With the Oscars airing on Sunday, it seems appropriate to join the crowd asking, “What will happen to the mid-budget theatrical film?” This seems to always come up this time of year as folks–usually critics–bemoan that Hollywood doesn’t “make these types of movies any more”. But what types of moveis? And for whom?
So let’s dig in.
Most Important Story – Why Timmy Failure Launching on Disney+ Spells the Death of Mid-Budget Theatrical Films
If you’re looking for the canary in the coal mine for mid-budget films–again, hold on a moment for a definition of that–don’t worry about the Oscars or Sundance. Instead, look at this:
Disney, not Netflix, is the place to watch for the future of movies. If even Disney abandons theaters, then all hope is lost. (They won’t; the economics don’t work as I’ve written before. Many times.) But just because Disney will keep major franchises in theaters doesn’t mean mid-budget films have the same hope.
The traditional narrative goes that fortunately, even as mid-budget films abandon theaters Netflix will swoop into save them. Sort of like Disney+ with Timmy Failure.
But will they? I don’t know. So let’s explore this issue fresh. I’m going to ask a few questions to myself to figure it out. (Consider this a mini-extension of this series on releasing films straight to streaming.)
Definition: What is a mid-budget film?
As a business writer, I tend to find a lot of articles about Hollywood tend to play fast and loose with definitions. Take, for example, “independent film”. Most indie films are made or now distributed by giant studios. Which is hardly independent! Instead, we use “independent” as a catch all for “prestige” or “award-contending” films. This makes data analysis tough.
Defining “mid-budget films” has the same challenge. I can probably tell you what is too high to count, anything over 9 figures in production costs. And too low. Anything below $10 million.
But a range of $10-$99 million in production costs seems too big. And likely some films around $75-100 million are still big budget films, just slightly cheaper than others. If I had to pick a number, I’d say production budgets of $40 million is what most people are thinking of as “mid-budget”, with a range of $20-50 million. (This isn’t an exact science.)
What does the narrative say?
If you search for articles on mid-budget films, you’ll find critics or reporters saying they are dead, dying, returning or thriving. So it depends on how you define mid-budget, what you consider success and really whether or not a mid-budget film (Get Out, Knives Out) has come out recently or not to provide an anecdote for the author.
Instead, let’s turn to…
What does the data say?
Well, I don’t have it. Why not? Because no website tracks production costs in easy to download tables. Or in ways that I trust. Wikipedia usually has estimates, but those are often unreliably sourced. Since I don’t have a data set to manipulate, I can’t figure out the answer for myself.
Sleuthing the internet, I did find one data based article by Stephen Follows. I’ve used his data before and I love this work. He used IMDb data and the answer turns out, like it often does, to be complicated. The number of “mid-budget drama” films is actually fine. He tracks the percentage of films that have production budgets between $15 and $60 million and he finds virtually no change in the percentage of mid-budget films.
He did find, though, that drama budgets have been declining. And so have budgets for romantic comedies, action films or comedies. This–combined with lack of box office success compared to franchises, sequels and remakes–does support the thesis that mid-budget films are dying. Of course, data can only tell us what happened. For what will happen, I’d argue we need to turn to the models.
What do the models say?
Well, they do sort of make the case that studios should make fewer “mid-budget” films. By models, I mean this distribution chart of box office:
If you learn nothing else from the Entertainment Strategy Guy, learn “logarithmic distribution”. That’s the shape of the table above. In other words, a few films earn outsized returns whereas everything else fails. On its own, though, the performance of films doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
Instead, the key is the correlations between budgets and performance. Blockbuster budgets and campaigns (which means franchises, sequels and remakes) are highly correlated with higher box office. Again, look at my hit rate from my recent Star Wars series:
Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to compare blockbuster franchises to comedies, dramas or rom-coms. If I did–this is based on my personal experience–I’d tell you that those other categories don’t have as high of ceilings as fantasy, sci-fi or super hero films. They just don’t.
This means—and this is what I mean by using the model–that you may as well make your comedies and dramas for as cheap as possible to get the greatest return on investment. But if this is the case, why did we have so many mid-budget films in those genres in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s?
What are the forces hurting mid-budget films?
I see three major forces, and they aren’t the ones usually mentioned (which is just “streaming!”:
- First, the death of home entertainment. Physical home entertainment had some of the best margins in the revenue stream. The rule of thumb in the 90s was a film could make it’s production budget in box office, then home entertainment could pay for the rest. While DVDs aren’t completely dead, like music they are way below their peak.
- Second, the decline of median incomes. Subscribe here to read my Ankler guest post, but my theory is that the stagnation of American income has stalled theatrical revenue growth.
- Third, the blockbusters are getting bigger. This is because digital distribution in theaters means that a theater can now expand a movie to every available theater if its a huge, huge hit. So when Avengers: Endgame came out, it set a record for the number of theaters showing it, which means all the mid-budget films got crushed. Counter-programming sometimes works, but often doesn’t.
The multi-billion dollar question, though, is can streaming offset all those forces? In other words, can streaming revenue replace the lost mid-budget theatrical movie.
How does all this impact Disney/Disney+?
Which brings us to the House of Mouse. And Timmy Failure, a film very few of us probably heard got released. Unless you went to Disney+ this weekend. As with any film, I like to use “comps”, meaning a comparable film. In this case, not only can I find a kids movie that Disney released for families, I can find one about another Tim:
They both are mid-budget films (Failure was $40 million; Green was $25 million), both based on preexisting IP, both targeted at families. But one went to theaters and made $53 million; the other went straight to Disney+ last week. Hmmm.
