The Death of Mid-Budget Cinema
December 9, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

"Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.”
In 2003, 455 films were released. 275 of those were independent, 180 were studio films. Last year 677 films were released. So you’re not imagining things, there are a lot of movies that open every weekend. 549 of those were independent, 128 were studio films. So, a 100% increase in independent films, and a 28% drop in studio films, and yet, ten years ago: Studio market share 69%, last year 76%. You’ve got fewer studio movies now taking up a bigger piece of the pie and you’ve got twice as many independent films scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie.
posted by octothorpe (43 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
You mean all those creators talking about how their industries were getting hollowed out were on to something?

Color me shocked.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:43 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


an international financier tells Toback that the film he wants to make — a boundary-pushing political/sexual thriller starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell — can’t get financed for the $25 million budget he has in mind.

I'm announcing a Kickstarter to offer James Toback $25 million not to make this movie.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:52 PM on December 9, 2014 [29 favorites]


Previously
posted by Artw at 4:01 PM on December 9, 2014


The only way that seems possible to reverse this trend is if there become a way for the smart midrange films to become profitable on netflix. (I'd have said "online distribution" but at this point that's almost synonymous with "netflix")
posted by sammyo at 4:26 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]




(I'd have said "online distribution" but at this point that's almost synonymous with "netflix")

Comcast just nabbed House of Cards off of them, Amazon has it's own deals, so I wouldn't necessarily assume that.
posted by Artw at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


We're seeing this kind of polarization of the market in video games, too. It's all either big-budgeted AAA titles that cost tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of people worked on, or low-to-zero-budget indie games made by just a handful of people.

The crucial difference, I suppose, is that a sufficiently motivated and talented individual can make a game all by themselves (eventually!) using nothing more than a $1000 computer. Live-action filmmaking (the traditional kind, at least) requires expensive equipment and a posse.
posted by neckro23 at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have to admit, I am gleeful for the impending death of television at the hands of the internet, but I know my joy will be replaced by misery as the cartels end up finding a way to get control of online streaming anyway.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 4:47 PM on December 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


This trend has been depressing me for about 14 years or so.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:52 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Comcast just nabbed House of Cards off of them...

What's that now? Netflix is still pumping Season 3 pretty hard for it to have gone anywhere else.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 4:52 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Possibly as the result of the many competing forms of entertainment available for much less than a movie ticket, most audiences only want to shell out for a real visual spectacle.

Here's an IMDB search for movies from 2013 to present sorted by descending box office.

The top 20 results are all digital effects driven or completely animated. Hollywood has gotten stuck in an effects arms race-- the mind blowing special effects of the 90's now would look dated compared to a video game cut scene. So they have to go with bigger, flashier, more realistic CGI.
posted by justkevin at 5:00 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Then at some point, an artist with a $1000 laptop will begin to create films that to the audience is just as good as the multi-hundred-million movie. Well probably a small team, but still.
posted by sammyo at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2014


Mr. justkevin, we must not allow a NURBS/mesh gap!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 5:13 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


And that high price tag — which, unlike a production budget, doesn’t have much wiggle room on a major release — is why, counter-intuitive though it might seem, a studio would rather make a $60 million movie than, say, a $10 million one. Studios are no longer interested in small investments with small return, which aren’t worth the time or the money. They want the big enchilada.
This is what capital concentration ala Piketty means for capitalism. Investors for *anything* are sitting on bigger and bigger piles of cash and they aren't interested managing a million little small projects with small returns.

It has nothing to do with movies or culture, the same dynamic is at play in any human endeavor which requires significant capital investment.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:19 PM on December 9, 2014 [39 favorites]


"Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.”

forced a change of career focus for me, no question.

(also known as, you can't argue with accountants even when they're wrong)
posted by philip-random at 5:29 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's no coincidence that some of the best videos these days are on the smaller screens.

Times Warner may not take chances but Showcase or Netflix or Amazon will. It's not the same thing, but a lot of great people are working.
posted by bonehead at 5:31 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I thought the article raised a lot of good points, calling attention to a horrifying reality of modern movies. It's freaky to watch some not-that-old, universally beloved, grown-up movie and realize that something like it just couldn't happen today.

But the article only glanced up against one uncomfortable reality about filmmakers like Lee, Soderbergh, Lynch, Coppola, Toback, and Waters: they are not young and hungry. And most of them were not making their best movies by the time they stopped being able to get new movies funded.

