Could the Pandemic Cause the Decline of the Franchise Era of Hollywood?
We Could Be on the Verge of Witnessing the Rebirth of the Mid-Budget Movie
Felix Quiñonez Jr.
When Warner Brothers took Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s latest cerebral, big-budget summer blockbuster off the release calendar, it also took any hope that we would have anything resembling a typical summer at the movies.
More importantly, it’s made it increasingly clear that Hollywood is undergoing a seismic change that could see a slow but steady shift away from Hollywood’s reliance on big-budget, too big to fail blockbusters, the kind that Christopher Nolan specializes in. And surprisingly, it could even see the rebirth of the mid-budget Hollywood movie.
Believe it or not, studios weren’t always tripping over themselves to establish their own “cinematic universe” or desperately trying to kickstart a franchise. Having a “built-in audience” or fans that will see every entry in a series without hesitation, was not crucial to get a movie made. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its comic book brethren took over Hollywood, it was the mid-budget, star-driven films that dominated movie theaters.
What is a mid-budget movie?
A mid-budget movie is a Hollywood studio stand-alone, story-driven film. It’s too big to qualify as a low-budget indie but not in the same league as a big-budget blockbuster. With movies like Philadelphia, Doc Hollywood, City Slickers, Ghost, and many others, the mid-budget movie reigned supreme. They connected with audiences, turned actors into movie stars, and very often gained awards recognition. They could also tackle mature subject matter. Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And the fact that their budgets weren’t astronomical meant that these movies often enjoyed healthy profits.
So, when exactly did these once, prevailing mid-budget movies become unfashionable? Like most things, it didn’t happen at the flick of a switch but through a gradual shift. As special effects improved by leaps and bounds, technological limitations no longer hindered a filmmaker’s imagination. Movies could go bigger than ever before, and the potential for profits grew accordingly. Suddenly, “healthy profits” were no longer as appealing.
When one successful blockbuster could make more than ten mid-budget movies combined, the answer seemed obvious to studios. It appeared that mid-budget films were no longer investments worth taking. Unlike most independent movies, they are still expensive enough to pose a financial risk. More importantly, unlike blockbusters, they don’t have the potential to cross the highly coveted $1billion mark at the worldwide box office. And they certainly don’t provide the ample potential for merchandise profits. As big as franchise movies can be, even their monstrous box office grosses can pale compared to the money there is to be made from toys and licensing deals. Additionally, franchise films arrive with the “built-in audience” that studios always crave. On the other hand, with midbudget movies, studios find themselves having to win over audiences every time.
And every year, studios release more big-budget movies. There was a time when a well-timed mid-budget film worked as the perfect counter-programming to box-office behemoths. Mamma Mia found success on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, and The Devil Wears Prada didn’t have trouble connecting with audiences on the same weekend as Superman Returns, among other cases. But franchise movies keep getting bigger. In 2008, The Dark Knight broke the opening weekend box-office record when it grossed over $158 million in its first three days. Today, The Dark Knight’s opening weekend ranks as number 18 on that chart. And as these movies get bigger, they take up more of the audiences and screens.
In a NY Times article Jason E. Squire, editor of “The Movie Business Book” and a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, pointed out that “These huge franchise pictures are elbowing out midrange and lower-budget movies. It’s harder for midsize movies to get theaters in the first place, much less hold onto them long enough to build an audience.”
It also must be noted that star power doesn’t seem to be the box office draw that it used to be. The kind of actor that audiences will see in any movie (Will Smith and Tom Cruise at their respective peaks) is becoming increasingly rare. These days, the franchise itself is the real draw. And studios are more tempted to build a stable of franchises than take their chances on original projects.
But the fact that mid-budget movies represent more risk while offering fewer rewards doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a place in the film world. Taking those risks resulted in modern-day classics like LA Confidential, Good Will Hunting, Jerry Maguire, among many others. And it would be a shame if studios stopped making them simply because they don’t sell toys.
Enter the MCU
Big budget movies have certainly been around long before 2008, but in hindsight, it all seems like a mere warmup for the MCU. That summer, Iron Man arrived in theaters and heralded a new era of Hollywood filmmaking. It seemed like a risky move at the time, but it was a huge hit commercially and critically. It made Robert Downey Jr. the most unlikely A-list star since Johnny Depp, and the movie became a watershed moment for Hollywood. These days, the MCU is so prominent that it almost feels like it’s always been there.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Hollywood if a success story didn’t inspire an army’s worth of imitators. It wasn’t long before a “Cinematic Universe” became the order of the day, and every studio wanted to get in on the action. With their library of DC comic book characters on hand, WB seemed like the most prepared follow suit. However, at the time, they were riding high on the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy.
But before his trilogy was even over, WB was already planning. In 2011, Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds, was positioned as their answer to Iron Man. The goal was to kick start their cinematic universe. Instead, it failed spectacularly. Audiences and critics loathed it. More importantly, it lost a lot of money, bringing their plans to a screeching halt.
However, it didn’t take long before they would try again with 2013’s Man of Steel. Although that movie inspired mixed reactions, most people agree that it was a huge step up from Green Lantern. Since then, they have released seven other films with varying degrees of success.
Sony was also eager to jump on the bandwagon. With Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Sony had the first blockbuster of the modern superhero age, but it was clear that their reboot with Andrew Garfield didn’t connect with as many fans as the Tobey Maguire films. Because of this, they scrambled to make 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 a jumping-off point for its cinematic universe. Unfortunately for them, that movie failed to connect with audiences and critics, forcing them to shelve their plans. Eventually, Sony teamed up with Disney to bring Spider-Man, now played by Tom Holland, into the MCU fold. They are again attempting to start a cinematic universe. Fox Studios also briefly flirted with the idea of combining their X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises. However, the utter failure of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four put a quick stop to those plans.
