The Disappearance of The Cinematic Middle Class

Making films is an expensive undertaking. Between all the paychecks, all the rented space, and all the equipment, there’s not many people who can go about creating something like that on their own. The cost of making even a smaller film is akin to buying a luxurious piece of property. It ain’t a poor mans game. Still, that’s nothing compared to the kind of big budgets we’re seeing nowadays. Nine digits is becoming a more common occurrence in the cinematic world. And yet, if you look at the Academy Awards, evidently there still is a place for art-house cinema. In a strange parallel way, the market for these smaller-budget “indie” flicks is widening. Outlets like Netflix, Amazon, and Art-House-centric subdivisions of Major Production studios (a.k.a. Sony Pictures Classics) seem to be offering greater opportunity for the effect-light, plot-centric narratives. With these two opposite forces pulling further and further away from one another at the rate that they are, it’s worth asking the question: what is happening to the disappearing cinematic middle class?

Here’s the cast for the latest Marvel outing and if there’s any question as to where their budgetary concerns are, look no further. I hear there are upwards of sixty “main characters” in the film. It’s a good thing actors are generally pretty good at sharing the spotlight and don’t have a history of large egos or anything…

Studios are having to dole out the big bucks to hold audience’s attention nowadays as the fancy effects of days past just don’t seem to have the same sway over audiences today. Franchise films are the worst offender of this. The first entry in the Fast and Furious franchise was on a thirty-eight million dollar budget. Seems reasonable(ish). You might be inclined to claim inflation affects those numbers – but the first entry in the Harry Potter series was released the same year with a one hundred and twenty five million dollar budget. The latest Fast and Furious film, The Fate of the Furious (really?), had a production budget of two-hundred and fifty million dollars. That’s some serious dough. A quarter billion dollars seems like a lot of money – especially when you consider that it’s the price of: some valuations (for newer corporations), (bigger than) some nations entire Gross Domestic Product, and one sixteenth the amount needed to buy out all of Star Wars in it’s entirety (through Lucasfilms). And that’s just one movie. Next month, Avengers: Infinity War will be the first of (what’s supposedly) two back to back superhero epics, filmed simultaneously and rumored to cost an estimated one billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. But they’re splitting it into two movies, you say! Well even if one of those films costs around half of that budget, hovering somewhere in the five hundred million range, it’s still outlandish. The entire Lord of the Rings original trilogy would still cost less than that one Avengers movie (and over two-hundred million dollars less). Let that sink in. Budgets have ballooned to crazy numbers in recent years and films seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Even animated films, which once used to be a fairly mid-range budget category (The original Shrek was only sixty million), have now become a fairly standard nine-digit player. Does Kung-Fu Panda need to cost one hundred and thirty million? Probably not!

Jeff Bezos is so blinded by the uninterrupted amounts of success he’s facing, that he has to wear these sunglasses everywhere. Amazon has become a substantial player in the indie movie marketplace, making their way to the awards shows more and more frequently as of late.

There are a few factors to these budget increases. For one, film studios are having to compete more than they used to have to in the past. Which in some ways has it’s benefits. You aren’t going to see many garbage movies like, say All About Steve, pop up anymore! But it means that the market is getting tougher and tougher for ideas to get through the door. The onset of on-demand media outlets like Amazon video and Netflix have provided people ample reason to not go to the movies. And that’s not to say Netflix is providing better material. They’ve had quite a few duds. But for them, it’s all about quantity (over quality). They can make a John Carter level bomb and come out the other side just fine. They recently agreed to fund a Martin Scorsese project that’s budget has ballooned to over one hundred and forty million and they’re still planning on releasing ballpark seven-hundred other original series/movies this year. That’s substantial. But their point is: you’ll eventually find something you can get behind if you scroll long enough. Especially if they shove The Santa Clarita Diet down your throat after every single other show you watch. And if all that isn’t enough to grab your attention and keep you subscribed, they now have Obama. Boom. How are you going to compete with the kind of viewership Obama is certain to draw in? Easy! You just boost your budget. Because it’s going to take some kind of high-stakes, CGI-fueled entertainment to keep people interested in this day and age. But spending all that money on visual stimulus seems like the least risky response when the cost of going to the movies has also grown so radically! People have come to expect more from their moviegoing experience and coupled with that, they can’t be subject to whatever Uwe Boll is up to these days. Moviegoers are demanding more. So we’ve got rising budgets, rising expectations, and rising prices all around. But on the other end of the budgetary spectrum, we’re seeing a kind of inverse effect.

David Letterman has even embraced Netflix as a platform to elevate his previous talk-show antics. He now gets to run the show almost entirely the way he wants. Obama was evidently enticed as well! Look at his face. Either that or he’s planning his own post-retirement beard. 

