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‘UglyDolls,’ ‘Long Shot’ and the Struggle of Mid-Budget Films

Last weekend’s box office charts were a stark reminder of the domination of big-budget blockbusters.

With “Avengers: Endgame” once again sucking up all the oxygen in theaters, new releases like “UglyDolls” and “Long Shot” failed to capture a big slice of the box office pie. Only one newcomer, Sony and Screen Gem’s “The Intruder,” was able to scrape together more than $10 million in ticket sales. And Sony had the least to lose this weekend — “The Intruder” only cost $8 million. “Long Shot” and “UglyDolls” aren’t the kind of mistakes cause a studio to go under, but the $40 million romantic comedy and the $45 million animated adventure presented a riskier bet for the studios backing them. “Long Shot,” debuted with a tepid $9.7 million, and “UglyDolls,” launched with a disastrous $8.6 million.

On some level, choosing to open a movie a week after one the most anticipated movie of the decade is a suicide mission. Of course, when Lionsgate and STX set their respective release dates, they didn’t know just how high “Avengers: Endgame” would soar during its debut. But Marvel has the kind of track record that makes any competitors want to steer clear.

“The question Hollywood is going to be asking is, ‘How far away do we have to be from a Marvel movie?,'” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “They are eating everything up in sight.’

While Disney’s tentpole-filled slate continues to fuel the box office, smaller studios producing mid-range films continue to struggle in finding their footing. Legacy Hollywood studios have started to ditch the mid-budget movie, instead choosing to invest either a ton — or essentially nothing at all — when it comes to the theatrical experience. Mega-blockbusters such as “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: Endgame” and smaller-budgeted films like Jordan Peele’s “Us” are driving U.S. ticket sales. So far, 2019 has been mostly void of any moderately priced hits.

“Spending $40 million on a rom-com is too much these days when you have too many on Netflix right now,” Bock said. “Netflix is upping their game. You are competing against $15 a month versus $15 to see ‘Long Shot’? That math doesn’t add up unless it’s something special.”

Indeed, Netflix offers a smattering of sappy movies that audiences can’t get enough of. “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “The Kissing Booth,” and “The Perfect Date” are just a few streaming titles that have been fueling online chatter. Binge-watchers can’t get enough of Noah Centineo — and they don’t need to leave their couch to get their fill. With that in mind, most studios have all but abandoned the type of movie that has now comfortably found a life on streamers. The gap in mid-budgeted movies has left smaller companies such as Lionsgate and STX are struggling to punch up against the major studios. The box office pennies from “Long Shot” and “UglyDolls” demonstrate that even with big stars like Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, Kelly Clarkson and Nick Jonas, there’s an undeniably increased difficulty in competing with behemoths like Disney. While both STX and Lionsgate have fielded the occasional hit, neither have fully figured out how to navigate the world of counterprogramming.

STX has long posited itself as a disruptor to the major studios, spending a fraction of what the big guys shell out to market a movie. Then it’s a wonder why the studio would opt to release a movie that was intended to kick off a lucrative film franchise, along with a Hulu series, against the box office juggernaut that is “Endgame.” Outside of its rocky foray into animation with “UglyDolls,” STX has found somewhat of a footing with cost-effective romantic comedies like Jennifer Lopez’s “Second Act.” The $16 million film earned $72 million globally. The studio also had success with “The Upside,” a feel-good drama with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, which crossed $100 million worldwide. But that particular title was scooped up after the Weinstein Co. filed for bankruptcy. When it comes to original content, STX has had modest wins, but it hasn’t had a bona fide hit outside of its “Bad Moms” franchise. Here’s hoping that “Bad Mom’s Moms,” a recently announced installment, completes the trifecta of popular maternal hijinks.

Similarly, Lionsgate has struggled to figure out the kinds of movies to make for anyone who’s not just watching what Disney is producing. Under the new leadership of Joe Drake, the studio is attempting to capture magic on mid-range titles that other studios have given up on. Recent films like Tyler Perry’s “A Madea Family Funeral” and the YA drama “Five Feet Apart” scraped together enough to get out of the red. But the former was the last installment in a long-running franchise, and the latter was part of a distribution deal with CBS Films. “Robin Hood,” last year’s big-budget adaptation of the swashbuckling bandit in green, was a massive flop, ending its box office run with $84 million worldwide. David Harbour’s “Hellboy” also misfired last month, while “Cold Pursuit,” a vigilante thriller starring Liam Neeson, just barely made back its production budget. Other than “John Wick” installments (with another due out this summer), its been a rough go-around for Lionsgate.

“There’s a hole in the market these kinds of movies,” Bock said. “It’s not a huge hole, but it’s enough where clever studios can get a foothold.”

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