Movies in the Middle – The Disappearing Presence of the Mid-Sized Studio Movie

Coming out of the pandemic era of near annihilation for the theatrical market, a new sense of normal has emerged with the types of movies that are arriving on the silver screen.  As of right now, the selection of movies available to watch in theaters right now fall into two distinctive groups: mega-budget tentpole features based on well established IP, and micro-budget, low risk independent films.  It’s a night and day difference between these two types of movies, and yet, these are the types of movies needed to drive back audience attendance at the local theater.  You either start off big, hoping for a huge opening weekend that can hopefully compensate for the massive expense of making the movie; or start small and hope your movie can be discovered through word of mouth.  These are essentially the different paths that are being taken by movies heading to movie theaters today.  You’re either a Marvel or an A24.  There is little in between.  But, once upon a time in Hollywood, there actually were many films that fit somewhere in the middle.  They weren’t bank breaking studio tentploes, nor were they risk-taking indies that had to make their way through the festival circuit first.  These were studio made films that were modest in budget, usually had one or two A-list stars but not an all-star cast, and were often low key productions meant to fill out a calendar slot that the studios had to occupy.  The mid-sized studio movie often came in a variety of different genres: the screwball comedy, the rom com, the period piece, or the family adventure.  For a long time, these were the engines that were driving the machine of Hollywood, because if one tentploe feature fell hard at the box office, the studios could compensate for that loss with a solid performance from one of their mid-sized movies.  But, that kind of strategy at the box office has seemingly disappeared, and this was a trend beginning even before the pandemic took hold.  So, what happened to the middle ground that once dominated the movie landscape.

In the early days of cinema, blockbusters were very much a rarity in the market.  Hollywood was built much more around the quantity versus quality ratio during the studio system,  which created an assembly line approach to movie-making.  That’s why the vast majority of the most popular films of that era were John Wayne westerns, Shirley Temple musicals, or a James Cagney gangster flick.  And there of course were the many dozens of copycat movies made surrounding those industry leaders.  It was an era where genre flicks dominated the market, because they were cheap and easy to turn around in time to meet the demands of the theaters.  You would see this being the case at every studio in Hollywood, and only occasionally would they get around to something as big and grand as Gone With the Wind (1939).  Even something as universally beloved today as Casablanca (1942) began as one of these assembly line flicks, and it only seemed to achieve masterpiece status purely by accident.  The breakdown of the studio system in the 50’s, along with the advent of television, forced Hollywood to change it’s approach and this led to an increase in the market of the big event films.  Even movies that normally would’ve fallen in the mid-range budget area became spotlighted as big event movies in this era, as the studios were touting the new, prestigious Widescreen process.  However, this era came crashing down in the 1960’s, as budgets ballooned to unsustainable levels on studio films, like Fox’s Cleopatra (1963).  In the 1970’s, the opposite began to happen.  Theaters began to favor gritty, independent films that challenged the old Hollywood system.  In this era, we saw the emergence of voices like Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula, Peter Bogdonavich, and many others who worked outside the system.  But, studios made a comeback later in the decade on the backs of hits like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and this led to the blockbuster 80’s, which also saw a surprising return of the mid-sized film as well as a force.

Through the 80’s and 90’s, you were likely to see many surprise hit movies that didn’t support an outlandish budget, and didn’t have an all-star cast, but still managed to gross as much at the box office as their tentpole cousins.  There were movies like Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), Pretty Woman (1990) that immediately caught fire upon their release completely under the radar of the studios that produced them.  And Hollywood had these movies to thank the most for the success they endured during those years of growth.  Unlike the blockbuster tentpoles, these movies were capable of making back their costs ten fold, due to the fact that they were so inexpensive to begin with.  These movies also had the added benefit of producing the stars of tomorrow, as their success proved that these actors had box office pull.  So, with proven success from a bunch of mid-range movies, Hollywood began to include them as an essential part of their release calendar.  It was a successful enough compartment of the industry that each of the studios even set up their own separate in-house production companies to focus primarily on these types of movies; such as Touchstone Pictures at Disney and Fox 2000 at 20th Century Fox.  These movies also had the added benefit of there being overwhelmed by the competition at the box office.  Blockbusters as they were seen then were not as bloated in their budgets as they are now.  And in some cases, what became the most popular franchises at that time had their starts as modest budgeted movies that were limited in scope initially.  When you look at the first Back to the Future (1985), you can see how despite it’s larger than life concept, it’s actually a very small scale production.  The latter films expanded greatly on what was built with the first movie, but the original Back to the Future is really just a simple time travel comedy filmed in and around the Universal backlot.  The 90’s especially featured many movies in this range, where the main draw was the name star on the marquee and not so much the brand that the movie was centered around.  The movie didn’t need to cost $100 million to make, as long as you had Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, or Tom hanks to reliably bring in the audiences.

