The Quiet Return of the Mid-Budget Movie

The Girl On The Train, The Accountant, Arrival and more are proving that there is a place after all for mid-budget cinema...

“It’s hard to make a $40 million movie”, uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer told us back in 2013. “Because usually those movies don’t travel overseas well. We’ve been trying to get a sports movie made, which would cost $30-40 million, and Disney said we can’t get foreign traction for it. It might play well in America, but it’s not going to play well elsewhere in the world.”

More recently, Warner Bros head honcho, just last week, argued that “the movies that are breaking through are the big franchises,” noting that the top ten blockbusters of 2016 are set account for around 30% of all box office takings. Three years ago, that number was at 25%.

It’s become an invariably accepted fact, then, that movie studios have edged away from what traditionally were the mid-budget productions, those $40-50 million-ish films that used to sit on the divide between smaller films with more creative control, and bigger ventures that come saddled with the need to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Studios, instead, have tended to go for a two-tier approach. On the one hand, there’s a more eggs in one basket strategy, where studios are making fewer bigger budget films, but those movies tend to be more expensive than ever. These are the tentpoles that need to launch or service franchises, and while it’d be wrong to say gambles aren’t being taken, these are still the nine figure movies where a studio is going to want to have its say.

On the other side, there’s been an adoption of micro-to-small budget films, with many looking enviably at the model that producer Jason Blum has successfully deployed with Blumhouse Productions. It’s born out of horror, where films that have generally cost less than $10 million to make have been earning north of $100 million at the global box office. Granted, there are still distribution and marketing costs to factor in, but then there’s also the upside of lucrative home releases. It’s an area where big profits are being made. 

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As such, with micro-budget and art house arms producing films generally under $20 million apiece for the negative, and a handful of blockbusters each needing at least $140 million to realize, the majority of studios have fallen duly into line.

However, while nobody has been looking, it seems that mid-budget movies have quietly come back into fashion. Furthermore, whilst they haven’t been generating the $500 million+ returns that studios seem to seek, they’re nonetheless making somebody, somewhere, a fair amount of money.

While the studios have – generally – been occupied with their own gambles, it’s one-time smaller companies that have spotted the gap and duly moved in. DreamWorks Pictures, for instance – hardly a major in its current guise – invested $45 million in bringing Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train to the big screen. It utilized a distribution deal with Universal in the US and Entertainment One in the UK, and has duly been rewarded with a $165 million worldwide box office take thus far. Arrival, distributed by Paramount in the US and EOne again in the UK, is a $47 million film that’s up to $100 million thus far, with more to come once its Oscar run kicks in.

This autumn, it’s far from an isolated example. Working Title, Studio Canal, and Miramax stumped up $35 million to make Bridget Jones’s Baby, and thus far, $211 million has been returned (interestingly, that’s in spite of the movie not catching on in America). Laika’s $55 million investment in Kubo And The Two Strings will ultimately see green, and Lionsgate is surely already celebrating the fact that it found $20 million to make La La Land.

It’d be remiss to say that the studios of old have entirely abandoned mid-budget too.

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Ironically, Warner Bros has been the most successful studio when dabbling in this area. It helped fund the $45 million The Accountant, the $50 million War Dogs, the $60 million Sully, and the $70 million Storks, scoring two profitable films out of four there. Crucially, the less successful films didn’t leave the studio having to announce a profits warning to investors.

Furthermore, Disney invested $65 million in the impressive Pete’s Dragon, Paramount got a Jack Reacher to the screen by keeping the negative bill to $60 million, and earlier this year, Fox became the envy of every Hollywood studio when its $58 million investment in Deadpool was turned into nearly $800 million of worldwide takings.

These are still huge amounts of money to spend, of course, but in an era where the number of outlets by which a film can earn money continues to grow (everything from on-demand in hotel rooms, through to the rapid growth of the Chinese market), there is a growing sense that mid-budget is feeling a little less abandoned.

Sony’s summer, in fact, was arguably saved by its prudence. It mitigated the $145 million it invested in Ghostbusters by a trio of smaller investments – Sausage Party, Don’t Breathe, and The Shallows – that each overperformed. Those three were more micro- than mid-budget, but it does suggest a door is opening for filmmakers, particularly genre filmmakers, who want to do more than scrimp and save, but also have no urge to break the bank.

There are still risks to mid-budget, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s point still stands. It’s very rare for a hugely expensive movie to bomb altogether, and sizeable productions get the exposure they need by nature of the studio heft behind them to earn ticket sales. Fox’s 2015 Fantastic Four film is rarely cited as anyone’s favorite movie, but the $120 million still rustled up $167 million at the box office. Its assorted home formats releases will eek it into profit at some point.

Contrast that with the reported $45 million or so that Broad Green Pictures poured into the Bryan Cranston-headlined The Infiltrator. The film, for all its many qualities, didn’t get the traction or attention that a major blockbuster would, and as it stands, it’s on course to recoup half of that (with interest outside the US, as Bruckheimer predicted, not great). A studio could more easily absorb that than the smaller companies that have moved into the mid-budget space.

But still: mid-budget allows venturing towards material that Hollywood had been threatening to all-but-abandon. Be it allowing something other than a broad comedy or horror film to be R-rated, or a thriller with an edge more in common with ’80s and ’90s output. Perhaps even a thoughtful, intelligent science fiction drama that doesn’t rely on a bombastic score and a forced and rousing ending.

Cinema needs mid-budget. It needs a space for directors to expand their visions, and the stories they want to tell, without having to jump straight from something very small to something very big. We’re still a long way from where we were in the early 1990s perhaps, but in a year with many bumps in it, the quietly returning confidence in mid-budget cinema is a very notable step forward for me.