Hollywood might finally start making mid-budget movies again soon

There’s a dim light at the end of the blockbuster-output tunnel. With smaller and medium-sized movies like Trap, Smile 2, Nosferatu, and Mickey 17 dominating conversations and studio presentations at this year’s CinemaCon, the expo for all things theatrical release, and similarly budgeted films continuing to show impressive gains at the box office, a question is in the air: Could the mid-budget movie make a comeback?

Hollywood’s current obsession with movies that cost north of $150 million and take up half the screens at multiplexes has a few different causes, but the easiest ones to point to all wear capes. After the breakout success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, studios focused on chasing Marvel’s formula, with big, expensive movies that aimed to earn a billion dollars or more at the box office. Blockbuster movies have been a critical part of the theatrical landscape since the term was coined in the 1950s, but the age of the billion-dollar box-office hit spawned a new blockbuster mania for studios, and particularly for ambitious studio executives. As tentpole movies increased in size, scope, and budget, they quickly started to squeeze out smaller projects.

Avengers: Endgame heroes assemble for Thanos fight

Image: Marvel Studios

Hollywood’s older model relied on a steady mix of blockbuster blowouts (“See Ben-Hur in glorious Cinemascope!”) and mid-sized movies, both to keep audiences interested and to keep budgets and profits sensible. Studios would build out their calendars with a few big blockbusters each year, plus a couple of smaller movies that might take big chances. But they stacked the majority of their calendars with projects in the mid-budget realm, movies that cost around $10 to $90 million to make (with a little wiggle room on either side), and usually involved at least one or two stars to get viewers in the door.

In the 2000s, those mid-budget slates included everything from rom-coms like 50 First Dates or Fever Pitch to prestige dramas like Michael Clayton, or dark dramas like No Country for Old Men. Mid-budget movies gave filmmakers and studios room to experiment with interesting concepts, without the need to necessarily please every possible audience quadrant, or even — in the case of smaller prestige movies, aimed at winning awards and boosting brands — to earn their money back.

But as blockbuster box-office returns soared, mid-budget movies that could triple their budgets and make $60 million at the box office seemed like chump change for studios. Instead, they started consolidating those budgets into blockbusters that had the chance to really hit it big. That mode means fewer movies and bigger risks. Without the sturdy middle-ground films that used to keep production companies afloat, every single movie became exponentially more important to each studio’s bottom line. Suddenly, every single blockbuster had to be a massive hit, making at least $500 million at the box office, just to break even. And if one missed that mark, the consequences could be devastating; no longer were there smaller over-performing movies on the ledger to cushion the financial blow.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt holds on to a railing in a train car turned vertical as Hayley Atwell clings on to him in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One

Image: Skydance/Paramount Pictures

This kind of cycle is nothing new for Hollywood. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind recounts the history of the studio blockbuster boom and bust in the ’60s, the parade of talented filmmakers and executives, like Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper, rose to power to lead the director-driven renaissance of New Hollywood in the 1970s.

But as Manohla Dargis put it in a 2010 piece for the New York Times, “Alas, that power went to their heads, and filmmakers indulged themselves into a creative dead ends (At Long Last Love) and financial calamities (One From the Heart). The Age of Aquarius and the auteurs gave way to high-concept hits driven by the corporate bottom line and toy tie-ins.”

Suddenly, an emphasis on sequels and blockbusters soared in the 1980s, but when the floor fell out, it eventually gave way to the Sundance and Miramax-led indie movie boom of the 1990s, which Biskind again chronicled, this time in his book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film a fascinating book that has taken on new dimension over the years.

Each time the cycle repeats, a few massive bombs and overall diminishing ticket sales helped studios understand that audiences wanted them to reset the market and move from bigger movies back to smaller ones. Dargis described this cycle, and the studio heads’ relationship to it best in that same Times piece, saying:

A familiar take on New Hollywood is that the inmates took over the asylum. But the truth is that the wardens were also smart enough to hand over the keys, at least as long as it made dollars and sense. The history of Hollywood is one of perpetual crisis and retrenchment and the extraordinary resilience of an industry that continually co-opts potential threats (television, video, independent filmmakers) and exploits them to its benefit.

