Mid-budget films as we know them are on the decline. What does this mean for cinema?

There are many different definitions of what exactly a “mid-budget” film is. Generally, it’s a movie that falls somewhere between an arthouse indie and a big-budget thriller, something like a “Home Alone” or a “Shawshank Redemption.” Some say they cost between $5 and $75 million, others would say between $15 and $60 million. Many are genre films, and they’re widely consumed and loved, albeit sometimes without the slick aesthetic that makes an indie darling.

But to say that mid-budget movies don’t exist anymore isn’t quite true, movie pundits have said. Like other arts and media, they have changed. And the culture around movies has changed with them.

Big studios want big blockbusters, especially during Covid

Damon, who has long spoken openly about the decline of mid-to-mid-budget film, isn’t completely wrong, however.

While still in production, horror, thriller, romance, biography and drama films have all seen their budgets cut, according to a Analysis 2017 by film data researcher Stephen Follows.

Due to Covid-19, budgets for those years are not directly comparable to pandemic film production budgets, Follows said. But they show a downward trend in investment.

Daniel Loría is Editorial Director at Boxoffice Pro, covering global cinema. Major studios like Warner Bros. or Disney, are getting less and less into the mid-budget film, he explained, opting instead to invest in bigger blockbuster releases that will make more money. (Warner Bros. and CNN are both part of WarnerMedia.) But for these blockbusters to succeed, they must also attract international audiences. So movies that may be culturally specific to the United States don’t necessarily receive the same amount of investment, he said.

“What we’re seeing now is that studios are releasing fewer movies in theaters,” Loría said. “But the ones they do…they’re swinging for the fences, they’re going to home run.”

As Damon said, “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 downturn in those mid-budget movies before, but movies like “Hustlers” or “Knives Out” were still in theaters and they were still making money.

Now these movies are appearing on streaming platforms — same ‘Knives Out 2’ is coming to Netflix this autumn – where they may not market as heavily, or just get lost in the endless jumble of movie titles. Unlike the 1990s, the peak of mid-budget films, these movies also have a lot more to compete for, making it even harder to make money, screenwriter Girish Shambu said.

“In a post-pandemic market, what makes $60 million is not the same,” Loría explained.

Mid-budget movies go to streaming and get lost

The growing influence of streaming in our culture plays an important role here. While movie studios generally want to reach as wide an audience as possible, streaming services are all about the niche: trying to appeal to very specific audiences through algorithms. For this strategy to succeed, these services want to collect a wide variety of movies in a specific genre. It’s in their best financial interest, industry experts have previously told CNN.

That’s why, for example, more rom-coms are apparently streaming than theatrically. Streaming gives us more of the same, more of what the “algorithm” thinks we’ll want.

When midrange films hit theaters, there’s a leap of faith involved, said Maggie Hennefeld, professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota. The audience may encounter something new or strange, even if it’s not that great.

There is also the community in a theater: the whole row bursts out laughing during a comedy, or the collective breath during a horror film. Streaming platforms erase these intangibles, often reducing the consumer experience.

“When you make the decision to get out of your house, go to the movies…you’re not going out to watch content, you’re going to watch a movie,” Loría said.

Just going to the movies and all that entails – the tickets, the car ride, maybe the babysitter – requires some sort of investment of time and energy on the part of the viewer, a- he declared. But due to the ambient nature of TV and our cultural habit of using TV as background noise, deciding to stay home and broadcast is an inherently different and less immersive experience.

Even if a mid-budget movie on a streaming service manages to punch through the noise and manages to be well-made and interesting, there can still be a disconnect.

“When you’re home, that relationship is much less special,” Loría said.

Yet it is not an easy path to follow. Mid-budget films released in theaters can still get lost as some viewers may avoid seeing a film in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Loría used the recently released “Marry Me” as an example. Three years ago, this film would not have been in theaters, at least for the first few months. Now it’s simultaneously on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, which means a lot of people will choose to watch it that way instead.
Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson starred in
Unlike mid-budget films, expensive blockbusters need theaters to run well — it’s just how the business model is set up, Loría said. That’s why those great movies, like “No Time To Die” or “Spider-Man: No Way Home” are still hitting theaters, rather than going straight to streaming.

But movie theaters themselves cannot survive on blockbusters alone. There just aren’t enough of them, and the change could lead to fewer movies playing in theaters, which could spell trouble for smaller local theaters.

Fewer movies in theaters means many people will simply go less often, opting to watch something on a streaming service instead. In small and medium-sized towns, where there’s less demand for independent arthouse films to help fill the space between big releases, that could be a problem, Loría said.

The shift to streaming is changing film culture

Ultimately, Hollywood is like any industry: it wants to make money. Superhero movies, remakes — it works.

But the effect it all has on the movie as a whole is a bit more messy.

MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jump off the bridge in
“You try to go to a producer today and tell him you want to make a movie that’s never been done before, he’ll kick you out because he wants the same movie that works, that makes money. ‘money,” director Francis Ford Coppola said. in 2011. “It tells me that even though the cinema of the next 100 years is going to change a lot, it’s going to slow down because they don’t want you to take any more risks. They don’t want you to take any risks.”
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 dropped the feature film after spend 10 years try to make a movie. In 2018, Debra Granik also opened up about the challenges she and other directors face.
“Some of the topics I like to fuss about are certainly not inherently commercial,” says Granic, who produced “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace”. “So I have to look for a very special type of funding and take a very gentle route to make my films, as pretty much all social-realist filmmakers do. It’s a long process.”

The joy of mid-budget cinema, backed by a major 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, Shambu explained. That studios are reducing their investments in these kinds of middle budgets, just as more women and people of color are being offered more opportunities to direct and create their own movies, is a trend that Shambu finds ironic.

Shambu pointed to Jane Campion, the second woman to be nominated for Best Director at the 1993 Oscars 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 getting money?” he said. “Why is Hollywood going back to the same well-known names?”

Well-known names are also struggling. Even Spike Lee — prolific since the 1980s — struggled to secure funding for his latest film, 2020’s “Da 5 Bloods,” about four black Vietnam War veterans. The Oscar-winning director said he went to every studio but was rejected after rejection. Eventually, the film found a home on Netflix.

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors star in
“We barely made this movie,” Lee said in 2020. “There was nowhere to go after Netflix.”

There is good, however.

More and more people have been discovering movies from decades past, revisiting underrated classics, Hennefeld said. She noticed more theaters dedicated to showing classic movies, as well as the rise of streamers like Criterion and Mubi. While their appeal is still kind of niche, she thinks that’s changing.

The Black Film Archive wants to show the world how unlimited black cinema is

“Archives are the future,” she said.

Access to foreign films is also easier, Shambu said, noting that Netflix has acquired many Indian films and TV shows, more than it could get in the 1990s.

“It allows us to see a diversity of manufacturers and also a diversity of geography,” he said. “It’s something that didn’t quite exist before. You could still watch foreign films, but they weren’t easy to find.”

There’s also more scholarly television now – which now attracts big-name directors like Steven Soderbergh and Steve McQueen. A variety of series have tackled many genres that were once covered in a 90 minute film.

A film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, might have been a biopic 10 years ago. In 2022, its history should be a limited series.

Those looking for the beauty of a mid-budget movie in theaters then may just be looking in the wrong place.

About Justin Howze

Check Also

What it’s like to stay in a Magical Little House in New Zealand

The little house is part of the Kinloch Wilderness Retreat. The property, located on the …