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.
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.
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.
“In a post-pandemic market, what makes $60 million isn’t the same,” Loría explained.
Mid-budget films move to streaming and get lost
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Those looking for the beauty of a mid-budget film in theaters, then, may simply be looking in the wrong place.