Whether or not you’re interested in art-house cinema, you’ve at least become aware of some of the lower-budget films making waves with the press nowadays. Whether it’s the internet, or a generally wider approach to marketing, films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Ladybird aren’t typically the types of films to receive the kind of attention they’ve been getting. It’s a press boon. For one, they’re buoyed by their quality. I personally think it’s fantastic that these lower-budget films are getting the kind of press they are getting. It’s opening up the door for many more freshman directorial outings and new, fresh cinematic visions. This is in part because of the appeal of a cheap, well-made film. People are more dialed into their Oscar pools if they’ve seen the movie and every year, there’s a new batch of buzz-worthy films making their rounds in the festival circuit to eventual end up on your friends’ Oscar party ballot. This kind of exposure helps out studios immensely. Imagine the kind of returns you get when you buy out a two million dollar film like The Florida Project? The movie didn’t even generate that much Oscar buzz, but it still earned over double it’s cost in returns. And if you’re a big studio, enough of those small projects and you’re starting to make some good money back. It’s a safe bet – especially in the age we live now, where fresh content is incredibly hard to come by. And in some ways, it feels like these films are only getting cheaper and cheaper. Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Unsane (isn’t he retired?), which came out recently, had a budget of just one million dollars. And it takes a stretch of the imagination to figure out exactly how even that much was spent on the film. The man shot the film using a couple of iPhones and some fifteen dollar editing software from the App Store. Add in a little of The Crown’s Claire Foy, a thin veil of toxic masculinity, (as well as some expensive…props? Sound equipment?) and boom! You have a quality psychological thriller. It’s experiments like these which show how much more a certain type of filmmaking has become these days. You aren’t going to be able to create the next generation’s Napoleon Dynamite without a good wad of cash, but you may be able to make something that resembles a modern day Fish Tank. And this is something to celebrate. It brings more opportunity into an industry known and applauded for it’s exclusivity. Opening the door to other filmmaking opportunities is never a bad thing. But when you’re making films with an iPhone, your subject range is limited. You can sure make any sepia-drenched, neo-noir, drama, mystery, thriller, emotional thinkpiece…. but you can’t make a good space epic. Or really anything where you’re particularly concerned about the image. And while that’s good and grand for student films and one-off cinematic experiments, it’s not a particularly lasting solution. Is it? But what are you left with. Even as a veteran filmmaker, your budget is likely to be cut short unless you’re making the next Superhero epic.

Apologies for the scantily-clad Soderbergh image here. It’s a rare image of a legendary director twirling an ancient piece of technology around. That being said, it totally speaks volumes about Soderbergh’s experimental nature and penchant for low-budget solutions to high-quality concepts.

And so there’s been this mass content exodus to television, which has been the biggest winner in this whole mess. When you want to make your mid-budget picture and you’ve got an idea that might incur some risk, where else are you going to go, but television? In some ways, it’s great. For many, television is so much more accessible and affordable than going to the cinema anyways. For producers, it means your content is going to get seen by more people more easily. Plus, as discussed with Netflix previously, there’s a lot more room for errors. Even if your concept sucks, you’ll at least be given the opportunity to have a proper run at it. They have money to throw at anyone who comes off the street with a novel idea. And television studies will let you see your project come together with less red tape than major film studios. In the past few years, there have been countless complaints from filmmakers who felt the studio was infringing on their creative prowess. This led to the expulsion of perfectly talented directors in a great position to make a solid film (see: Edgar Wright). With TV, you avoid all that. You shed the harsh, obtrusive might of the studios in favor of a more liberated platform with fewer pitfalls (and nicer bosses). Hell, Amazon encourages you to think outside the box with an open submission platform for ideas. It really forces creators to sit there and think: do I want to see my concept executed at all cost, no matter which platform? Or do I believe the media matters? And that’s the issue I think a lot of those middle-budget filmmakers are grappling with. Without many studios willing to stick out their necks and actually risk for their returns, we banish these mid-range films to cinematic purgatory. With their disappearance, we’re confronted with an even bigger problem: the disappearance of the cinematic (budgetary) middle class.

Here’s the head of MoviePass basking in their success. They recently added Landmark theaters to their list of applicable vendors (yay)! Services like these may actually be the answer to the problem of the disappearing mid-range films. It removes some of the high-stakes pressure of going to the movies associated with their sky-high costs.

Who really cares? What are the actual consequences of our budgetary averages stretching to both extremes? Movies are getting bigger and smaller at the same time and all of that mid-budget creativity is falling through the cracks into the world of television. The phrase, stretched too thin, comes to mind when we look at what’s happening with the financial aspect of moviemaking in the modern era. This has been trending in one direction for a while now and it’s becoming more concrete. But there’s one huge incentive of this kind of trend: No risk! These well-executed, high-stakes films are going to be a financial boon no matter what as long as you pump enough money into it. On the other end of the spectrum, if you make your movie cheap enough and market it the right way, critical praise coupled with smart social media campaigns and word-of-mouth marketing will make an easy payday too. But with the disappearing cinematic middle class, we lose the risk, which is one of those things that makes cinema great. By playing it safe, studios are becoming more and more formulaic. Audiences will become more and more dismayed. Ticket sales, and other methods to grow moviegoing audiences (see: Moviepass) will see numbers dwindle – as the choose-your-own-media platforms boom (Netflix expects 3/4 of America to be onboard in the next thirty years). With all of these avenues narrowing, so will the opportunity for solid storytelling. We’re shutting the door on risk-takers. Films like Star Wars and Superbad were mid-budget films for their era that ended up starting movements. It’s a crazy thought, but even movies like Get Out could see themselves lost to a streaming service (or entirely) if the trend continues the way it does.  The only thing we can do right now is reward the risky films – no matter how good or bad they turn out. Take a risk and go see a movie you’ve never heard of because it just might be taking a huge risk on you!


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