The current Blockbuster Age of Hollywood is an era where marketing and spectacle have dominated in contrast to the creative freedom and excesses that marked the New Hollywood era of the 1970s. It has also created a new "studio-system", built upon the ashes of the old. This time however, there are only five major studios: Sony (releasing films under the Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures and Screen Gems imprints), Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (formerly known as Buena Vista Pictures)—20th Century Fox and MGM still exist, but the former was acquired by Disney in 2019, renamed "20th Century Studios" to remove connections to Fox Corporation (the shell of Fox's former self) and the latter is a shadow of its former self, owned by its creditors for years until Amazon bought it in 2021, and a major studio only by virtue of its history. But fundamentally, this is a studio-system In Name Only. The studios have become part of larger conglomerates instead of being independent companies like in the Golden Age. In addition, actors still operate on a "free agent" basis instead of being contractually tied to a studio, and the New Hollywood mentality of directors having just as much say in the final product as studio executives— if not more so— remained (mostly) intact.
"Blockbusters" in both senses of the wordThe term "block buster" (note the space) was first used for a giant bomb during World War II, with Variety quickly adopting it to describe films whose premieres attracted lines around the blocks surrounding Broadway movie houses.
There is significant overlap between the end of New Hollywood and the start of the Blockbuster Age. While New Hollywood is generally held to have ended in the early '80s after a string of expensive, high-profile flops, the beginning of the Blockbuster Age is generally pinned much earlier, in the year of 1975, which marked the arrival of one Steven Spielberg into mainstream Hollywood, with his classic shark film Jaws. Jaws was a revolution in cinema, marking a shift towards advertising, High Concept and disciplined production as ways of producing high-quality, commercially viable films. This was followed up two years later by the success of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas' Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), which revitalized the science fiction genre. Star Wars also showed Hollywood how merchandising, spinoffs into other media, and sequels could be used by the studios to return to profitability. Together, Jaws, Close Encounters and Star Wars invented the Summer Blockbuster as Hollywood's new paradigm for film-making.
Notable is the fact that these science-fiction thrillers were in genres that in the Old Hollywood days would be B-Movie (and Star Wars was called such by Roger Corman during a visit to the set on hearing George Lucas' ideas) and would have been made on low-budget or No Budget with limited technical resources. The above films more or less structured on similar concepts with a much higher production standard and better visual effects. This trend continued with the wild success of Superman in 1978 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, which showed that adaptations from media previously scoffed at by Hollywood, such as the Comic Book Super Hero and genre TV series, had potential to become big-time film genres and that the supposedly niche teenager, geek and nerd concepts could in fact appeal to a big part of the mainstream. The huge success of these films — and another '79 entry, The Muppet Movie — with children was also noted. For all its rebelliousness, New Hollywood fundamentally was built on the old genres of the Golden Age Hollywood (The Musical, the Screwball Comedy, The Western, Film Noir, the women's film, the Epic Movie) and either made Deconstruction of those genres, or updated or reconfigured it. What Lucas and Spielberg achieved was a Perspective Flip whereby the disreputable serials, science-fiction and adventure stories suddenly went from micro-budget B-Movie to more or less epic spectacular made on a scale and budget comparable to a Cecil B. DeMille production. This realignment of the audience kicked off the Blockbuster Age.
More importantly, both films were among the first to have "wide" releases (The Godfather was the first) instead of being released first in major cities. This eventually blurred the line between the different kinds of movie theaters existing until then.
Rise of Home Video
The name "Blockbuster Age" also has another origin: Blockbuster Video. It is very difficult to overstate how great an impact the invention of the videocassette had on the film industry. It started a golden age for independent cinema, the full impact of which is described below. (It also started a golden age for the porn industry, but that's for a completely different article.) It also effectively killed second-run theaters, grindhouses, and porn theaters, as people could now watch movies in the comfort of their living rooms instead of having to go to sleazy, run-down theaters in that part of town — and in the case of porn theaters, not worry about getting caught at an establishment that was only one step above a brothel or a bathhouse. In addition, home video and cable television offered the studios additional revenue streams for their films after they'd left theaters, allowing them to continue making money off of older films — some of which could see a second chance at success when they came out on video or on a movie channel. Last but certainly not least, the videocassette seriously spooked Hollywood's traditional arch-enemy, the over-the-air television industry, which feared people recording shows just to fast-forward through all those lucrative commercials.