So, what led to the eventual decline of these movies.  There are certainly a lot of various reasons.  First of all, the budgets of movies steadily increased across the board for movie productions; even the mid-range ones.  It became harder make back the substantial cost of making the movies at the box office, especially at the point when either the actors no longer had clout at the box office, or the franchise had lost most of it’s steam and relevance.  In the 2000’s, movie stars like Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Jim Carrey were beginning to have paychecks that exceeded $20 million or more, which would balloon budgets even higher, and make even the mid-sized movies feel as expensive as a blockbuster, depending on how many big name stars were included.  Because movies across the board were growing too expensive, the studios started to change their priorities and invest in far fewer movies that were unique and challenging.  Instead, the market began to favor brands over star power, choosing to invest in IP that could sustain long lasting franchises.  This was the era when the name Harry Potter had more clout than Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts.  Big franchises like The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings, and of course super hero flicks would soon dominate the marketplace, and none of those franchises needed to rely on having a big name actor attached to it.  The rise of independent films also allowed for the film industry to find a way to produce movies with challenging themes and messages without having to drop nine figures to make it.  It was this combination of a boom in one type of movie and a bust of the other kinds that squeezed out the movies that fell in the middle range.  Movies either had to be parts of a bigger franchise, or small awards contenders.  This sadly erased the kinds of movies that used to have A-list talent tackling grounded, relatable human stories or the odd studio picture that threw a lot of weight and effort behind a serious epic film that was geared for awards season.

The interesting thing is that movies that would have fit within that mid-sized studio movie mold didn’t entirely go away completely.  They just migrated over to streaming.  Looking at Netflix in particular, the streaming giant produces anywhere between 60-80 original films a year, and they’re output includes movies of all sizes, including the mid-sized movies that we no longer find on the big screen.  The rom com has especially found a place to thrive on Netflix, with movies like The Kissing Booth (2018) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) not only finding an audience on there, but becoming big hits in the process.  Netflix has also become the home to actors who have in the past been responsible for the crop of mid-sized movies in years past but have since then found streaming to be a better place for them.  Adam Sandler for instance has set an exclusive deal for his Happy Madison Productions on Netflix, and as a result, the only big screen appearance Mr. Sandler has made in the last several years was in his critically acclaimed indie film Uncut Gems (2019) for A24.  The truth is that on streaming, there is far less pressure to deliver on the investment to make each movie.  There is no box office threshold that it must meet in order to turn a profit, because as long as it’s being watched on Netflix or any other streamer and helps drive up those subscriber numbers, the investors will be happy.  So that’s why we are seeing these middle ground movies that once were an essential part of the movie release calendar finding a new home in the streaming world.  And they are indeed becoming the norm on every service; from Netflix, to Disney+, to HBO Max, to Amazon Prime.  And what that is leaving us with on the big screen is just the movies on the opposite sides of the spectrum; mega-budget franchises and tiny little independent films.

