The Numbers Game is a monthly column breaking down the economics of modern filmmaking to show just how big of an impact they have on the movies that make it to release. Ever wonder why (insert movie here) exists at all? We’ll try to help.
Even by the standards of online film culture, the summer of 2016 saw a lot of talk of hits and flops, both in the critical and financial senses. The controversy around Rotten Tomatoes and critics in general, while fairly nonsensical (says the CoS film critic), is at least entrenched in the logic of fans who feel such an intense identification with “their thing” that any criticism of it becomes a personal insult. This month’s column isn’t here to say whether this is a good or bad thing, but to acknowledge that this exists and seems to be increasingly prevalent. The fostered personal connections that “universe-building” aims to monetize are a real function of the industry these days, and it’s why so much of the dialogue around this past summer’s box office was focused around the successes and/or failures of studios to capitalize on the increasing value and ubiquity of franchise loyalism.
But while this loyalty has made no shortage of money for the bigger properties, there’s a casualty in all of this furor over big-ticket franchise movies: the lower-budget studio film. This past summer, a number of modest productions whiffed on so much as breaking even, despite having (in most cases) positive critical and audience receptions. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the latest feature from The Lonely Island, debuted to just $4.6 million on its opening weekend (this despite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows also underperforming through the same weekend) and peaked at less than $10 million before disappearing from theaters. The Nice Guys was critically acclaimed upon its release, but Shane Black’s film left theaters with just $36 million; it barely cleared its reported $50 million budget worldwide. Though less well-regarded, just last weekend 20th Century Fox’s Morgan was released in just over 2,000 theaters nationwide and debuted to just $2 million, with a per-theater average of less than $1,000. Despite having a budget of just $8 million, it’s still unclear if the film will break even.
Chart created by The Wrap
In fairness, there are and continue to be success stories as well. Straight Outta Compton is a sterling example of a small film finding its place in the market if ever there was one; the $28 million production topped out at $161 million in the US and crossed $200 million worldwide. Earlier last summer, Pitch Perfect 2 notched $184 million domestic on a similar budget. You can trace back through the past several years and find them within the franchise model, but only in very particular cases. It’s not necessarily that the low-budget film is entirely disappearing, but more and more of them are being made with the same franchise plans as their bigger contemporaries. It’s endemic of the current market as much as anything; if it can’t be sequelized, it isn’t worth the time.
So while it’s not as though studios will completely stop making these films, it’s not difficult to imagine them becoming even fewer and farther between, skewing younger, pushing fewer boundaries. The release schedule in a given year is another problem in this regard. Next year, January and February are uncommonly packed with risky big-ticket items, like Lionsgate’s Power Rangers revival and the beginning of the Dark Tower series. Next summer is garishly full of sequels, as has become custom. And even the end of the year, typically considered “Oscar season,” is now yearly territory for Star Wars and Marvel productions. As more and more cinematic universes crop up, and the calendar becomes crowded earlier in advance, the emphasis might only continue to shift further away from the potential breakout successes and toward the supposed guarantees.
In his review of Morgan, our Randall Colburn noted that “…it’s the kind of low-stakes genre affair that’s been all but diminished in the modern studio system.” There’s truth to this. As studios’ investments in $250 million productions escalate to keep up with the ongoing franchise gold rush, there’s less and less money to go around for mid-budget productions. And when those appear, they’re usually hybrid offerings, like this summer’s successful Central Intelligence, which had the broad appeal of The Rock, Kevin Hart, and being as much an action film as a comedy to its credit. The smaller studio production is seemingly becoming less and less of a priority, especially now that some of these films are struggling to even capitalize on modest foundations.
What then of the mid-budget adult film, the primary casualty in this process? While the previously acknowledged hits do exist, they’re far more often than not aimed at a younger audience. Even most of this year’s flops skewed younger, because simply put, genuine “adult” films in the traditional/non-lewd sense are becoming fewer and farther between. It’s increasingly difficult for a promising filmmaker to work with studio money if it’s not in the service of some kind of property, and with fewer opportunities to make high-minded, ambitious projects (or at this point, even stand-alone films), many directors either jump straight from the indies to massive tentpoles (Colin Trevorrow) or choose to explore television’s broadening possibilities. The loss in all of this is the possibility of the next mainstream auteur breaking out, as inflated budgets and risk aversion and audience demands for more familiar properties all coalesce into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where burnout on franchises is constantly supplemented with new, more exciting franchises and studios stop making interesting mid-budget movies because they eradicated any market for them.
Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey has spoken to the point of filmmakers abandoned by this version of the industry: “Back in the 1980s and 1990s … it was possible to finance — either independently or via the studio system — mid-budget films (anywhere from $5 million to $60 million) with an adult sensibility. But slowly, quietly, over roughly the decade and a half since the turn of the century, the paradigm shifted. Studios began to make fewer films, betting big on would-be blockbusters, operating under the assumption that large investments equal large returns.” Bailey wrote this at the end of 2014, and this trend has only carried on since then, evidenced in everything from franchises’ five-plus-year plans for releases to Warner Bros. recently dedicating entire arms of its workforce to individual franchise properties.
The effect trickles down, after a time. When there’s no room at the studio level, filmmakers have to start taking lower-budget projects, which eliminates spaces for brand-new filmmakers attempting to cut their teeth in turn. And that’s to say nothing of the filmmakers who were relevant before this studio change. Bailey, again: “There’s an entire constellation of cult and indie stars, filmmakers who came of age in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, who have either vanished from the current scene or are struggling to maintain a place within it. How many of that generation’s auteurs have we lost? How many great movies … are they, thanks to the current myopic model, not making?” As the industry loses interest in the mid-budget model, and the audience responds in turn, so much more is lost than simply the volume of output in a given year. It’s a genuine hazard to quality control after a time, and a quick and easy way to breed a generation of viewers uninterested in a film that isn’t immediately familiar to them. The mid-budget movie is, can be, and has been so much more than one more vertical in a company strategy.
Or, as put by Steven Soderbergh in a 2013 address: “Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form…
But the problem is that cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience. The reasons for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical, but when you add an ample amount of fear and a lack of vision, and a lack of leadership, you’ve got a trajectory that I think is pretty difficult to reverse.”