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

More importantly, if the bottom has dropped out of the valley between big-budget and no-budget, where have those films — and the filmmakers behind them — gone? Two places. The first and most obvious is the increasingly crowded indie scene. (We’ll get to the second one a bit later.) Back to Professor Soderbergh:

In 2003, 455 films were released. 275 of those were independent, 180 were studio films. Last year 677 films were released. So you’re not imagining things, there are a lot of movies that open every weekend. 549 of those were independent, 128 were studio films. So, a 100% increase in independent films, and a 28% drop in studio films, and yet, ten years ago: Studio market share 69%, last year 76%. You’ve got fewer studio movies now taking up a bigger piece of the pie and you’ve got twice as many independent films scrambling for a smaller piece of the pie. That’s hard. That’s really hard. When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience I thought was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball – but with another thrown baseball.

The avalanche of product has been keenly felt across the indie scene. In earlier years, Hope tells me, “the financial model was relatively secure.” Thanks to the robust DVD market and other ancillary sources, “there was a predictive revenue stream, and that allowed us to take risks on directors — I think I produced 25 first features — and allowed us to break many stars’ careers, and introduce many actors early on.” Then, in the back half of the last decade, the bottom fell out of the DVD market, mostly due to the rise of cheap streaming and the general economic malaise of the recession.

“Cut to now,” Hope explains, “five years or so post- the effects of the world financial crisis, and the films that maybe once were made for $15 million are now being made for under five. The percentage of fees have all been cut in half, so everybody ends up having to make more movies to survive, which means that they can’t make quality, they can only make quantity.”

So even if a Lynch, a Waters, or a Soderbergh decided to suck it up and “go backward,” they’d face a variety of obstacles. First, the budgets might be even lower than they remember. Whit Stillman made three successful independent films in the early 1990s and then didn’t make a film for a decade and a half. Before shooting that film, he tells me, he had a conversation with another director, “one who had commercial hits in the ‘90s.” His colleague told Stillman “that to make films now, budgets had to be exceptionally, amazingly low. Then it turned out that he meant ‘under 200,000’ while I was thinking ‘under two million.’ These are the two ranges I think of when considering the viability of projects.”

But let’s assume they’re willing to take the cut (and for comparison’s sake: $200K would be less than Stillman’s ever worked with, even on his first film, Metropolitan — and those were 1989 dollars). Say they manage to scrounge together foreign dollars or equity financing or investments from friends and family or Kickstarter funds. They’ll still find themselves competing in a much more crowded indie landscape — and that’s operating off the presumption of easy distribution.

“Those filmmakers are now in their mid- to late 60s, and older,” says Susan Seidelman (herself on the eve of her 62nd birthday), and as a result, they might want to tell stories about older characters like themselves. It’s not always that easy. Her 2006 film Boynton Beach Club was “a kind of a date movie for people 60 and above.” After it was finished, “it got accepted to a lot of festivals, it got nice reviews, and still a lot of the traditional distribution companies said, ‘We don’t believe there’s a big enough audience out there.’ My producers and I disagreed, so we decided to start out self-distributing.” It was only after the film started doing good business in target markets (“South Florida, for example”) that it was picked up by Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn.

So even if, by some miracle, the film is produced, it still has to make its way in an increasingly competitive marketplace, often in the hands of independent distributors and art-house exhibitors who are nearly as risk-averse as their mainstream counterparts. Spend a bit of time considering the hoops they’d have to jump through, and it’s no wonder so many iconic filmmakers are bowing out; they’ve already got a legacy, so why bother with the extra aggravation? “John Waters doesn’t need much money for his films,” Hope told me, “but the fact is, he’s probably making more money, with his artwork and tours, than he would for his films. So why does he need to compromise in order to get a movie made? It’s only going to be suffering for him.”

And the filmmakers who don’t have that kind of financial security? Increasingly, they’re saying to hell with it and going to television.

*

“I don’t think there’s a lot of deep philosophical debate,” Soderbergh told The Daily Beast during the run of The Knick, the ten-episode Cinemax series that he directed in full. “There are more possibilities in TV, in terms of storytelling, than there are in the movies… Movies don’t have time to find audiences anymore. With TV, it’s nice to feel like you’re part of a conversation that’s going on — as opposed to the movie business, which is only judged by one prism these days: economic.”

