Useful Notes / New Hollywood
Poster for a 2004 German retrospective of New Hollywood films.

Interviewer: You broke into Hollywood along with other young, bearded Turks. Has the notion of movie brats been over mythologised?
Steven Spielberg: I don't like that name so much. I don't think we were brats at all. We were a consolidated iteration of the generation that spawned Bogdanovich, Coppola and Friedkin. We were simply the next wave. We never thought of ourselves as brats. We thought ourselves as nerds. I wish they'd called us the 'Movie Nerds' 'cos that's what we really were. Brats has a connotation of arrogance, and spoilt, and being entitled.
Empire Magazine

The New Hollywood era, also known as the American New Wave, the Hollywood Renaissance and the auteur period, is when the swinging Sixties arrived in Hollywood. It was marked by the rise of a new generation of young, film-school-educated, countercultural filmmakers — directors, actors and writers alike — whom Hollywood felt could speak to the new generation of young people in ways that their older stars could not. By this point in time, Hollywood was desperate to hold onto any remaining scrap of relevance in an era that saw its dominance of American pop culture pulverized by the trifecta of TV, foreign cinema by masters like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut, in addition to independent films such as those produced by John Cassavetes and Roger Corman. Driven by a combination of mercantile interests (keeping pace with the changing tastes of the moviegoing public) and genuine enthusiasm to depict stories and elements never before seen in American cinema, the studios opened the doors like never before. Aspiring film-makers who had graduated from film school and made one or two movies could now shop their big ideas to the studios and recieve total Auteur License of the kind that Orson Welles had recieved for Citizen Kane. The result was a decade or so of bold experimentation, perhaps the greatest creative explosion in mainstream American cinema.

The rise of the New Golden Age...

Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, is considered the first New Hollywood film (Easy Rider is another contender). It was made by big studios, featured young stars and yet it had violence, sexuality and a dark tone that owed more to European cinema than anything homegrown. Yet the film was in many ways part of a larger trend in American cinema, stemming from the collapse of The Hays Code. The Code had already lost its primary reason for being in 1952 when the US Supreme Court declared film to be a protected art form under the First Amendment. By the late 50s, such film-makers as Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock were already breaking down the Code and putting in challenging content. By the mid-60s, major studios had forced it to bend to approve "special exceptions" for critically-hailed, challenging fare, like The Pawnbroker with its short scene of plot-relevant nudity and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with its equally plot-relevant harsh language. The illusion of the Code's importance ended with the release of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, which featured explicit nudity and moreover was produced and distributed by a major studio like MGM. When the Code tried to challenge it, the film was released unrated and it became a critical and box office smash hit. This opened the floodgates for the era of permissiveness that would typify 70s film-making, with the censorship code replaced by a Ratings system formed in 1968 by new boss, Jack Valenti, known as The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA recognized the space in the public sphere for films for an adult audiencenote  and this encouraged studios to sponsor and accept bold and radical new content. Films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Cool Hand Luke, The Producers, and Easy Rider broke countless taboos, earning immense critical acclaim and, in some cases, box office returns in the process. Realism and immersion were major themes in such movies, a backlash against the spectacle and artificiality that defined the studio system.

A symbol of this emphasis on realism was the choice of many filmmakers to shoot on location — not only was this now far less expensive than shooting on set due to advances in technology, it also heightened the feeling that the people on screen were in a real place. In addition, such films were infused with sexuality, graphic violence, drugs, rock music, anti heroes, anti-establishment themes, and other symbols of the '60s counterculture that would've been unthinkable in mainstream American cinema just a few years earlier. Many New Hollywood filmmakers openly admitted to using marijuana and psychedelic drugs, furthering their popularity in the general climate of the '60s. In addition, the rigid cliche of the WASP-y, white-bread American movie star was challenged with the rise of actors who forced the parameters open, like the suave, intelligent black man Sidney Poitier, exotic European sex symbols like Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, the adorkable Jews Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen, Italian-American antiheroes Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the hardbody heartthrob Asian tough guy Bruce Lee. These and other actors hit it big by being seemingly nothing like any major movie star before.

The success of New Hollywood's early films stood in sharp contrast to the colossal, studio-busting failures of the last stretch of Old Hollywood-style filmmaking — in particular, the many money-losing, big-budget, mostly family-friendly musicals (such as Doctor Dolittle, Camelot and Hello, Dolly!) made in the wake of the 1965 smash The Sound of Music. This caused the studios to grant almost complete creative control to these upstart filmmakers. As The '70s rolled in, such films as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Roman Polanski's neo-Noir Chinatown, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver were released to not only near-universal critical acclaim, but also massive ticket sales, earning their studios boatloads of cash in the process. For a while, it appeared that this strategy was paying off big time. On top of all that, cinema was finally taken seriously from an artistic point of view. With TV becoming the dominant mass medium, the cultural scorn heaped on it changed the image of film by comparison. Whereas cinema was previously considered a low-class medium, now it became "quality entertainment" with an artistic respectability nearly on a par with other arts like live theater. (Compare it to the situation today, where television is itself becoming "respectable" while video games and webshows take up the "low-brow" mantle.) For a time, it looked as if the worst was over, and it seemed like Hollywood was finally out of its post-war slump.

