How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA

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Earlier this year, John Waters — whose last movie, A Dirty Shame, was released a full decade ago — finally got the offer he’d been waiting for all this time. According to his hitchhiking chronicle Carsick, his very first driver was “Harris,” “an art school type” with a sideline in weed dealing who called himself a fan. They talked for a bit about movies before Harris asked the (five) million-dollar question: “How come you aren’t making a movie?”

“I explain that I had a development deal to make Fruitcake,” Waters writes, but on the eve of that dark holiday comedy’s production, “the recession happened, the independent film business as I knew it fell apart, and now all the distributors and film financiers want the budgets to be under $2 million, which I can’t do anymore.” His traveling companion told Waters, “I’ll back it,” pledging five million dollars cash. “You pay me back if it ever breaks even.”

There was only one problem with Harris’ offer: It was a total fantasy. There was no Harris, and there was no five million dollars. The scene was part of “The Best That Could Happen,” a novella of perfect, imaginary hitchhiking encounters, within Carsick. But it’s instructive, and sad, that when Waters — a well-dressed dandy of notorious sexual appetites — compiles his biggest fantasies, the very first one is of someone doing what people used to do all the time: giving him money to make a movie.

John Waters at Lincoln Center

And Waters isn’t the only beloved filmmaker harboring this fantasy. “It’s a strange time. There’s not a whole lot that any of us can do about it,” David Lynch, who hasn’t directed a feature since 2006’s Inland Empire, explained over the summer. “You’ve seen waves of things go up and down, but maybe the arthouse will be back in vogue, and they’ll reappear all over the place again. I don’t know. It would be beautiful.”

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when Waters and Lynch were doing their most commercially successful work, it was possible to finance — either independently or via or 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. Movies that don’t fit into that box (thoughtful dramas, dark comedies, oddball thrillers, experimental efforts) were relegated to the indies, where freedom is greater, but resources are far more limited. As Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner put it, “Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.”

While we weren’t looking, the mid-budget adult-oriented motion picture has all but disappeared. And the gifted directors behind them are in danger of disappearing as well. Movie wonks and box-office watchers have written and talked about the death of mid-budget filmmaking, but mostly in business terms — as opposed to personal ones, contemplating the phenomenon’s effect on the individual artists it cripples. 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 — how many Blue Velvets and Hairsprays and Traffics and Do the Right Things and Godfathers — are they, thanks to the current myopic model, not making?

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Orson Welles

“I look back on my life and it’s 95 percent running around trying to raise money to make movies and five percent actually making them. It’s no way to live.” –Orson Welles

That quote appears in the recent documentary film Seduced and Abandoned, a combination love letter and wail of despair over the current state of filmmaking, written and directed by James Toback (who wrote Bugsy and directed Fingers, The Pick-Up Artist, Two Girls and a Guy, and others). In one of the film’s many candid conversations, an international financier tells Toback that the film he wants to make — a boundary-pushing political/sexual thriller starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell — can’t get financed for the $25 million budget he has in mind. How much could he get? Toback asks. Four to five million, he’s told. Toback sighs. “I’m too old for that.”

The sentiment is not uncommon. “The film business has changed. They want you to make it for no money,” Waters has said, by way of explaining his self-imposed hiatus from filmmaking. “Early in my career, it was fine to have no money. Everyone starts out without money. But I have four employees today. I have no desire to be a faux-underground filmmaker at 68 years old. I don’t have any needlepoint pillows with slogans on them, but if I did, it would be ‘Don’t Go Backward.’”

Francis Ford Coppola made four of the finest films in motion picture history, but he can’t get a movie produced anymore; after a ten-year exile, he made three films between 2007 and 2011 that were basically self-financed (via his lucrative wine-making business). “You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn’t been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money,” he said at the Marrakech International Film Festival. “That tells me that although the cinema in the next 100 years is going to change a lot, it will slow down because they don’t want you to risk anymore.”

Steven Soderbergh saw the writing on the wall, telling an audience at the San Francisco International Film Festival, “The meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies… You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make.” He made a well-publicized exit from feature filmmaking last year.

Spike Lee at the American Black Film Festival

“I’m not Steven Soderbergh, I’m not banishing myself,” insisted his contemporary Spike Lee recently. “I’m adaptable! So do not think this is a film saying, ‘Fuck Hollywood, I never wanna do another studio film.’ That is not the case at all. But, there’s some films the studio doesn’t wanna make.” Lately, that’s included more and more Spike Lee films; he made these statements at the festival premiere of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a film he had to go to Kickstarter to finance. “Malcolm X was a studio film,” he noted. “Do the Right Thing was a studio film.” And he’s right — but it’s hard to imagine a studio financing either of those films now.

So, what happened? What caused this elemental shift between the way filmmakers like Lee, Soderbergh, Lynch, Coppola, Toback, and Waters worked a mere ten or 20 years ago, and the climate today? How has the industry left so many of our most important and influential filmmakers out in the cold? Well, to answer that question, I’m afraid we’re going to have to do some math.