Mid-budget films as we knew them are on the decline. What does this mean for cinema?
There are many different definitions of what exactly a “mid-budget” film is. Typically, it’s a film 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.
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.
“In a post-pandemic market, what makes $60 million is not the same,” Loría explained.
Mid-budget movies go to streaming and get lost
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 movie. 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.
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.
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.
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 types of middle 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.
“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.
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 streaming 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.
“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.
Those looking for the beauty of a mid-budget movie in theaters then may just be looking in the wrong place.