Note that I said most, and these things are of course subjective. Lynch is the real baffler here, because he came off Mulhulland Drive in 2001 with a whole lot of buzz, it was hailed as his comeback picture... and then he self-financed Inland Empire in 2006 and that was that. But Waters was on a real downward slope, and Coppola directed Jack, The Rainmaker and Supernova in the 1990s before turning to self-financing. (And the reviews of his self-financed movies have been hideous.) While the article makes an excellent point that we may be missing out on the next Coppola or Waters, I think it muddies things by implying we're missing out on the masterpieces these filmmakers would be making if they had access to funding.

the mind blowing special effects of the 90's now would look dated compared to a video game cut scene

I don't know. To me, CGI often seems like it's stagnated or gotten worse. The effects in the original Jurassic Park still look terrific, but that last Hobbit movie had some shots that amazed me with how video game-y they looked. When they get around to making that Independence Day sequel, I expect the effects to look worse than the original. I see clips from all these Marvel movies, and there are a lot of shots of little video game people running around in these orange and teal worlds where it's always sunset somehow. A lot of the tentpole movies look remarkably cruddy given all the money on the screen, and I think this whole era of movies is probably going to date really badly.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:36 PM on December 9, 2014 [23 favorites]


Then at some point, an artist with a $1000 laptop will begin to create films that to the audience is just as good as the multi-hundred-million movie. Well probably a small team, but still.

Nice laptops, cameras, etc. only get you so far. If you want a movie of any real size or scope, then you are stuck needing to deal with sizeable teams of people.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:42 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I was reading about Johnny Mnemonic, and how William Gibson and Robert Longo (the director) wanted to make an arty movie for $1.5M, but couldn't get it funded unless it was a $30M movie.

"Gibson: We went in and asked for a million and a half, and they laughed. It wasn't until we started asking for much more that they started taking it seriously."
posted by zippy at 5:47 PM on December 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


I vaguely recall some years back a filmmaker saying that for him the magic number was $7M; more and they'd make creative demands, less and they wouldn't back him at all. At $7M he was considered reliable enough that they knew they'd make their money back one way or another and there was always the chance of a hit, so they'd leave him alone and let him do it. I imagine that arithmetic has changed recently.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:51 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


that last Hobbit movie had some shots that amazed me with how video game-y they looked.

A good bit of that is their wonky sense of scale, the over-the-top kinetics and generally preposterous constructs; as if the Misty Mountains are full of moon-sized Rube Goldberg catastrophe engines. If what you're depicting is unreal enough it doesn't matter how good your textures and render farm are, the mind just rejects it as bogus.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:25 PM on December 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


Didn't the “midlist” movie die in the mid-80s? I've heard Buckaroo Banzai cited as one of the last of that category.
posted by acb at 6:35 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


A good bit of that is their wonky sense of scale, the over-the-top kinetics and generally preposterous constructs; as if the Misty Mountains are full of moon-sized Rube Goldberg catastrophe engines. If what you're depicting is unreal enough it doesn't matter how good your textures and render farm are, the mind just rejects it as bogus.

wow. you've just concisely described by deep feelings of loathing while watching Peter Jackson's King Kong. It ultimately turned my stomach and I walked out of the theater roughly half way through. Just too much EVERYTHING, except anything I could give a shit about. As a direct result, I haven't bothered with any of the Hobbit movies, because to my mind, the last thing I'd be wanting from them is big deal SCALE. The Hobbit just isn't that kind of story ... except for maybe the big battle at the end, but even that's magnitudes less than Helm's Deep, let alone Minas Tirith.

And I did love LOTR, the movies, for what they were. Big deal Hollywood size epics.
posted by philip-random at 6:41 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Your instincts serve you well. LotR mostly let the scale of Middle Earth speak for itself. The Hobbit is horribly out of whack with the tone of the book; just sheer pinball machine writ gigantic madness. I won't be seeing the third.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:49 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Geek culture über alles. Pile on the sfx, build it around a comic book or some other beloved pop artifact, and make it shiny and loud as hell. And, if you still have a few dozen million left, toss in 3D.

Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:53 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't know. To me, CGI often seems like it's stagnated or gotten worse. The effects in the original Jurassic Park still look terrific, but that last Hobbit movie had some shots that amazed me with how video game-y they looked.