...and the fall.

Alas, these good times were not to last. For one thing, while some of these films were huge hits, average weekly attendance plummeted from roughly 45 million per week in 1965 to roughly 19 million in 1969. While some of this can be attributed to the continued collapse of the studio system, the numbers only crept back up into the 20-25 million per week range for the next decade, staying there and never recovering to old heights. Furthermore, towards the end of the 70s, the New Hollywood film-makers who had originally burst on the scene to make low-budget adult alternatives to The '60s Epic Movie started making films with a bigger budget and moving towards risky ventures. In the case of Apocalypse Now, the risk paid off; the film won several awards and was a box-office success despite its notoriously Troubled Production, chronicled by several tabloids and gossip mongers, leading many to predict a Cleopatra-sized catastrophe in the making. Formerly, Hollywood film-makers would court this publicity, but the mood had shifted by this point. Earlier such artistic fastidiousness was praised as an example of uncompromising artistic commitment, the story that was now spun was that of over-reaching and spoiled film-makers who were abusing their privileges. Michael Cimino's notorious 1980 flop Heaven's Gate became the rallying point for this mentality. At the end of it all, United Artists (the studio behind Heaven's Gate) had gone bankrupt and had been sold to MGM, and The '80s was a time when directors, even economical ones, struggled to make ambitious films in a market directed driven towards family fare.

Star Wars, which was made on a modest budget with no "big" stars (Alec Guinness was the only real name) and at considerable risk (described by Roger Corman, The Mentor of the group, as a B-Movie during production), became a box-office smash in 1977. Directors at the time like Martin Scorsese and John Milius, and in 2015, George Lucas himself, noted that its success taught new investors the wrong lessons, causing many to believe that the success of the film lay in its ability to spin off merchandise rather than its own merits as a film. With high-profile bombs discrediting the period, Hollywood turned away from their sorts of adult films and towards making films for the whole family, which led to several imitations and the drying up of funds for many of those filmmakers, ironically erasing the context which led to Star Wars being made in the first place. Directors like Woody Allen argued that, despite the occasional flop, by and large these films made a profit and were Misblamed for changes the industry was going through anyway. Scorsese has described the period as being, more accurately, the space between the old and the new, where the next generation of blockbusters were once again in control of the situation, leading to The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood.

The first buyouts of studios by outside forces began during this time, as corporations not only saw that Hollywood was big business, but that, in their currently troubled state, the studios were ripe for hostile takeover.

If you want blood... you've got it!

The auteur filmmaking of New Hollywood is popular understood as a phenomenon chiefly relegated to the major studios, institutions that could afford to finance the production of these blockbusters. For those who couldn't make it in Hollywood... well, the Hays Code was gone, the Moral Guardians were neutered, and moviegoers were demanding much edgier and more graphic content, so you can guess what happened. The above-described "auteur period" is only one of the two phenomena associated with filmmaking in the 1970s; the other, as Quentin Tarantino and his ilk have so masterfully taught us, was the explosion of B-grade exploitation films. Whole new sub-genres abounded in American cinema, from "blaxploitation" targeted at newly-empowered (but still largely ignored by Hollywood) African Americans in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, to wild martial arts and Wuxia action films imported from Hong Kong with Bruce Lee becoming a cinematic legend with only a handful of films. Famed low-budget filmmaker Roger Corman — who mentored many of the big talents of the auteur period — spent the prior decade developing a sweeping body of work famous for the frugality of its production, and continued to produce films even after he stopped directing in 1971.

The American horror genre entered a new golden age of creativity. On the Hollywood side of the genre, such films as Rosemary's Baby, The Omen (1976), The Exorcist and Carrie (1976) all worked hard to restore the artistic respectability of the genre, winning critical acclaim that few horror films have achieved since. Meanwhile, on the indie side, blood-drenched flicks like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) shocked viewers with their brutality. Italian cinema played a major role in the growth of the genre, with such visionaries as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava all heavily influencing the direction that the horror genre would take well into the '80s.

In conclusion

While the New Hollywood era lasted less than a decade and a half, it had a profound impact on how Hollywood operated. New Hollywood was the era in which, at least in the eyes of academics and the American cultural elite, cinema finally secured its status as True Art after decades of fighting for acceptance alongside literature, theater and music. The old studio system, in which the producers had the ultimate say in everything that happened on set and backstage, was gone for good.

