquired lots of films and television from India – more than he could get in the 1990s.
“It’s allowing us to see a diversity of makers and also a diversity of geography,” he said. “That’s something that didn’t quite exist before. You could still watch foreign films, but they weren’t easy to find.”
There’s more highbrow television now, too – which has now been attracting big-name directors like Steven Soderbergh and Steve McQueen. A variety of series have been tackling a lot of the genres that used to be covered in a 90-minute movie.
A film on Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, may have been a biopic 10 years ago. In 2022, his story is set to be a limited series.
Those looking for the beauty of a mid-budget film in theaters, then, may simply be looking in the wrong place.