Consider for a moment the plight of the picture-pickers – that small, beleaguered fraternity that amid all Hollywood’s hype and turmoil, actually decides which projects are a “go” and which are a “no.”

Even in the best of times these individuals live in a state of siege, and these are hardly the best of times. The economy is a mess and the audience seems oddly dispirited. The film community awaits the onset of its big Christmas pictures with the queasiness of a college applicant anticipating his SAT scores.

After a disappointing summer and fall, the studios are agonizing over a very basic question: What sorts of pictures should they actually be making? While everyone agrees the megabuck monsters have gotten out of control, Hollywood seemingly has lost its touch with its smaller, more provocative “middle range” pictures. All this has left the picture-pickers baffled and oddly inert. The hand on the controls is frozen.

“It’s not the recession that’s hurting,” says Mario Kassar, the outspoken chief of Carolco who scored this year with “Terminator 2.” “The problem is that Hollywood is turning out TV movies that it thinks are features.” For once, many studio executives would agree with him: the “Frankie and Johnny” syndrome, it’s now being called.

“Frankie and Johnny” on paper was an interesting middle-range project; it turned out to be an abject failure. Al Pacino was too old for his role and Michelle Pfeiffer too pretty. Between them the project became too pricey (and they didn’t even help promote it). Garry Marshall, the director, reverted to his TV origins and turned the film into a movie-of-the-week. The upshot: a $30 million pre-Thanksgiving turkey.

There have been enough “Frankie and Johnnies” this year to give the picture-pickers pause. “No way I’m falling into the mid-range trap,” insists a senior production executive at a Sony company. “It’ll be big event pictures and maybe an occasional low-budget project with non-stars and first-time-out directors. Nothing in the middle.”

Cautions a veteran director: “The studios have always played it safe but now they’re playing it even safer.” Twenty years ago, the last time the industry was in the doldrums, the mid-range pictures often yielded benchmark surprises like “Midnight Cowboy” or “Five Easy Pieces” or “Harold and Maude” – projects that were quirky and original. “If I were running a studio today, which I wouldn’t ever do, I doubt if I could get any of my favorite pictures made – pictures like ‘Children of a Lesser God,'” reflects Ned Tanen, whose regimes at Universal and Paramount produced a steady array of modestly budgeted winners.

Drawing on TV tricks

What’s behind this malaise? For one thing, today’s budding filmmakers, weaned on TV, seem to be obsessively drawing on TV tricks. Innovators like the Ashbys or Coppolas of 20 years ago have yet to make their mark. One reason perhaps is that the majors, now appurtenances of the multinationals, are structured more like Procter & Gamble than like the studios of old. As such, they don’t seem to foster new talent or new ideas. Indeed, they have created a cost structure that militates against innovation.

And it isn’t a good time to be standing still. Competition from other media has grown exponentially more intense. Movies on cable show more bite than Hollywood’s features. “Not only are we facing tougher competition for people’s dollars, but equally important, for their time,” observes Paramount’s Brandon Tartikoff. A young couple today might opt to take their child to a kidflick (for less money) rather than gamble on what may be a flaccid feature aimed at adults.

The grim reality is simply that the mid-range feature may be a dinosaur. After all, the movies that propelled Hollywood out of its last recession were “big shows” like “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” and the Indiana Jones features. Even this summer the runaway success of “Terminator 2,” “Robin Hood” and “City Slickers” (all made by independents) prevented the nation’s theaters from converting full-time to swap meets.

In the same vein, though everyone in Hollywood likes to scorn the economics of “Hook,” that film may indeed salvage Christmas. And if it does, it will no longer seem quite as important whether the project cost $55 million, as some people say, or $85 million, as still others insist. (Insiders now suggest that the ultimate cost of “Batman Returns” will well surpass that of “Hook.”)

Burden’s still on the majors

While the megabuck epics come naturally to Hollywood, it’s odd that the majors have not quite come to terms with their economics. An independent like Carolco can shift much of the financial burden through presales and partnerships – Carolco’s ultimate exposure on “Chaplin” might be under $20 million, less than half the negative cost – but the majors still shoulder the full burden, just as they do with the mid-range pictures. This may soon change, but until that happens, the picture-pickers will continue to ulcerate over their options, wondering all the while how to cope with the barren fiscal landscape of the ’90s.

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