That may be because Jurassic Park had just 4 minutes of computer generated dinosaurs and they spent a full year getting them to look right.
posted by justkevin at 7:20 PM on December 9, 2014 [13 favorites]


Ursula Hitler: "When they get around to making that Independence Day sequel, I expect the effects to look worse than the original. "

Actually, a surprisingly large amount of ID4's special effects were not made with CGI. The spaceships, fighter jets, ruins, and landmarks (White House, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, etc.) were all large physical models made with exacting detail and then blown up in front of slow-motion cameras.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:34 PM on December 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


What they're not telling you are foreign sales are driving Hollywood movies. CGI translates very well and there's no domestic competition in foreign markets. These movies aren't being made for you. This has been a long time brewing. Paramount Vantage scored 19 Oscar nominations in 2007 and was shut down the following year.
posted by phaedon at 8:03 PM on December 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


These movies aren't being made for you.

And I'm not watching them.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:08 PM on December 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


U.S. studios get two bonuses for making CGI-heavy movies that appeal to foreign audiences -- subsidies for doing the work abroad, and they get to spend the foreign box office revenue on more foreign VFX (avoiding repatriation of income and more taxes).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:17 PM on December 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I've watched more entertaining movies on Vimeo and Vine recently compared to shlepping down to the crappy cinema.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:09 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


The silver lining here for me is how much easier it is for today's filmmakers to make extremely low-budget films that still look and sound watchable. I'm currently working on my first feature-length documentary, a fully hobbyist production. My entire budget was $2,644 from a successful small-scale Kickstarter campaign, and my entire crew consists of myself and one co-creator. We're late into post-production now and in my opinion the footage looks and sounds at least as good as your average medium-high budget 70's documentary. We're making something that nobody in their right mind would throw any significant amount of money at, and we're able to make it fully on our own terms. This mode of filmmaking is a very recent development, and I think as time goes on we're going to see some really fascinating films coming from creators situated outside the industry.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 10:23 PM on December 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


Well the kid with the laptop can only make certain sorts of film. Try making The French Connection... decent script, seasoned actors, lots of exteriors all cost money. Well you might be (very) lucky and produce the new Blair Witch but as the article says you need big bucks for advertising and distribution cost and the studios are less and less likely to pour money onto anything that's not already some sort of franchise. Read recently that the majority of movie goers now who tend to be teenagera / early 20s don't even decide what film they are going to watch until they get to the cinema. That's why you need buckets of advertising and name recognition so you can win the 'yeah that looks / I've heard that is ok' arguments among groups of friends in the foyer. You grown up obscure indie film ain't gonna cut it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:38 AM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


>This is what capital concentration ala Piketty means for capitalism. Investors for *anything* are sitting on bigger and bigger piles of cash and they aren't interested managing a million little small projects with small returns.

Shouldn't this lead to the emergence of intermediaries who would take the large investment and split it up? They could make money arbitraging the risk, which would presumably be lower spread among multiple projects.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 2:40 AM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


disclaimer: have not read piketty
posted by doiheartwentyone at 2:41 AM on December 10, 2014


What they're not telling you are foreign sales are driving Hollywood movies. CGI translates very well and there's no domestic competition in foreign markets. These movies aren't being made for you.

I think that's changing, though. The Chinese box office has risen over 50% in the past couple years, but the bulk of the growth has been in domestic features. Big Hollywood movies still do well there, but increasingly studio directors are crafting material specifically for Chinese audiences in order to keep their attention --- Iron Man 3 had sequences filmed in China, co-produced with a Chinese studio. Five, ten years from now I don't think you're going to be able to just make things-go-boom movies and expect foreign audiences to lap them up. $1,000 laptops with FinalCut Pro on them exist in India and Argentina too.
posted by Diablevert at 3:22 AM on December 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


As people have said, this has been brewing for a long time. David Puttnam was made head of Columbia Pictures in 1986, and adopted a strategy of producing lots of small films (Hope & Glory, The Last Emperor, Baron Munchausen) rather than a few bigger ones, but it didn't pay off, and he left after two years.
posted by DanCall at 4:47 AM on December 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


"Let's make small films!"

*Hires Terry Gilliam*
*Is fired*
posted by fullerine at 6:09 AM on December 10, 2014 [13 favorites]




Stop worrying everybody, they've shut down pirate bay.
posted by Trochanter at 8:33 AM on December 10, 2014 [1 favorite]




Next year will look a lot differnet ... as Universal’s slate is sequel-heavy, including ...Ted 2

What could be more indie-mid-range than a smut talking Boston Teddy bear?
posted by sammyo at 3:20 PM on December 10, 2014


What could be more indie-mid-range than a smut talking Boston Teddy bear?

A: Seen it
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:35 PM on December 10, 2014


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