Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…1977-1998
Whatever blockbuster door JAWS opened in 1975 Star Wars boldly walked through and became one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the last thirty plus years. Five other Star Wars films followed the first one bringing in a total of more than $4 billion at the box office. (The original Star Wars movie’s $775 million worldwide box office grab almost doubled what JAWS made.)
Of course, Star Wars didn’t just stop making money at the theaters. There have been books, video games and it rewrote the book on spin off merchandise that still sells to this day. (Just this weekend while watching a football game on TV I saw a fan wearing a huge Darth Vader helmet.)
Star Wars has its own section on the American pop cultural shelf.
The success of Star Wars also took the use of special effects to a new level and its influence is heavy on many of today’s films. Lucas also put film school on the map. When I went to film school in the early 80s Star Wars was by far the biggest influence of why students said they were there. The early film school graduates of the 60s coming into prominence in the 70s brought a whole new wave to independent filmmaking. And that door for the independents hasn’t closed since.
At first they came from the top film schools USC, UCLA, AFI, NYU (Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch), then they started coming from lesser known film school FSU, UT Austin (Wes Anderson) and then they came from no (or just a little) film school (Quintin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith) . The progression makes sense in that the usual way to learn filmmaking in days of old was to be on a movie set and work your way up through the ranks. Film schools in New York & L.A. gave others a chance to learn about film and to make their own. Then schools outside New York and L.A. started offering film classes and degrees.
Then intense film production workshops started popping up around the country offering much of what was traditionally taught in film school. Now there many books, DVD, CDs and online classes, free blogs and forums on filmmaking. And at the same time the equipment has gotten cheaper and better over time. So the “Do It Yourself Movement’ is alive and well. (DIY director/writer Oren Peli whose sub $15,000 film opened just a month ago has already made $60 million dollars going into the halloween weekend.)
With good cameras, lights, and editing equipment costing less than just a typical year of film school one has to question if the film school model is outdated. But more of that in future posts.
But the 70s, 80s, and early 90s weren’t just about blockbuster and independent films being made. You had films that were full of social commentary (Driving Miss Daisy, Schindler’s List, Wall St), the quintessential romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally (1989), and a favorite for many people The Shawshank Redemption (1984),
Of course, Martin Scorsese was there to make sure the light didn’t get to bright inside the theater; Taxi Driver (1977), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991). The multiple Academy Award winning computer animation company Pixar was also formed during this period in 1986 and its first film was Toy Story.
Overall it was a great period for American films as a whole. And personally many of the films that I like to watch over and over again were made in the first half of this era (Diner, The Natural, The Verdict, Rain Man, Tootsie, On Golden Pond, Tender Mercies, Places of the Heart, Witness).
In this time frame is also when Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) was released brining a whole new level of respect to Independent filmmakers as it made over $100 million and received much critical acclaim. Also on the independent side, Robert Rodriguez made a splash from the ultra-low budget side of things with his $7,000 film El mariachi (1992).
The motion picture business turned 100 during this period and there had been many changes over that time period. From the 80s on movies had new entertainment competition with cable TV and Beta/VHS/DVDs. The Internet and video games emerged during this time as well. But in many ways all of these changes were new revenue streams for Hollywood.
Speaking of revenue streams…
What started with JAWS was perfected in 1997 and into 1998 with the release of the greatest blockbuster to date—Titanic. The James Cameron film connected not only with American audiences ($600 million domestic) but with a world wide audience that brought in almost $2 billion dollars.
In its opening weekend Titanic was number one in the box office and by the time its run was done it was the number one all-time box office winner and has stayed there ever since. It won best picture at the academy awards and 10 other awards tying a record of Oscars won by a single film.
The last decade or so is where the film business began to turn into a whole different kind of business.