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In Blockbuster Era, No Room at the Box Office for the Middlebrow

If you walked into ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks, Calif., on Friday looking for a movie to watch, you would have been greeted by a digital sign listing these offerings:

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

“Frozen II”

The 16-screen multiplex, located in suburban Los Angeles, offered 26 screenings of the Disney sequel on Friday, or about one every 30 minutes starting at 10 a.m. The ArcLight had other movies on offer, of course, including “21 Bridges,” a decently reviewed new crime drama starring Chadwick Boseman. But they were pushed to the edges. “21 Bridges” got five time slots.

Frozen II” was expected to take in more than $100 million over the weekend in North America and will easily sell $1 billion in tickets worldwide by the end of its run, according to David A. Gross, who runs FranchiseRe, a movie consultancy. Disney also stands to make a killing on thousands of licensed products: Elsa satin nightgowns ($30), “super sparkly” lip gloss sets ($9), Olaf diamond pendants ($2,550).

In contrast, “21 Bridges,” released by STX Entertainment and independently financed for an estimated $33 million, was expected to collect about $12 million over its first three days in domestic theaters, a result that Mr. Gross said he would describe as “solid.” Total ticket sales in North America might reach $40 million. There is no related merch.

Now imagine that you are a studio chief trying to keep your job, and the only sure way to do that is to find the most profitable movies possible. Do you bet on a franchise film like “Frozen II” or go with an original drama like “21 Bridges”?

Hurry up. Your corporate overlords are waiting.

People love to chide Hollywood for making the movies it makes. Did the world really need three “Hobbit” epics? (In a word: no.) But the grumbling has grown louder in recent years, especially among cinephiles and older ticket buyers, as film companies have tried to adapt to a changing marketplace. To combat the arrival of streaming services and mammoth flat-screen televisions, Hollywood has swung sharply toward event movies like “Avengers: Endgame” (Disney), “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (Universal) and the coming “Jumanji: The Next Level” (Sony). Lumbering sequels and remakes at least have a shot at cutting through the Instagram-Netflix-Fortnite-TikTok clutter and filling seats.

These giant movies also create value through merchandise and spinoff theme park rides. Disney has two stage productions of “Frozen” running in the United States; new ones are coming to Britain, Australia, Germany and Japan. So-called ancillary revenue is the only real way for a studio to enhance the standing of its parent company on Wall Street. A blockbuster in and of itself doesn’t move the financial needle the way it used to, not when studios are embedded inside conglomerates as big as AT&T, which owns Warner Bros., and Comcast, which owns Universal.

But there are adverse side effects.

“These huge franchise pictures are elbowing out midrange and lower-budget movies,” said Jason E. Squire, editor of “The Movie Business Book” and a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “It’s harder for midsize movies to get theaters in the first place, much less hold onto them long enough to build an audience.” Mr. Squire pointed out that bloggers now routinely assess movies as hits or misses based on their first day in theaters — or even before they arrive, based on advance ticket sales.

Movies come in three basic sizes. Big ones — superheroes, Pixar-level animation, James Bond — cost $100 million or more to make and try to shock and awe on a global scale. Midlevel films, mostly dramas and comedies from second-tier directors (“The Goldfinch”), cost $20 million to $40 million and go after a specific audience: women under 35, baby boomers, African-Americans. Small movies like the Fox Searchlight farce “Jojo Rabbit” cost less than $20 million and often aim for awards recognition.

Death-Star-size movies have been around for decades, but they used to land at specific times of the year, and more modest films could steer clear. Now colossal movies arrive almost every weekend. Some flop; “Terminator: Dark Fate” did not pull in the popcorn-munching masses. More often than not, however, these franchises do their jobs, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, which tracks box office data.

“A movie has to feel like an event,” he said, noting that ticket prices have risen over the last decade. (Concession prices, too.) “Otherwise, people say, ‘Ehh, let’s just watch Netflix.’”

Or Disney Plus, CBS All Access, Apple Plus, Amazon Prime Video or another one of the 271 streaming services now available in the United States. At $7 a month, Disney Plus costs less than a single tub of popcorn at big-city movie theaters.

And streaming-service programming is better than ever. Why go out to see Oscar winners when you can stay in? Olivia Colman, now starring on Netflix as Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown,” won the Academy Award for best actress in February. Three Netflix movies — Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Fernando Meirelles’s “The Two Popes” — are contenders for the best picture Oscar at the coming Academy Awards. They will mostly be viewed on TV sets and mobile devices because of limited theatrical runs.

Mr. Dergarabedian noted that studios used to be able to reliably counterprogram “tent pole” movies. A modest comedy aimed at young men, for instance, could go up against a fantasy sequel, and both could thrive. But that strategy has become precarious. In July, 20th Century Fox released the sophomoric “Stuber” a week after Sony unfurled “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” “Stuber” was virtually ignored.

“More and more, it’s all or nothing,” Mr. Dergarabedian said.

Every studio has experienced higher highs and lower lows, a box office phenomenon that started in 2015. But no film company has been more affected this year than Warner Bros.

Warner has released seven small- and midbudget bombs — seven — since May, including several that received solid reviews from most critics: “The Good Liar,” a low-cost dramatic thriller starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen; “Motherless Brooklyn,” a period gumshoe drama directed by and starring Edward Norton; and “Blinded by the Light,” a comedic drama about a Pakistani teenager in Britain who finds inspiration in Bruce Springsteen. Most of the others (“The Goldfinch,” “Shaft,” “The Kitchen”) were poorly made.

“Studios used to be able to buy an opening weekend — O.K., marketing department, here’s a movie that isn’t very good, make it open,” said Mr. Squire, the professor. “In the social media age, those days are over.”

All told, the seven movies cost Warner and its partners an estimated $173 million to make (and more than $140 million to market in North America) and have taken in a combined $72.6 million, according to Comscore.

But a comic book character saved the day. “Joker,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Batman villain, cost an estimated $55 million to $70 million to make. As of Friday, it had collected $324 million in the United States and Canada and more than $1 billion worldwide.

Shocker: Warner is already exploring “Joker 2.”

Warner is not abandoning midlevel movies. But it has started to divert some away from theaters. “Superintelligence,” starring Melissa McCarthy, was scheduled for Christmas release but will now make its debut on a streaming service in May. Warner’s theatrical lineup for 2020 is much more reliant on superheroes, animation and brand-name directors (Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis).

Warner declined to comment. Executives at the studio have defended their choices in private conversations, noting that they reduced risk on the seven movies that flopped by taking on financing partners and selling off overseas rights for “Shaft” to Netflix. (Warner also took on partners for “Joker.”)

Nevertheless, some midbudget studio films continue to perform. “Good Boys,” an R-rated comedy set in the sixth grade, cost $20 million to make and collected $111 million worldwide for Universal. STX Entertainment recently found a hit in “Hustlers,” which starred Jennifer Lopez as a savvy stripper. It also cost $20 million to make and has taken in more than $150 million.

But the middle market will continue to struggle as a whole, Mr. Dergarabedian predicted, resulting in fewer midsize films reaching theaters. He brought up record stores and drive-in theaters as a comparison: “Vote with your dollars or kiss them goodbye.”

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