In the late 1960s, the Hollywood system was coming apart. The decade was dominated by musicals, historical epics, and films benefitting from new sound, wider framing, and larger screens. By the end of the decade, however, Hollywood had produced massive flops like Hello, Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon. The studios were bleeding money and desperately searched for a way to appeal to the changing audience demographic.
The audience taste was shifting with the country's zeitgeist. Vietnam was at the forefront of the public consciousness. The civil rights movement. Drug culture. In the early 70s it was Watergate, economic turmoil, increased violence in the Middle East, the 1972 Munich Olympics, and so on. Audiences were also getting younger and more educated: According to John Belton's American Cinema/American Culture, by the mid 70s, 76% of all ticket buyers were under 30, and 64% of them had gone to college.
Hollywood had to take a chance. Movies that were once profitable bombed at the box office. Young directors and filmmakers were given resources at the major studios and very little oversight. Many of these young directors were brought up through "Roger Corman Film School," cutting their teeth on low-budget exploitation and genre films (including Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, and Martin Scorsese). Independent films were also breaking through - Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider was a surprise smash hit - along with foreign films. Jodorowsky's El Topo quickly became the first "midnight movie," and screened seven days a week from December 1970 to June 1971.
By the end of the 70s, Jaws and Star Wars had captured the country's collective cultural imagination. Big budget escapism was in. Science fiction, in particular, came to dominate the theaters and television. After the cultural trauma of the 1970s, audiences were happy to lose themselves for two hours at a time in a galaxy far, far away.
Fast forward to 2014.
The world cultural landscape is eerily familiar. Violence in the Middle East. Economic turmoil. Government scandals. Terrorism. Foreign wars. Racial tension in the South.
And Hollywood is losing at the box office. This week Variety reported that this summer has shaped up to be Hollywood's worst in a decade, with ticket sales down 15%. The big difference this time is that the slate is already chock full of big budget escapism. Guardians of the Galaxy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers. All a far cry from Paint Your Wagon or Tora, Tora, Tora. Escapism is already 'in' for the major studios. The article quotes an analyst that believes things will be better next year but "if we're not, then something is seriously the matter."
Hollywood is already repeating its maneuver the last time it faced declining box office. Young filmmakers are being plucked to helm large marquee films. Gareth Edwards, director of this summer's Godzilla, made the personal, inexpensive film Monsters. Guardians of the Galaxy's James Gunn came up through the ranks at Troma under the tutorship of Lloyd Kaufman. The problem is the films they're asked to helm are more of the same. Hollywood may be looking for "young, fresh" talent, but they're not getting the same creative control as directors were given in the 70s.
The time feels right for a cultural shift at the movies. We've been inundated with remakes of classics and pop culture films. We've escaped so much we've lost touch. We've been given the "same thing, only different" so much it's all starting to swim together. We are on the cusp of a great shift, because this malaise can only go on for so long. Event films and blockbuster budgets continue to climb, and the pressure is greater than ever to recoup; there is a risk that these event films will collapse on themselves.
Next year we get a new Star Wars. I think this is the watershed moment. Disney has gambled mightily on this franchise and if it does not pay off Hollywood could become very different very quickly. I think either way we're due for a cinematic shift. We've endured a very long stretch of superhero and other science fiction franchises (at the expense of originality or personal films) and, as they say, no tree grows to the sky.