Knives Out, the new film directed by Rian Johnson, is the last of a dying breed—the rare “mid-budget,” story-driven movie from a Hollywood studio that’s not tied to an existing franchise. It’s neither a low-budget indie nor a big-budget blockbuster.
Goldilocks might have found Johnson’s flick to be just right, but the American film industry increasingly prefers its movies at one of the two extremes.
Produced on a $40 million budget, Knives Out—released in US theaters by Lionsgate tomorrow—is a throwback whodunit about a dysfunctional family that gathers after the mysterious death of its wealthy patriarch, a famous crime novelist. While they’re all together, a private detective is called in to assist the police investigate the novelist’s demise.
Unlike the majority of Hollywood films that boast one or two big stars, Knives Out is a true ensemble movie. (Marvel’s Avengers movies, of course, are an exception.) Actors like Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis have relatively equal screen time, along with their nine co-stars. It most likely won’t have a sequel. There’s no merchandise to be sold and no extra content to consume. It’s just a movie.
“I said to my producer, ‘We want an all-star cast. We want that old-school, entertaining, we’re-putting-on a-big-show type feel,'” Johnson, who previously directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi, told GQ. The film succeeds in that endeavor despite its modest budget and lack of franchise underpinnings. Johnson has said it was inspired by classic Hollywood murder mysteries like 1978’s Death On the Nile, which also featured an A-list ensemble cast sharing the spotlight.
Hollywood used to make this type of movie all the time. In 1990, the average production budget of the 20 highest-grossing films in the US was $32 million, or about $63 million adjusted for inflation. This year, that average was an almost unfathomable $141 million. In 1990, Knives Out would have been a garden-variety movie; today, it’s an outlier.
That Knives Out exists at all is a minor miracle, but Johnson earned a lot of leeway after his successful Star Wars movie, and star Daniel Craig had already agreed to appear in the film before studios bid on the script last year. Lionsgate, considered a “mini-major” Hollywood distributor (smaller than Disney and Warner Bros., but bigger than an independent studio), is one of the few companies left still spending on mid-budget movies in an attempt to counter program the blockbusters.
According to film researcher Stephen Follows, the percentage of films with budgets over $100 million has increased from just 4% in 2000 to more than 12% today. That big-budget explosion has come at the expense of mid-budget movies in the $20-60 million range, which have declined quicker than any other type of film.
Studios no longer view these kinds of movies as smart investments. They’re not cheap like most independent movies and still carry substantial financial risk. But they also don’t have the huge ceiling as blockbuster movies. The bigger the budget, the bigger the risk, and also the bigger the potential returns.
Films like Knives Out rarely become cash cows: This year, only three Hollywood films made for less than $60 million made the year’s top 20 highest-grossing list. Two of them were horror movies (Us and Glass), which can be made on the cheap, and the other was Joker, a film based on the infamous DC Comics character.
It doesn’t help that there literally aren’t enough movie screens to show these mid-budget movies amidst the deluge of blockbusters. “These huge franchise pictures are elbowing out midrange and lower-budget movies,” Jason E. Squire, a film professor at the University of Southern California, told the New York Times. “It’s harder for midsize movies to get theaters in the first place, much less hold onto them long enough to build an audience.”
Some mid-budget movies, like the Disney holiday comedy Noelle (Disney+) and Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk (HBO Max), are starting to find homes on streaming services while Hollywood struggles to attract audiences to theaters for anything that isn’t a franchise blockbuster. If it made more movies like Knives Out, maybe it would be more successful. Deadline reported Knives Out is on track for a solid $30 million debut at the box office.