Does that mean that there is no place for a mid-sized movie to make it in the theatrical market anymore.  There still is, it’s just that there’s more competition now for where the movie can end up finding it’s audience.  The conditions for a mid-sized movie to find it’s audience are more favorable on streaming, but it’s not impossible for these kinds of movies to find an audience in the franchise heavy market that we find in theaters today.  Often these are the movies that suddenly catch Hollywood by surprise, and makes them rethink what audiences are actually looking for.  One of the clearest recent examples of this was the movie Knives Out (2019).  The film is basically a re-imagined take on the Agatha Christie style whodunit, given a contemporary setting with an eccentric twist.  The Rian Johnson directed film certainly boasted an impressive all-star cast, but nothing about the movie other than that suggested that it would draw in a huge audience.  But that it did, grossing an impressive $165 million off of a $40 million budget.  And it did so in competition with big movies like Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), remaining in the top 5 movies weekly for several months.  It’s when the uncharacteristic movies manage to exceed expectations and become huge hits despite what the market dictates, that’s when Hollywood takes notice of movies that fit within this often ignored middle ground.  One interesting area where these kinds of movies emerge is when they give voice to an often marginalized group and tap into an audience that had been clamoring to see themselves represented more respectfully on the big screen.  This was definitely the case with a movie like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which broke out of it’s rom com expectations to become a touchstone moment for Asian representation in cinema.  Perhaps it’s not that audiences don’t care about mid range genre movies; they just want to see movies in general that aren’t just like everything else they’ve seen.

Is it possible for there to be a return of the mid-sized movie to having a regular presence on the big screen again?  The theater industry has just experienced an earth-shattering shake-up to their business model, so it may end up leading them to reconsider what they want to allow on their screens moving forward.  In the high stakes pre-pandemic market, it was all about bringing in the big movies that could gross billions of dollars in a single run, and for the most part, these were the safe bets that Hollywood could rely upon.  But, with the market diminished after the pandemic, Hollywood’s safe bets no longer feel as safe anymore.  Not only that, but streaming now has a stronger foothold in the marketplace, and has become the favored place for those movies that had over the past decade been considered too risky to produce.  Seeing how well some movies have performed on streaming, it might lead many of these movie theater chains who had once scoffed at the likes of Netflix to reconsider their priorities.  That seems to be what’s going on right now, as more and more streaming movies are getting a modest release in theaters before making their debuts on their respective platforms.  This also coincides with the shortened theatrical window that resulted from the pandemic.  Now, the pressure to make a lot of money over a long theatrical run is reinforced with availability on digital PVOD services, so that people who don’t want to go to the theater can still have their chance to see the movie soon after it’s release.  This change in the market may help relieve the studios of the burden of worrying about whether or not a mid-sized movie will be able to connect with audiences or not, and that may help them to reconsider looking at the theatrical market as being a preferred starting point for their movies.  Truth be told, we are only starting to see a change in the theatrical market, and thus far only the biggest movies like those from Marvel Studios are generating anything close to the kind of money that theaters made before the pandemic.  With a more balanced playing field between theaters and streaming in the competition for where studios invest their properties, it’s hard to say where the movies that fall in the middle might end up.

For one thing, audiences really need to rediscover the value of movies that fit outside of the two extremes of cinema.  Movies don’t have to be a choice between CGI heavy blockbuster extravaganzas or Avant Garde art house indies.  There can be that movie that falls in the middle that features A-List talent in front and behind the camera, but is more down to Earth and challenging in it’s themes, and doesn’t have to rely upon spectacle in order to entertain.  The thing that really is appealing about these mid-sized movies is that they are more than often unique compared to what we normally see on the big screen.  Though it’s a bit more expensive on the budget side than most movies that fall into the mid-sized category, the action comedy Free Guy (2021) that came out last Summer was a perfect example of a non-franchise conceptual film that surprisingly found an audience and became a hit even in the pandemic affect theatrical market.  It all comes down to having a movie play on the big screen that appeals to everyone, no matter if it’s something familiar or something new and unproven.  We may see more of what we saw happen during the pandemic, which was movies being given hybrid releases on both platforms, and this may be the preferred way to help bring mid-sized movies back to the big screen.  With the studios having the ability to hedge their bets across both theatrical and streaming, the movies that are mid-ranged could see a renewed presence theatrically as the pressure is off them to come out of the gate strong at the box office.  It’s still a market in flux, but the option to do so is much more possible today, and has been proven effective for some movies both big and small.  Not surprisingly, one of the last mid-sized movies to make a splash at the box office before the pandemic, Knives Out, is getting a pair of sequels, on Netflix.  There’s a crossroads that still lies ahead for these types of movies, but it should be recognized that at some point these movies were an essential part of the identity of the industry, and hopefully they can still continue to have a future in Hollywood.