For years now, the film industry has perpetuated an environment in which mid-budget movies couldn’t thrive. For a while it seemed as though the movie-making formula that helped foster some of the greatest filmmakers of our generation was all but extinct thanks to a combination of changing studio economics and — as much as we hate to admit it — audience demands. While there have been notable exceptions — particularly in the horror and comedy genres, and thanks to a few innovative new production companies — the few mid-budget studio films that made it to the screen, especially those in the action genre, by and large, failed to flourish.
Enter Deadpool; a movie determined to break all the rules. An R-rated comic book film in a rampantly family-friendly superhero landscape; a winning February release in a month oft-considered a dumping ground; and most peculiar, a studio-produced mid-budget action film that’s currently blowing the roof off your local cineplex. Simply put, by conventional Hollywood math, Deadpool should never have become a phenomenon. But with only two weeks in theaters, the film has grossed more than $236 million domestic and almost half a billion worldwide, and its unexpected triumph might prove just the shot in the ass needed for an industry on the verge of becoming dangerously redundant.
If you think that sounds a bit dramatic, I present to you a snapshot of the major studio’s scheduled releases through the rest of the decade. Disney has their Marvel slate, which will escalate to three releases a year, planned through 2020, as well as the Star Wars roster, which they have basically said will go on forever. Warner Bros. has also planned their DC universe through 2020, and unveils their Harry Potter franchise extension Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them this November. Universal, the unexpected Box Office magnate of 2015, shows no signs of hitting the brakes on Fast and Furious, just relaunched the Jurassic Park brand, and is currently building a shared universe of their own on the backs of the classic monsters. Paramount is already in pre-production on the next Mission Impossible, plans to make Transformers movies ad infinitum, and also has Star Trek and TNMT. Sony is re-launching Ghostbusters and rebooting Spider-Man (with a major assist from Marvel), and if they manage to hold on to James Bond, there’s no chance that franchise is leaving theaters anytime soon. Finally, there’s 20th Century Fox, who is hard at work setting up the next generation of X-Men, including the young mutants introduced in Apocalypse, Channing Tatum‘s Gambit, and of course, Deadpool (I realize it may seem contradictory to list Deadpool here in an article celebrating its originality, but I’ll address that in a bit).
That’s sequels galore and more IP than any reasonable audience can be expected to stomach. It’s a snapshot of a cinematic landscape soaked in stagnancy — and this coming from a consumer who dreamed of this excess of nerdy riches as a kid. But it is an excess. There’s a reason “superhero fatigue” has become part of the vernacular.
How did we get here? It’s a long, nuanced economic tale (and one very well documented by the folks at Flavorwire if you’re looking for a deeper analysis), but the short version is thus: Right around the turn of the new millennium, and thanks in no small part to the record-shattering budget and subsequent profit of Titanic, the major studios began to realize that the mega-budgeted blockbusters had the potential to reap equally mega rewards. Just like that, the paradigm shifted and studios started thinking in billions, not millions. It was no longer satisfactory to make back your money and some change. Why make a lot of movies that make some money when you can make a few movies that make a lot of money? What’s more, that line of thinking worked financially, leading to significantly greater returns, but creatively, it also led to fewer voices behind the lens, and because of the mammoth scope of it all, voices that are often adjusted and recalculated for mass appeal. Enter the recent thrust and impact of the international market and suddenly you need movies that appeal to everyone, everywhere. Business sense overran artistry and what we ended up with are fewer films with massive budgets, or a lot of eggs in a few baskets, leading to homogenized content that also needed to be brands capable of spawning merchandise, theme parks, and spin-offs.
With those baskets so full of expensive eggs, it becomes harder and harder to take chances or leave room for idiosyncrasy. You swaddle those eggs in safe bets. As a result, the greatest filmmakers of our generation, including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have spoken about the challenge of getting their films off the ground. Charlie Kaufman and Spike Lee turned to crowdsourcing (for Anomalisa and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, respectively); Francis Ford Coppola — the director behind what is often considered the greatest film of all time — turned to self-financing his movies through his wine business; and Steven Soderbergh became, perhaps inadvertently, the mouthpiece of this new landscape when he retired from filmmaking in lieu of television and stage productions.
But it wasn’t just the “artsy” side of filmmaking that was affected. The outlook has been equally grim for non-franchise action films, especially those with an R-rating, which have almost universally failed in the face of bigger, broader spectacles. The other recent R-rated mid-budget ass-kicking success, the beloved John Wick, did enough business to merit a sequel, but nowhere near enough to spark an industry shift. Even in that qualified victory, John Wick is an outlier: most small-scale action movies these days just don’t flourish. Here are just a few examples from 2015: The Transporter: Refueled, Chappie, Run All Night, and American Ultra were all misfires with audiences, despite decent marketing campaigns and, excepting Transporter, recognizable names. Now, some of these movies aren’t very good, but they are — American Ultra and Chappie, in particular — idiosyncratic and unusual spins on the genre that take the kinds of risks we’ve desired since the mega-budgets started dominating the release schedule. But you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that from their marketing, which veered toward the generic, a commonplace tactic that Deadpool proves a misstep. But we’ll get to that too.