Or take films about Alaska featuring canines and aging A-List actors. Togo was a Disney film costing $40 million and it went straight to Disney+ last December. Meanwhile, Call of the Wild comes out at the end of the month. The difference? It cost $109 million.
What do I take from all this? Well, when it can, Disney is deciding that mid-budget films are going straight to streaming too. Even it has started to skip theaters. If you want to know why this is the most important story of the week, here you go.
What about Netflix?
Who started skipping theaters altogether? Netflix. That’s why there are so many articles about how they’ve killed theaters and/or changed cinema for good.
This narrative is both obviously true and frankly also unknown. On the one hand, yes they clearly decided to launch a stream of mid-budget films from their Adam Sandler films to their summer of rom-coms to Bird Box.
On the other hand, are those mid-budget films? In some cases, I think their budgets may actually be more equivalent to low-budget films, especially the rom-coms. In other cases, say any film with A or B-List talent, I think they may blow past my $50 million threshold. (As we know The Irishman did.) So how many “mid-budget films” Netflix actually makes we don’t know.
For a good take on this as well, and partly the inspiration of this series, here’s The Netflix Film Project on a recent Netflix mid-budget film, The Shadow of the Moon that no one is talking about. It’s cool they made a mid-budget film…but if no one sees it did it matter?
Which brings us to the crux of the issue. So Netflix is making mid-budget films? Are they working for them? Or for Disney?
The Implications (and huge worry) for Mid-Budget Films Direct to Streamers
Is anyone watching mid-budget films on Netflix? Or Disney+?
We have no idea.
A point I’ve made over and over and so has half of the journalists covering Netflix.
But I’ll say this. My models that show that you may as well either make huge tentpole movies or small films that cost nothing has the exact same logic on streamers. If you’re going to spend $50 million making a film, you may as well spend $100 and quadruple your viewership. Or decrease spending to $10 million and get about the same viewership for a quarter the cost. What you don’t want to do is get stuck in the middle.
As long as profit and making money don’t matter, then mid-budget films are fine to draw in talent. Why not? It’s not like Wall Street cares. If that changes though, it’s hard not to see mid-budget films as the first casualties in the content budget.
In other words, if you want mid-budget films, don’t hold your breath for streamers to be your savior. They are now, but the forces that decreased the budgets of theatrical mid-budget films (they didn’t die) are coming for streaming. At some point.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
Hulu’s Big Week
Meanwhile, the biggest “event” news story was the departure of another CEO from Hulu, with the consequences that Hulu is now reporting in to Kevin Mayer at Disney. The Disney consolidation of Hulu is nearly complete and combined with Disney+ this gives Disney their both shot at disrupting Netflix globally.
When will that happen? Sometime in 2021. Disney is going to roll out Disney+ internationally, learn it’s lessons, then roll out Hulu (backed by FX content) next year. Which is a smart strategy.
Earnings Report Summary – Disney+ gets to 28.6 million subscribers.
This week’s buzziest story was all about the Disney earnings report. But, like Netflix, it’s really a tale of two numbers for me. The headline number is the Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu subscribers, which were all up in big, big ways. Obviously, this was driven by their aggressive pricing and discounts, but it worked:
(Yes, Disney+ is available in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. Even if you subtract 25% from the Disney+ total, it’s still likely Disney has more “subscribers” than Netflix by the end of the year if not the next quarter.)
If I had a caution, and it’s the same one I have for Netflix, it’s that these costs are being born by Disney in the terms of declining free cash flow. Disney in 2018 Q1 made $900 in cash; in 2019, that dropped to $292 million. In other words, they are on track to lose $2.4 billion in free cash flow this year. Just like Netflix!
Pay attention to this story as HBO and NBC join the money losing crowd this year.
Data of the Week – Youtube Earnings
I’ve long had the wish that Google would disclose Youtube’s financial numbers. Well, it must have been my birthday because I got my wish. The headline numbers are that Youtube makes $15 billion dollars a year, has 2 million Youtube Live Subscribers and 20 million Youtube Music and Premium subscribers. In other words, Youtube is the behemoth we thought it was.
M&A Updates – 2019 Off to a Slow Start
That’s the headline of this Financial Times article and it matches the broader feeling of the landscape. I still think the fundamentals mean that M&A will likely stay slow for the foreseeable future in entertainment. (My series on M&A provides a good long term look at M&A in entertainment, without some of the hyperbole you see.)
EntStrategyGuy Update – Checking Back in with Luminary/The Ringer
When a company launches as the “Netflix of Podcasting” you have my attention. In a negative way. I was skeptical folks would pay more than Disney+ for access to a few exclusive podcasts. (And I’m also skeptical of companies founded by the children of billionaires with access to capital.) Sure enough, Luminary has lowered their price.
The biggest worry, though, has to be Spotify’s continued gobbling up for podcasting companies, the latest being Bill Simmon’s The Ringer for $250 million.
Lots of News with No News – Super Bowl Ratings Are Slightly Up
The ratings for the Super Bowl were up year over year for the first time in five years. Why is this not “news”? Because any one year’s ratings can be noisy, and despite being slightly up are still in line with the historical average. My recommendation? Check out Wikipedia for the charts that tell the best story:
So while I’d love to tell you this means the Patriots are bad for ratings, I can’t in good faith do that. (Though I was glad I didn’t have to watch them again. Sorry Boston fans.)