The Mid-Budget Movie: A Thing of the Past?
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Vanity Fair -– Source
There’s no question that the past couple of years have transformed the typical movie experience. The traditional image of the movie theater—a haven of golden marquees, sprawling silver screens, and the inimitable scent of buttered popcorn—has been marred both by the pandemic and by the skyrocketing prominence of streaming platforms. In spite of two years of COVID-19, the movie theater continues to limp on, maintaining its fight against the impossible ease of sitting on a couch and clicking “Play Next”. But even before the pandemic, one plain truth was becoming increasingly evident: the art of film is facing not just financial uncertainties, but also a shifting creative landscape.
If you take a look at the movies playing in theaters this week, you’ll see The Batman, Death on the Nile, Joe Wright’s Cyrano, and not much else. While not having much in common, these films all seem to pander to a certain type of movie watcher, and aren’t the type of movie that tries to appeal to as much of an audience as it can: viewers of The Batman’s gritty reboot likely aren’t interested in watching the arthouse period piece that is Cyrano, and vice versa. The role of padding out the gap between blockbuster and arthouse in the theater has traditionally gone to mid-budget films, often comedies, works that tend to pull from all types of demographics.
But these kinds of pictures seem to be making a subtle retreat from the halls of the cinema. 2019’s Knives Out—a campy murder mystery balancing fun characters with cheeky pokes at the detective genre—was one of the last mid-budget comedies in recent memory. The comedy flick Free Guy has done relatively well in theaters, but was admittedly buoyed by a hefty $100 million budget and the presence of Ryan Reynolds. Classic romantic comedies in the vein of When Harry Met Sally haven’t graced the theater in quite some time, and the irreverent audacity of films like Bridesmaids faded from the scene around the late 2010s.
Pinpointing the motivations behind trends like these, however, is always pretty easy with Hollywood: money. The mid-budget film never targets a specific niche, usually taking a leap of faith in its theater releases; nowadays, the film industry has learned it can make a lot more money banking on movies that already have a guaranteed audience. Countless reboots like The Lion King or A Star is Born have threatened to drown out any original content in the past few years as Hollywood milks its audiences’ nostalgia for cash. The industry’s inclination toward budgeting instead of creating was fast-tracked by the rise of streaming: in dumping the remaining mid-budget comedies on streaming platforms, they’re more likely to find an audience and an algorithmic home than they would in theaters. And these last two years of the pandemic have revealed in almost
staggering numbers just how much easier it is for people to queue up a casual watch from the comfort of their couch.
These patterns were taking shape even before 2020, but the pandemic’s onset certainly sped up the process. Now the margins on either side of the ‘middle-class’ of movies are expanding, polarized to the point where any bridge between them is nonexistent: we are left with either indie arthouse Oscar darlings—films that cost Hollywood very little to make—or grandly epic blockbusters in the vein of Daniel Craig’s No Time to Die or Marvel movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home, movies designed for group viewings and widespread cultural excitement. Anything that falls into the wide expanse between these two categories—a space that, while often uncertain, includes a lot of freedom for mid-budget films to try something new or play with many different genres—is something Hollywood unfortunately bears very little patience for. Film classics like
Shawshank Redemption or the majority of rom-coms like the iconic Pretty Woman and more recent Crazy Rich Asians were able to emerge from this cinematic landscape; indeed, so did most prominent films in beloved cultural memory. In the film industry, this is the most predictable story in the world: in its laser-focused drive for money and nothing but, it drains itself of the creativity and potential that really makes it thrive.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the mid-budget movie—or the many genres it typically encompasses, like rom-coms or family movies—is completely dead. It’s just being moved to streaming platforms, albeit in such an insistent push that filmmakers are struggling to get their movies in theaters at all. The only rom-com in recent memory, the Jennifer Lopez-led Marry Me, can be seen only on Peacock Premium, and even the sequel to Rian Johnson’s enormously popular Knives Out is only seeing a Netflix release. Creators have been facing increased difficulties in getting their films made in general: even Spike Lee, one of the most renowned directors in the world, has discussed the work that had gone into getting his 25th feature Da 5 Bloods on any type of screen.
“We barely got this film made,” Lee told The Hollywood Reporter in 2020. While Lee discussed the matter in the way of a seasoned artist who had been in the business for a very long time, he was still forced to concede: “There was nowhere to go after Netflix.”
Hollywood has been backing itself into this corner for years, and the real repercussions of it are only just beginning to become apparent. These building problems are affecting not just the movie theater, but also the potential for originality and creativity that makes cinema so great. The film industry doesn’t seem to be to allowing itself to take a chance, doesn’t seem to realize that originality and innovation can get people in seats just as much as reboots and blockbusters, or that these qualities are always going to loom larger in culture and memory. In playing the safe games of tradition, Hollywood does a deep disservice to not just the film medium, but to art as a whole.