Of course, there's a catch to everything. Video camcorders also opened the doors to bootleggers, the pre-internet manifestation of digital pirates, who hawked their wares on the street and packed everything up in seconds the moment they saw a cop. In the early '80s, the film industry, having not yet learned what a potential gold mine it was, feared that the videocassette would destroy them; MPAA head Jack Valenti (and his cheeks) went so far as to compare the effect it would have on cinema to the effect of the Boston Strangler on a woman alone at home. (Any similarities to the hysterical reaction of the MPAA to file-sharing are completely coincidental.) Persuaded by calmer voices like Fred Rogers, the Supreme Court's decision in the "Betamax case" in 1983-84, which held that the makers of VCRs couldn't be held liable for copyright infringement committed by the devices' users, ultimately settled the matter, with the film industry getting in on the booming home video industry not long after.
When the LaserDisc appeared in the 80s and, more importantly, DVDs came around in The '90s, the studios were able to make even more money by putting out a Limited Special Collectors Ultimate Unrated Edition for each of their big films, packed with commentaries, deleted scenes and "director's cuts", "making of" featurettes, feelies, and other bonus features. The high-end Criterion Collection series emerged as taking the greatest care in preservation and supplementation of classic films.
Rise of the multiplex
Another factor in the return of Hollywood to profitability was the rise of the multiplex theater, something that began during the New Hollywood era note but truly took off in the Reagan years and after. The multiplex follows a fairly simple logic: if you have more screens, then you can run more showings of more movies, and can therefore make more money! Six-screen theaters were opening by the end of The '70s, and by The '90s, they had gone Up to Eleven with 20-screen "megaplex" theaters and beyond. It is no coincidence that the rise of the multiplex occurred at the same time as the boom of malls and big-box stores; most multiplexes were part of such complexes, and like their retail cousins, were a driving force behind suburban sprawl through The '80s and the early years of The '90s, the decade when downtown theaters slowly got squeezed out of business, unable to compete with the massive profits made by this new breed of theater. Multiplexes caused the moviegoing experience to undergo a fundamental shift, and very few would argue that the shift was for the better — it went from large, well-appointed theaters with well-dressed, butler-like staff (something that is now seen only in the few remaining "legacy" movie palaces, like the Kodak and Chinese Theatres in Hollywood) to small, fairly spartan auditoriums with floors covered in dropped popcorn and spilled soda (both of which are ridiculously overpriced), staffed by young people making minimum wage and not particularly happy about it — movie theater jobs are often considered to be just a step above fast food and supermarket jobs in terms of crappy, humiliating employment for teenagers.
None of this really mattered to the studios, who were mainly pleased with the fact that a movie could make back its budget, no matter how big it was, in a matter of days instead of weeks or even months. The goal of the studios had shifted from making movies with "legs" (i.e. movies that would keep marching on to large, stable box office numbers week in and week out) to movies that could rake in a colossal take on opening weekend. Who cares if bad word-of-mouth causes it to take a 50-60% drop for round 2? However, there was some push back from the opposing camp of viewers who tried to encourage more discerning tastes, such as when two movie critics from the Chicago newspapers, Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times and Gene Siskel of the Tribune, starting doing TV on the PBS show, Sneak Previews, on the side. As such, they later created the long running syndicated movie review TV show, Siskel & Ebert, that became a popular mainstay for decades spreading insightful film reviews from the wordy newspapers and magazines to a more easily digestible medium. While obviously it could not raise all the public's taste, the duo and their imitators at least could help make good artistic work pay off and any halfway ambitious movie studio still knows that credible praise is valuable stuff in marketing. After all, there's a reason that S & E's trademarked catch phrase, "Two Thumbs Up," was front and center for any advertisement for movies earning it.
