For a while now, I’ve known without really articulating it that the modern cinema scene is kind of dead. Well, if not dead, then soulless. Unimaginative. It’s an endless regurgitation of superhero movies, other proven franchises probably owned by Disney, reboots, and spectacle that isn’t really spectacular. For a long while, I just chalked up my apathy toward movies from the last 10, 15 years to being mildly burned out on movie-watching in general.
But ever since I came back to start doing regular reviews over the past couple of years, I’ve realized this isn’t the case. Bouncing around from decade to decade, I’ve found far more imaginative and creative films from the ’80s and ’90s than I have in the post-2005 era. And a big part to do with this, I believe, is that Hollywood has effectively killed one of the most reliable sources of creative and imaginative stories: the mid-budget movie.
Trust me, this isn’t something you’ll notice until it’s pointed out to you, and once it is, you’ll keenly feel its loss. For me, it was director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace) who brought this to my attention. In a 2016 interview, Dante lamented how Hollywood had become broken, devolving into a system that only produced two levels of movie: the small budget indie flick and the massive, swing-for-the-fences big-budget blockbuster. Missing was the “mid-budget” movie that had reliably filled cinemas for decades, ones that he specialized in directing.
“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television,” Dante said. “So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone.”
“It’s hard to make a $40 million movie, because usually those movies don’t travel overseas well,” said producer Jerry Bruckheimer in 2013.
We’re talking about movies that are made for a modest budget (which of course differs depending on the decade, but think between $10M to $75M) that forced hungry filmmakers to do their best with limitations and provide some sort of strong hook to draw audiences in.
Apocalypse Now was a mid-budget movie made for $31 million. So was Shawshank Redemption ($25M), Home Alone ($18M), and just about every movie we went to see in the 1990s. Seriously, it was a decade of nonstop mid-budget hits, from Event Horizon ($60M) to Under Siege ($12M) to Silence of the Lambs ($19M). Knives Out ($40M) was a rare modern mid-budget movie — which did very well for itself, I might add.
Due to the modern blockbuster bringing in staggering profits if marketed right, studios aren’t that interested in modest profits any more. You may have noticed that Hollywood is making a whole lot fewer comedies these days, and that’s part of this mid-budget blockade. Hangover put a lot of butts in theater seats in 2009, but these days, who cares? $179 million box office is chump change compared to a Star Wars or Transformers.
It doesn’t mean that mid-budget is completely gone from the scene, of course. There are examples. Exceptions. But these are often yearly outliers rather than the reliable movie theater workhorses that they were in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s. The thing is, there may be a coming mid-budget movie revival due to two factors: massive budget movies not being reliable income generators these days (one bomb can seriously shake a studio — just ask Disney with Solo), and modern audiences actually hungry for fun meaty little stories.
Take Deadpool as a great example. Hollywood thought it was kind of risky to invest $58M in an R-rated film about a fourth wall-breaking sarcastic superhero. It then made $783 million at the box office. The mid-budget allowed the movie to break away from formulaic nonsense to actually have some fun and try out a few new things. Joker, another risky comic book take, topped one billion on a $55M budget.
I think that audiences are really tired of the same-old, same-old attempts to create blockbusters at the expense of creativity and imagination. CGI, big name stars, and recognizable IPs aren’t really doing it any more. The backlash has been coming — and is already here — where movie-goers are seeking out what was once lost: the mid-budget movie.