If The Buggles had written “Video Killed The Radio Star” today, it may have read more like, “high concept television killed the mid-budget film”. However, mid-budget cinema comprises a large portion of what makes Christmas the cosiest time of the year, because these films are predominantly released during this period. My own seasonal nostalgia for the time of year is evoked when I recollect the slick polish of Carol and I, Tonya. This festival season may be no different. It’s already proving to be bountiful for mid-budget movies with Cate Blanchett hopefully winning another Oscar for her performance as the eponymous Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s Tár and the fateful bromance of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin. Although the meme potential of both films has been potent, box office numbers have not as contemporary audiences find themselves inundated with the glut known as the prestige age of television. The fate of the mid-budget film rests less in the hands of film-goers than media moguls who are gleefully pivoting to streaming.
Mid-budget cinema loosely encompasses films whose budgets fall within the range of $15 to $60 million and is indebted to genres like drama, biopic, and courtroom films, all of which have plummetted in demand since the 1990s. Films of this calibre tend to gravitate around a tight cast of three or four main characters and an even tighter screenplay. This formulaic approach reached its zenith through the ripple effects of the rise of indie darlings in the late 1980s like Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers, who would go on to make mainstream films in the 1990s including Good Will Hunting, The Limey, and Barton Fink respectively. These films exemplified the benefits of an economical screenplay and a handful of acting talent could favour box office success. But in the decades hence, this kind of American cinema has become diluted and lost in the mainstream vanguard.
American author Ben Fritz reverses the traditional maxim in his 2019 book The Big Picture, “it used to be that television, the home of endlessly recycled sitcoms and cop shows, was the medium of the familiar and cinema the medium of originality,” in order to prove that television has replaced cinema as the beacon of artistic showmanship. He charts the decline of the mid-budget film concurrent with the rise of fêted television productions like The Sopranos and The Wire. However, the new era of streaming has encouraged a binge-watching model which sustains itself on a never-ending consumption of televisual content. And it is endorsed through the platforms, which provide a ten-second countdown before the next episode begins to play, shown in Netflix series like House of Cards. Television may offer an effective (potentially endless) product, but the importance of mid-tier cinema is that it keeps film culture, and cinema-going, alive.
Blockbusters may provide limitless escapism for audiences during the festive season, but thanks to the media circus of awards ceremonies, it’s also a period for cinema that nominally attempts to deal with adult themes to receive attention outside of the main metropolises. These kinds of films have slowly been corroded since the dominance of streaming television. If Christmas isn’t a time to unfurl in the cinemas and watch the latest new releases of Black Adam and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, then you also have the opportunity to see some auteur-driven autofictional recreations. Old Hollywood legends like Steven Spielberg push this agenda in his latest outfit The Fabelmans, as well as a slew of other 20–50-million-dollar films like Glass Onion and Bones and All (all of which will hit streaming before they end up in a cinema near you). This is a slate of films which have attempted to resonate with the blockbuster market, but there have been few signs of encouragement from the results thus far.
Global streaming giants like Netflix, who distribute, produce, and exhibit their own films, continue to relegate the position of art cinema to televisions and other streaming devices. This is evident in the recent Netflix releases: Andrew Dominik’s Blonde was made for $22 million and provides a ghastly intrusion into Marilyn Monroe’s turbulent life. The saddest part of this film’s production predominantly lies in the puppet distribution approach, which meant it barely played in theatres, even in my hometown of Melbourne, where Dominik graduated university. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, which was acquired during the Venice Film Festival, tells the surrealist life of a documentary filmmaker whose life uncannily resembles Iñárritu’s own. Bardo’s short-lived release in Melbourne meant that it was gone from theatres in a fortnight. Netflix’s production model relies on mid-scale movies but the distribution and exhibition creates an issue for audiences because they’re in cinemas for a mere moment. Therefore, Fritz’s earlier remarks couldn’t be any closer to the truth as Netflix usurps the market for mid-budget cinema by producing and distributing its own products for our television screens, leaving the cinema relatively desolate.
Fritz also paraphrases Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix, who has argued that “movies are simply stories made of moving images that you consume in one night, whereas TV shows are ones that take several nights.” Netflix’s chief priority towards providing a limitless experience of entertainment that only a medium like television can provide is daunting for the future of mid-budget entertainment films which don’t necessarily breed off the likelihood of sequels and the construction of cinema franchises. Hollywood competes on an ever-expanding global market, from China to Brazil, and therefore its stories and narratives need to appeal to as many demographics as possible, which has led to the proliferation of the franchise movie.
However, mid-budget films are affected by ever-increasing costs, because a studio can quite reliably return their money on investment by producing fewer films if one of them is a hit. They are also seen to be a bigger gamble than in previous years. Fritz reiterates, “today, anything that’s not a big-budget franchise film or a low-cost, ultra-low-risk comedy or horror movie is an endangered species at Hollywood’s six major studios.” Thus, as time passes perhaps the cosiest time of the year will no longer be fixated on the latest art house concept, masterminded by some kind of European auteur, but rather mindless consumption around a television alongside family and friends. Bardo and Blonde may justify our cravings for art cinema, but given its self-mutilative model which prioritises clicks, hits, and quantity over quality, this shouldn’t be considered a long-term goal for sustaining independent production.
If audiences desire the trend of mindless consumption in which mid-tier budget films are relegated to streaming platforms, losing credibility and popularity as an art form, then there is not much more which can be done. There needs to be a drive from producers, directors and distributors to bring audiences back to the cinema. Mid-budget films are an important part of the ecology of film and they rely on components of film production like a tight screenplay, whereas big-budget films prioritise special effects and ensemble casts of A-list actors. The recent reception to Banshees of Inishiren and Tár prove that there is still an audience for these films. However, the dominance of streaming models is hard to overcome. Hopefully, in the new year there will be greater demand for the mid-budget movie, and we will be rescued from the plight of ‘mid-budget streaming’.