However, even when studios aren’t trying to will another cinematic universe into existence, they often still pick established Intellectual property over original ideas. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Jurassic World was basically a remake of Jurassic Park, but it still made almost $1.7 billion at the box office. Its sequel was less beloved but still grossed more than $1.3 Billion in theaters, and there is a third movie on the way. On the other hand, The Terminator franchise highlights how committed studios are to keeping their franchises alive even if audiences seemed to have moved on.
The last time audiences loved a Terminator movie was in 1991 with James Cameron’s T2: Judgment Day. However, almost like clockwork, every few years there is another Terminator sequel/reboot in theaters for audiences to ignore. At best, they break even at worst; they lose over $100 million. More importantly, they all fail to bring the series to the heights of their heyday or even justify their existence.
Sometimes this commitment at mining the mythical “built-in audience” can be so misguided as to border on delusional. What else could explain a studio greenlighting a $180 million budget for the Denis Villeneuve directed, Blade Runner 2049? Released in 1982, Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, is considered a cult classic, but it was hardly a box-office sensation. It’s also not as universally loved or even known as its passionate, yet relatively small following would have you believe. While its influence can be felt in a lot of modern cinema, Blade Runner itself was not as widely seen as the more popular movies it inspired.
The Denis Villeneuve directed sequel was thoughtful, moving, and above all else, visually arresting movie. Unfortunately, it was never going to attract the massive audience that the studio seemed to hope for when they approved such a huge budget.
But if there is a perfect encapsulation of Hollywood’s obsession with franchises, it’s Disney’s handling of Star Wars. Before Disney bought Lucasfilm, six Star Wars live-action films were released over 28 years. On the other hand, the Disney-owned Star Wars has seen five films in four years.
That’s not to say big-budget movies are inherently bad. There are plenty of examples of franchise big-budget movies that are good, even great. But the level of priority given to them by studios ultimately crowds out other, smaller films.
Additionally, it seems that every year the “summer” movie season begins earlier, usually with a comic book blockbuster. Summer movie season used to start on Memorial Day weekend; then it got pushed up to the first week of May. Lately, even that hasn’t been early enough as the two most recent Avengers movies (both broke opening weekend records) opened at the end of April.
Studios don’t even wait until the summer to unleash blockbuster movies anymore. Huge movies like Black Panther, The Beauty and the Beast, and Captain Marvel have taken up residency in the early months of February and March. The way it’s going, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which it’s summer, all year long at the cinemas. Or at least that’s how it seemed before COVID 19 struck.
Hollywood in the Age of COVID19
At the end of 2019, it started in a seemingly benign matter. News started slowly spreading about a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. But it wasn’t necessarily something a lot of people took seriously or even thought about. Nobody took what was happening in China as a warning but as something that had nothing to do with them. But by March, the picture had changed drastically, and COVID19 brought the world to a grinding halt.
Cities all over the world went under lockdown. As the virus spread at alarming rates, people lost their jobs; businesses were forced to close. And months later, things haven’t returned to normal, and there are no signs that they will anytime soon.
Like most industries, Hollywood came to a standstill. Festivals were canceled or postponed. Movie releases were pushed back, delayed indefinitely, or had their theatrical runs canceled altogether, opting instead for digital releases. The pandemic also brought productions to a halt, and it has been forecasted that the box office could lose about $5 billion.
The pandemic has been especially difficult for movie theaters. In March, the three biggest movie theater chains, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark (with almost 1,600 theaters between them), were forced to shut down, and they have remained closed for months, with no sign of when they will be able to return to business. At one point, AMC flat out stated that they had “substantial doubt” that they could remain in business. They declared that they expected to lose over $2 billion in the first quarter of 2020.
Right now, studios are sitting on a wealth of completed films just waiting to be released. And how audiences receive those movies will have a significant impact on what kind of movies get made in a post COVID19 world.
Many people, including Christopher Nolan, held out hope that Tenet would be the film to revive the movie industry and bring the masses back to theaters. But what they were actually hoping for was that the pandemic could be shut off at the flick of a switch. The longer this pandemic has its grip on Hollywood and the world at large, the less likely it seems that things will ever go back to normal. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine that when the world does reach the other side of the pandemic, it might be a very different place.
Every day that passes, it is becoming increasingly unclear when theaters will have permission to reopen. And when they do begin reopening, it’s very doubtful that it’ll happen all at once. Given that we haven’t been dealing with this pandemic in a unified way, it’s unrealistic to expect that we would all get out of it at the same time. Meaning that theaters would gradually reopen across the countries as individual states meet safety thresholds allowing that to happen.
But even that would only be the first step. There’s no way of knowing when people will feel safe enough to return to theaters. Many people may want to avoid being the guinea pigs when theaters do open. A lot of people could remain apprehensive for quite some time.
Furthermore, there will undoubtedly be some people who, after months of watching movies on streaming services, decide that they don’t miss the theaters at all. For many people, the theater experience was always something they put up with. And now they might decide that they don’t miss the crowds, loud talkers, overpriced concessions and might decide to stay home. But studios don’t make movies like Tenet, Black Widow, and F9 for half-full theaters scattered across the country. These movies need to play at ALL THEATERS and to packed houses.
And in a world where audiences are afraid to go to theaters, studios might decide that spending $200 million to make a movie and another $100 million to advertise it is no longer a risk they are willing to take. More importantly, the mid-budget movies that have all but disappeared from theaters in the last decade might all of a sudden seem a lot more appealing.