One does not have to be a cinefile, like me, to notice that the roster of films releasing is a bit homogenous. After every superhero has had their own film, every franchise has had a remake and literally every person that has ever walked on this earth has had a biopic, there is not much room left for anything original. Take a guess which of the following franchises received another instalment in 2023:
- Mission Impossible.
- Fast & Furious.
- The Expendables.
- John Wick.
- Guardians of the Galaxy.
- Indiana Jones.
Correct answer: All of them. Really the only non-franchise instalments that received any attention this year were Barbie and Oppenheimer. One backed by a major toy corporation (Mattel) and the other by a well-respected director (Christopher Nolan), and like the major franchises, they too had budgets that stretched into the hundreds of millions USD. If you, like me, think that Hollywood has become a bit bleak and lost some of its originality over the last decade, you would not be entirely wrong. Let me explain:
When thinking of the golden age of cinema, most people, depending on taste of course, turn to the 90s. The 90s saw the rise of many new talented directors and the release of films, such as Forrest Gump, The Big Lebowski, The Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, Fight Club, The Truman Show, Shawshank Redemption and so on. These pictures were based on original screenplays and are considered classics today due to the impact they had. Besides being released in the 90s, they have one thing in common, they are all mid-budget films. Although there is no solid definition of the term, films with a budget within the realm of 5-75 million USD are usually considered to be mid-budget. These used to be the backbone of the film industry, but during the last decade however, the mid-budget film has been on a steady decline and is perhaps currently at an all-time low. Adjusted to inflation, the average production-budget of the top 20 grossing films in 1990 was 63 million USD, while in 2019 that figure had grown to 141 million USD. So, what is behind this demise in mid-budget films and how is this affecting the originality of new Hollywood releases?
Well, while a potpourri of reasons have led to the state that Hollywood is currently in, it essentially boils down to profits. First of all, the demise in the popularity of cinema is a major contributor. The increase in ticket prices and the various other media outlets where one can watch films have made cinema less and less profitable for each year, an issue that streaming services have magnified since their arrival. Previously, a production company could produce a mid-budget film, hope that it generated a profit during its cinema run, and if it did not, massively market the DVD release and potentially reach a profit/eventually minimise the losses. Therethrough they were able to take larger risks and invest in unknown directors and more original screenplays. With the rise of streaming though, DVD profits have pretty much ceased to exist and the revenue from streaming is not nearly as lucrative. Thus, when a film fails nowadays, the losses are often much larger, which has led to production companies investing their capital cautiously and becoming more risk averse.
Secondly, in connection to the first point, the decrease in popularity of cinema has led to a changed approach among production companies. The larger films receiving a theatrical release today are more catered to the cinema format with special effects, action and sound design than before, so that attending the cinema release adds a dimension difficult to replicate at home. Additionally, these films are often attached to bigger franchises that they build hype around which creates, or cater to already existing, loyal fanbases. Examples of this is the Marvel film universe which has garnered a large, loyal following or the release of new instalments within older franchises such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones. This strategy has proven to be lucrative with films such as Top Gun: Maverick generating 1,4 billion USD on a 170 million USD budget, Star Wars: The Force Awakens generating about 2 billion USD on a 245 million USD budget and Avengers Endgame (the second highest grossing film of all time) generating 2,7 billion USD on a 356 million USD budget. 15 out of the 20 highest grossing films of all time were released in 2015 or after and 17 of them were connected to a larger franchise. Clearly these have been sound investments for production companies and thus they would rather risk a larger sum of money into an already existing franchise with a chance of making an enormous profit, than into a mid-budget film that has a fairly low chance to do more than breakeven.
Beside these major reasons, the decline of film stars’ abilities to draw audiences, the increased popularity of tv series and the new consumption habits of entertainment are further reasons that should not be overlooked when discussing the issue. It all boils down to a new media landscape where restructuring has been necessary and unfortunately it has been at the cost of the mid-budget genre and by extension much of Hollywood’s originality.
So what does this mean for the future? Is it doomed to consist of slapstick-humour superhero flicks about characters nobody has ever heard of? No, not necessarily. Despite this chilling dystopia being a bit too close for comfort, there still are a few beacons of hope. First of all, A24. This production company has niched themselves on the mid-budget genre and performed very well with releases such as Moonlight (2016), Midsommar (2019) and most recently a major success at the oscars: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). They have proven that low- and mid-budget films do have a place in cinema today and hopefully their success will inspire other studios to mimic them. Secondly, 2023 has been the year of major titles flopping left and right. “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”, “Fast X”, “Expendables 4” and most prominently the next Marvel instalment “The Marvels”, all underperformed at the box office and has so far failed to turn a profit. While this could be magnified by the weak economy we are currently in, it seems to at least partially be part of a larger trend. The profits from Marvel films have been reported to be steadily decreasing since a few years back and it might indicate that audiences are tiring.
In conclusion, while original films are still being made, they are mainly low-budget while major cinema releases continue to be dominated by remakes and franchise-instalments. However, thanks to the success of companies like A24 and the apparent diminishing interest in these major blockbusters, 2024 might be the year when the tide begins to change. Hopefully we are looking at a bright future where new directors with original screenplays and fresh ideas are making their comeback to Hollywood.