In other words, the studios have always moved where their audiences were, as long as they had the data to find them.

Steven Spielberg has been predicting the end of this cycle, and decrying the increasingly massive budgets of blockbusters, since a 2013 speech at USC in which he said, “there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” And while he may have been early in his prediction, the dual disruption of streaming services, which tempted studios with a seemingly lucrative new business model, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which cratered theatrical attendance, upended Hollywood’s usual rhythms, and didn’t let this round of blockbusters die a natural death.

Rather than shifting away from mega-movies after high-profile box-office bombs, companies continued to invest in the biggest movies they could make. While plenty of blockbusters failed due to the box-office depression that followed COVID’s arrival, each one that made a significant splash at the box office was seen as a new sign of overall theatrical recovery from the pandemic, even if they weren’t making nearly what studios had hoped. At the same time, studios started throwing hundreds of millions into developing streaming services, using extremely iffy business models. Those services were where they parked their small and mid-budget movies, to disappointing returns.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022)

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

But it seems the studios are finally starting to feel the tides turn. With the box office slowly on the mend from the down years after COVID, blockbuster disappointments like Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Fast X, and The Marvels — all movies that would have made respectable money if their budgets hadn’t ballooned to massive, unsustainable numbers — all look like victims of the shifting preferences of audiences, rather than those crowds simply not showing up to theaters. Even Disney CEO Bob Iger has acknowledged some of this stagnation, saying that Marvel will stick with releasing just three movies a year. At the same time, mid-budget movies have started to dominate that box-office conversation more and more often, with movies like Civil War, Anyone but You, Elvis, The Black Phone, Bob Marley: One Love, and Five Nights at Freddy’s turning into bona fide hits.

Life after blockbusters was a topic of conversation for nearly every studio and theater-owner at CinemaCon 2024, the annual trade show for theatrical distribution, where leaders from the industry meet to discuss the state of movie-going. More than once, presenters from studios or theater owners mentioned the speech given at last year’s Academy Awards by American Fiction writer Cord Jefferson, who won Best Adapted Screenplay. Accepting the award, he implored studios, “instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies, or 50 $4 million movies.”

Mia Goth as Maxine Minx walking down a neon-lit Los Angeles strip with a character played by Halsey in MaXXXine

Photo: A24

While blockbusters were also key talking points for the studios at CinemaCon 2024, nearly all of them had an impressive slate of mid-budget movies on their calendars for both 2024 and 2025, including M. Night Shyamalan’s Trap, Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders, Ti West’s MaXXXine, Longlegs, Speak No Evil, Smile 2, Bong Joon-ho’s Mickey 17, The Black Phone 2, and The Bride, just to name a few.

The most heavily discussed movie of the convention also happened to be a mid-budget hit. Angel Studios’ Sound of Freedom, a movie with a budget reportedly just under $15 million, made more than $184 million at the domestic box office, blowing away everyone’s expectations, and proving to studios that creative marketing can help turn even the most modest movies into massive hits. (The movie ends with a direct address from its lead actor asking those who enjoyed the movie to buy tickets for their friends.) On top of that, Sound of Freedom’s faith-based angle revived another principle of mid-budget films: Sometimes aiming for a specialty audience and making sure everyone in that group sees your film can be more profitable than trying to make a four-quadrant movie that ends up seeming bland to everyone.

It’s not that blockbusters are going away completely. There’s still a Mission Impossible movie on the board for 2025, along with Fantastic Four, James Gunn’s Superman, and another Avatar movie. But the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward the center for the first time in more than a decade. Studios are finally starting to fill the middle of the yearly line-ups again. With the success of movies like Bullet Train, Smile, Barbarian, and even this year’s The Beekeeper, it’s getting more and more evident that audiences are eager for smaller, more interesting movies.

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