And so the movie makers who aren’t interested in tentpoles and don’t want to go back to financing films on their credit cards are following Soderbergh in a mass migration from the big screen to the small one. Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) helmed the entire first season of True Detective. Jill Soloway followed up her art-house hit Afternoon Delight by directing the full first season of Amazon’s Transparent (and will reportedly do the same for its second). David Fincher directed the initial episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards; Jodie Foster, Joel Schumacher, James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), and Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) have followed suit. Indie comedy and drama directors — including Lynn Shelton (New Girl, Mad Men, The Mindy Project), Nicole Holofcener (Parks and Recreation, Enlightened, Bored to Death), Rian Johnson (Breaking Bad, Terriers), and Todd Haynes (Enlightened) — are frequently squeezing in episodic gigs between films. And the freedom of pay cable was even enough to coax David Lynch back into the director’s chair, for Showtime’s upcoming Twin Peaks revival.

Seidelman was a bit of a groundbreaker here, helming the pilot episode of Sex and the City back in 1998. “What happened is, when the middle ground fell out in the movie industry, those projects or filmmakers that were more interested in character-oriented stuff, or in more complicated subject matter, suddenly started turning to television,” she says. “TV has really picked up the slack there, and I think it’s also gained a kind of respectability — there was a time before HBO and Showtime, where it was looked at as not as prestigious. And if you were a director, you didn’t really want to work in TV as much; you were selling your soul a little bit. But that isn’t the case at all these days.”

Stillman agrees. After his long-awaited comeback film Damsels in Distress, he went over to Amazon to make The Cosmopolitans. “What has affected my thinking a lot is that people, especially younger people, are going to the cinema much less,” he explains. “There are few ‘event’ indies anymore. And it’s great to work in a medium in which a lot of people can see the show right away. So just as financing mid-budget films has become especially tough, there is a boom in financing of new media — but one can never assume how long such boomlets are going to last.”

Film’s loss is TV’s gain — for now. But is television an acceptable substitute for the scale and scope of a major motion picture? The budgets are often scarcely better than those low numbers on the indie model, and it’s a very different type of storytelling, open-ended, rarely working towards the kind of satisfying conclusions a great movie can offer. Plus, few get the kind of control over an entire series or season that Soderbergh, Lynch, Solloway, or Fukunaga do, making it much more difficult to establish an authorial voice and style. And filmmakers who don’t yet have Soderbergh and Lynch’s clout will most likely find network suits even less intellectually and experimentally accommodating than their film-exec counterparts. Even the warm embrace of HBO couldn’t keep Mike White’s Enlightened or Christopher Guest’s Family Tree on the air; ditto Frank Darabont’s Mob City on TNT.

How long, then, will the current filmmaking model hold? No less an authority than Steven Spielberg predicted last year, “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm again.” Ted Hope agrees. “You look at the worst summer attendance [in 2014], box office dropped 15 percent, people like [DreamWorks Animation CEO and former Disney chief Jeffrey] Katzenberg saying that movies aren’t a growth industry, everything pointing toward the collapse of the foreign sales model.”

So, where does he think it’s going? “It feels incredibly vulnerable to me,” he says. “Look, I’m surprised the superhero stuff has the legs that it does, but you look at what Warner Brothers and Marvel have mapped out, you add into it all of the Universal monster movies and all these others platform plays, and you better hope that nobody’s taste changes for the next five years, you know? That’s not a diverse portfolio!”

This may not be the new normal — studio filmmaking may be on the verge of the point it reached in the mid-to-late 1960s, when a bad run of bloated, runaway productions, reflecting market calculation rather than vibrant storytelling, just about put the studios out of business. The movies only managed to save themselves because the suits handed over the car keys to young filmmakers with original stories to tell and a new way of telling them. That’s how the New Hollywood movement was born — less out of the inspiration of the new than the desperation of the old. And since it’s a cyclical business, that might be what saves the movies again: the urge to burn it all down and start over fresh. The question is, how many great films and great filmmakers will we lose in the meantime?

[*UPDATE 12/12: We were initially unable to pinpoint the budget for the film Night Falls on Manhattan. After this piece was published, we were contacted by a source who worked on that film and provided that number. The paragraph following the 1997 Paramount breakdown was adjusted accordingly.]