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

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

But to say that mid-budget films no longer exist isn’t entirely accurate, film experts said. Like other art and media, they have changed. And the culture around movies has changed with them.

Big studios want big blockbusters, especially during Covid

However, Damon, who has long been open about the demise of the mid-budget, middlebrow film, isn’t entirely wrong.

While still in production, horror, thriller, romance, biographical and drama films have seen their budgets drop, according to a 2017 analysis by film data researcher Stephen Follows.

Because of Covid-19, budgets from those years are not directly comparable to budgets for film productions in a pandemic, Follows said. However, they show a declining investment trend.

Daniel Loría is Editor-in-Chief at Boxoffice Pro and covers global cinema. Big studios like Warner Bros. or Disney are less and less dabbling in mid-budget films, he explained, opting instead to invest in bigger, blockbuster releases that make more money. (Warner Bros. and CNN are both part of WarnerMedia.) But for these blockbusters to be successful, they also need to appeal to international audiences. So films that are culturally specific to the US don’t necessarily get the same amount of investment, he said.

“What we’re seeing now is that studios are putting fewer films in theaters,” Loría said. “But the ones they do … they swing for the fences, they hit a home run.”

As Damon put it, “A superhero movie.”

This trend is not new, Loría said, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic. Sure, there was a slowdown in these 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 popping up on streaming platforms – even Knives Out 2 is coming to Netflix this fall — where they may not be marketed as heavily, or just get lost in the endless jumble of movie titles. Unlike the 1990s, when mid-budget films were at their peak, these films also have a lot more to compete, making it even harder to make money, said film writer Girish Shambu.

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

Mid-budget movies switch to streaming and get lost

The increasing influence of streaming in our culture plays a significant role here. While film studios typically aim to reach the widest possible audience, streaming services are all about the niche: trying to target a very specific audience through algorithms. For this strategy to be successful, these services want to collect a variety of movies within a specific genre. It’s in their best financial interest, industry experts previously told CNN.

For this reason, it seems that more romantic comedies are released in streaming than in cinemas, for example. Streaming gives us more of the same, more of what “the algorithm” thinks we want.

When mid-range films come to theaters, a leap of faith is required, says Maggie Hennefeld, professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota. Audiences may stumble upon something new or strange, even if it’s not great.

There’s community in a theater, too: the whole row bursting out 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 the decision to leave your house, go to the movies … you don’t go out to watch content, you go to see a movie,” Loría said.

The very act of going to a movie and everything that goes with it — the tickets, the ride, maybe the babysitter — requires a certain investment of time and energy on the part of the viewer, he said. But due to the ambient nature of television and our cultural habit of using the television as background noise, choosing 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 cut through the noise and manages to be well-made and interesting, there can still be an interruption.

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

Still, it’s not an easy road forward. Mid-budget films releasing in theaters can still get lost as some viewers may avoid seeing a film amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Loría cited the recently released “Marry Me” as an example. Three years ago, this film would only have been shown in cinemas, at least for the first few months. Now it’s concurrently on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, which means a lot of people will see it that way instead.
Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson starred in
Unlike mid-budget films, expensive blockbuster films need theaters to do well — so the business model is simple, Loría said. That’s why those big movies like No Time To Die or Spider-Man: No Way Home are still being released theatrically instead of being streamed direct.

But cinemas themselves cannot survive on blockbusters alone. There just aren’t enough of them, and the postponement could result in fewer films being shown in theaters, which could spell trouble for smaller local cinemas.

Fewer movies in theaters means many people are simply going less and watching something on a streaming service instead. That could be a problem in small and medium-sized cities, where art house and indie films are less in demand to fill the space between big releases, Loría said.

The shift to streaming is changing film culture

Ultimately, Hollywood is like any industry: it wants to make money. The superhero movies, the remakes – they work.

But the effect all of this has on the film is a little messier.

MJ (Zendaya) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) jump off the bridge in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
“You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that has never been made before; they’re going to kick you out because they want the same movie that works, that makes money,” director Francis Ford Coppola said in 2011. “That tells me that while cinema is going to change a lot in the next 100 years, it’s going to slow down , because they no longer want you to take risks. They don’t want you to take 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 I gave up filmmaking after trying to make a film for 10 years. In 2018, Debra Granik also spoke about the challenges she and other directors face.
“Some of the subjects that I love 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 a very special kind of funding and take a very soft way to make my films, like basically all social realist filmmakers. It’s a long process.”

The joy of a mid-budget theater, backed by a big studio, is in the money. These films can make $30 million and attract top-notch actors—all leading to a broader realization of a director’s vision, Shambu explained. That studios are reducing their investment in these kinds of mid-budgets while giving more women and people of color more opportunities to direct and create their own films is a trend Shambu finds ironic.

Shambu pointed to Jane Campion, the second woman 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 don’t 20 like her get money?” he said. “Why is Hollywood going back to the same household names?”

Even well-known names have problems. Even Spike Lee – hit since the 1980s – has struggled to get money for his latest 2020 film, Da 5 Bloods, about four black Vietnam War veterans. The Oscar-winning director said he went to every studio but got turn-off after turn-off. Eventually, the film found a home on Netflix.

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

But there is also something good.

More and more people are discovering films from past decades and picking up underrated classics again, said Hennefeld. She has noticed more cinemas dedicated to showing classic films, as well as the rise of streamers like Criterion and Mubi. Though her appeal is still kind of niche, she thinks that’s changing.

The Black Film Archive wants to show the world how limitless Black Cinema really is

“The archives are the future,” she said.

There’s also easier access to foreign films, Shambu said, noting that Netflix has acquired many films and TV shows from India — more than it could get in the 1990s.

“It allows us to see a diversity of makers and also a variety of geographies,” he said. “It was something that didn’t really exist before. You could still watch foreign films, but they weren’t easy to find.”

There’s also more highbrow television now – which is now attracting big-name directors like Steven Soderbergh and Steve McQueen. A variety of series have explored many genres that used to be covered in a 90 minute film.

A film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, maybe 10 years ago was a biopic. In 2022 his story will be published in a limited edition.

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

About Gloria Skelton

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