From the perspective of directors, the era was more or less a Full-Circle Revolution. In the end, the studios pushed back against the excesses of "visionaries" and Executive Meddling returned to prominence, that is assuming of course if directors managed to get their script and idea approved to start with. For all the creative freedom directors had on some production, they were never quite able to take it all the way and create a long-standing form of institutional support. The likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin had earlier tried to form a joint co-operative venture where by they would produce each other's films (similar to a plan hatched by William Wyler and Frank Capra in The '40s), but this failed because of a clash of egos, disproportionate incomes and inability to absorb costs. Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, a huge influence on this generation (and whose Novecento was partly funded by American studios) noted that film-makers of this era never quite managed to achieve anything like the legislative success in France where directors managed to gain copyright on their works, remaining more or less under the thumb of the studios and having no ground for themselves when the era was over. Still, the influence and cultural prestige of films from this era was such that Hollywood did entertain, if far less than usual, the idea of movies made for the art. Certain film-makers like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and much later, Martin Scorsese (after a difficult period in The '80s) managed to carve niches within the industry and remained solvent, setting a precedent for the likes of The Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh, who later became prominent as creative film-makers within the mainstream.

The output of the era, like that of the Golden Age, is often put through the Nostalgia Filter, with some saying that it was the last truly classic decade for American cinema (Expect Critical Backlash and Flame War for those who disagree). At the end of the day, the lessons learned from New Hollywood, both good and bad, would be put to use by the studios — and their new corporate owners — to start The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood, the true new Hollywood establishment.

Tropes from this Era

  • The Bad Guy Wins: Directors of this era delighted in rewarding villains and subverting cliches. Special examples include Chinatown, The Parallax View, Heaven's Gate, Mean Streets, The Godfather.
  • Darker and Edgier: For many this was the darkest era in American cinema. Films were bleaker, pessimistic, featured more violence and edgy content than any other period of mainstream film-making. To put this in perspective, films like Straw Dogs and Nashville were released by major studios and indeed, Jack Nicholson noted that Robert Towne's original ending for Chinatown sounded interesting to him because it went against the ongoing trend for Downer Ending in this time.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Almost no genre was left untouched.
    • Film Noir: Neo-noir like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye put all the subtext of the classic noir on the surface for everyone to see while critiquing the archetypes of the Private Detective and Femme Fatale.
    • Epic Movie: This was the hope of such films as Heaven's Gate. Likewise, the genre evolved by being blended into new ones. The Godfather for instance was more of a Hollywood epic then it was a gangster film.
    • The Musical: Audiences had a tougher time accepting the revisionism of classic musicals, and indeed attempts to do so, such as At Long Last Love and New York, New York became proverbial flops by the end of the decade. The fact that this was an era where rock music started being used as accompaniment in many films, also contributed to the decline of the traditional musical.
    • Romantic Comedy: Films by Woody Allen, especially Annie Hall, but also Syndey Pollack's The Way We Were showed how difficult relationships were, and what love meant in a time of no-fault divorce and blended marriages.
    • The Western: Sam Peckinpah's films tackled the New Old West. Other films from this time also used the Western to cast a dim view on American history, while Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller showed how the West really looked like.
  • Genre-Busting: Robert Altman essentially invented perhaps the most unique genre from this period, the Ensemble Movie
  • Genre Throwback: The era began when American film-makers revolted against the old Hollywood genres by making stories relevant to The '70s. It ended when the same film-makers fell into a phase of nostalgia for the old genres from their childhood and sought to revive and update it for The '70s. In most cases it failed. The one success was Star Wars.
  • Hotter and Sexier: This was a period where nudity became permissible on American screens and sex scenes became more and more common.
  • The Man Is Sticking It to the Man: An era of anti-establishment, anti-government movies critical of American society and values, made by major Hollywood studios, starring highly paid stars and enjoying a great deal of commercial success. Or at least that's how everyone remembered it. The films which were most directly and specifically political, like Altman's Nashville didn't do very well. Indeed, John Cassavetes mocked this trope in the late 70s,
    John Cassavetes: "Today's young people hide behind their youth. Film is as much a business for the young as for the old. They're criticizing older people because they're wanting it and they're not getting it — the haves and the have-nots.... We're all the Establishment."
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: On the whole this entire era was a long delayed Enlightened backlash to the rosiness of the Golden Age. Within the movement, Scorsese, Altman, and Woody Allen are closer to the Enlightenment side, while Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas are on the Romantic end of the equation.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Subverted but also Played Straight:
    • Many of the Hollywood movies of this era revolved around the fact that women's liberation radically altered previous ideas about love, marriage, relationships and societies, and many films dealt with divorced couples, exes and blended families.
    • However, as noted by Julie Christie in A Decade Under the Influence, this didn't necessarily lead to more and better roles for women. She noted that in most cases, films made in this era still focused more on male angst and that the decade largely ushered in a revolution for different kinds of male leads (in sexuality/race/religion/ethnicity/occupation) while women had at best only marginal improvement in the kind of roles they got, while women in these films still remained Satellite Character to men.
  • Vigilante Man: This archetype appeared in this era. Dirty Harry was the first, Straw Dogs offered an Unbuilt Trope, Death Wish came later, and Taxi Driver served as a Deconstruction, though paradoxically, it was the last film that actually went on to inspire an assassination attempt. Abel Ferrara's 1981 Ms. .45note  provided a Distaff Counterpart.
  • Villain Protagonist: When they weren't outright anti-heroic, they were this. The flagship movie of this era is of course, The Godfather whose protagonist is a crime boss. Other movies that followed include Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

Key Film-Makers of this Era (with their own pages):