On a broader scale, the industry is slowly inching back to the mid-budget model. Universal repped three notably successful mid-budget films last year: Fifty Shades of Grey, Pitch Perfect 2, and Straight Outta Compton. Indeed, broadly speaking, 2015 was one of the best years in recent memory for mid-budget filmmaking with a fairly large list of titles including Creed, Southpaw, Trainwreck, The Big Short, Goosebumps, and Paddington, and The Intern among others, all released to varying levels of success, with those listed above emerging with significant profits in the plus margin. But the mid-budget action film still floundered.
There are also smaller production companies who are reliably churning out mid-budget features to notable returns. Blumhouse was one that led the charge with Jason Blum‘s clever inversion of today’s standard model — turning out a regular slate of micro-to-mid budgeted horror films, and allowing the filmmakers an unusual amount of creative freedom in the process. Through that formula, Blum has launched multiple horror franchises like Insidious, The Purge, and Sinister, as well last year’s successful standalone genre films The Gift and The Visit to significant profits. And when the company sees a misfire, as it did with Jem and the Holograms, the loss is minimal. Likewise, A24 (whose clever model is detailed at Slate) has found a niche, though harder to define, in contemplative, innovative films like the 2015 hits Ex Machina, Amy and Room. Another up-and-coming production company, STX Entertainment (who co-released The Gift with Blumhouse), is also hedging their bets on the resurgence of the mid-budget model. Headed up by Adam Fogelson, the exec behind a ton of Universal’s biggest modestly budgeted hits including Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect and Lone Survivor, the burgeoning production company is banking on star-showcases films to bank reliable rewards at a sensible price. All of this is to say that the mid-budget movie is making its return pace by pace, but no recent example has been met with the wild success of Deadpool, and perhaps no other film has been poised to so patently break the mold and herald the return of the format.
What makes Deadpool so interesting and so significant is that it wasn’t created or released by one of these “pioneer” production companies, but by one of the major six studios. 20th Century Fox took a gamble on one weird fucking movie that was anything but a safe bet. It’s an outlier not only because of its financial success, but because of the way it was created. It’s a studio film that acts as if it has nothing to lose. It’s a studio film given the leeway to be as weird, and distinct, and raunchy as it wants to be. And it’s positioned in a precise middle ground between groundbreaking mid-budget action movie and IP franchise-starting blockbuster — a middle ground that allowed it to grow into a phenomenon. In his eloquent takedown of the state of cinema, Steven Soderbergh emphasized that filmmaking should be about talent and vision over brands – “it’s about horses, not races,” he said. Deadpool is the horse and the race.
Deadpool had a built-in fanbase, the very fanbase that pushed so hard it got the movie made, but it was a relatively small fanbase for a property unknown to broad audiences, and it was by no means a guarantee of success. But Fox backed their bizarre little horse with a tremendous marketing campaign — a campaign as unique as the film itself. Like the homogenized release slate, marketing campaigns are usually designed by the testing numbers to appeal to the most people in the most places, and as a result, they usually look identical to the competitors in their genre. By contrast, Deadpool‘s savvy promotional push was impossible to ignore. It subverted the standard, promising audiences something unusual, something strange, and most of all, something fun. If you have that much fun watching the commercials, imagine how much fun you’ll have in the movie.
And most importantly, the film is damn good. The long, long, long-time labor of love from star/producer Ryan Reynolds, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and first-time feature director Tim Miller, is as bonkers as the source material it’s based on. Fox let them go all in, maximum effort, and mitigated the risk with a $58 million budget. From the script’s non-linear timeline, to the fourth-wall breaks and meta humor, to the crazy (and hilarious) opening credits, and through every little oddball detail in the movie, the creative team was given the freedom to be…well, creative. The result is something wholly original; something audiences may not have known they wanted, because they’ve never really seen it before. But they know they want it now.
It remains to be seen if studios will take the right lesson from Deadpool‘s success. Maybe they’ll take the lesson that Ryan Reynolds is a bankable star again and start casting him in all the things; maybe they’ll think people are craving meta humor; maybe they’ll start throwing unicorn humping in every script (OK, probably not that one). Certainly, we can get ready for a wave of R-rated superhero movies. But the (hopefully) obvious takeaway is that it doesn’t cost a fortune to make an action-packed movie that people love, and people can love an action-packed movie that’s light on spectacle. What’s more, audiences may like their bread and butter big-budget bonanzas on the regular, but they’re also craving something a little craziness with their kickass. If Deadpool inspires a hope for the future of mid-budget action flicks, it’s with the confidence that weird can sell, and it should be packaged as such rather than sold in the shell of mass appeal. Fly that freak flag.