There are many waves and stretches for the Blockbuster era. The first wave is 1982 which saw the release of a slew of summer blockbusters that are now regarded as classics, including: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Thing (1982), Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian (1982), Blade Runner, Poltergeist, TRON, and The Road Warrior with the caveat that Blade Runner, TRON and The Thing were flops. 1982 is often regarded as Hollywood's second "golden year" in terms of creativity and classic films, not unlike how 1939 is considered to be the highpoint of The Golden Age of Hollywood. Other memorable films released around this time include Ghostbusters (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, and the first film to be released with the new PG-13 rating, Red Dawn (1984). However, unlike 1939, 1982 most certainly did not come at a high point for the studios financially. Hollywood spent much of The '80s reeling from the fallout of the New Hollywood era, and the combined share of the six surviving major studios from the Golden Age had fallen to just 64% by 1986 — the lowest it had been since the days of silent film. Two young studios — Orion and Tri-Star (the former was a company formed by executives of United Artists who'd fled that company shortly before the Heaven's Gate debacle; the latter was initially a joint venture of Columbia, CBS and HBO) — maintained about 6% market share each, Disney had about 10%, and smaller independents (the largest being New Line Cinema, "the house that Freddy built") would together make up 13% (more than any one studio besides Paramount).
It would be in The '90s — after a new round of corporate acquisitions (Columbia was purchased in 1982 by Coca-Cola, which spun it off in 1987; Sony then bought Columbia in 1989; Fox became part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in 1985; Warners merged with Time Inc. and HBO to form Time Warner in 1990 [the Turner Broadcasting merger of 1996 brought New Line Cinema into the fold]; Also in 1990, Universal came under the control of Matsushita after it bought MCA, only to sell them in 1995 to Seagram, which was bought in 2000 by Vivendi, which sold it in 2004 to GE, merging it with NBC, it was finally absorbed into cable giant Comcast between 2011 and 2013; and Paramount Communications [formerly Gulf+Western] was acquired by Viacom in 1995) — and the Turn of the Millennium that the rebirth would finally come. Orion would go bankrupt in 1992 (and eventually get eaten by MGM), Tri-Star would merge with Columbia (HBO and CBS having since sold out) in 1998, and New Line would merge with Warner Bros. in 2008 (after getting into a dick-swinging contest with Peter Jackson). By 2006, the six major movie conglomerates' share of the box office (counting Disney) had climbed back to 89.8% of the North American market. The two largest independent studios, Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, would share 6.1%, MGM would have 1.8%, and the remaining indie studios shared the remaining 2.3%.
While Hollywood in the '80s became associated with family-friendly films like Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters (1984), Back to the Future and the like, adults-only audiences did not go away quickly. This was the decade that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis became (more) famous for appearing in ultra-violent action movies like The Terminator, the Rambo series and Die Hard respectively; their colorful shoot-outs and thinly-veiled glorification of vigilantism greatly contrasted with the self-pitying demeanor of 1970s-era films. (On the B-picture level, Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris became The Cannon Group's biggest stars via action movies.) There was a big market for R-rated comedy, with Eddie Murphy toplining several such films as part of his emergence as the decade's most popular comic performer. (He also helped popularize action-comedy hybrids with films like Beverly Hills Cop.) And between the relaxed content restrictions New Hollywood had established and the special effects advances Star Wars and similar hits developed and encouraged, horror movies saw their highest profile in pop culture since the 1950s, if not 1930s. Moral Guardians everywhere wailed about the Slasher Film craze, the emergence of Body Horror, and a wave of Darker and Edgier, Bloodier and Gorier, and Hotter and Sexier takes on every horror concept under the moon. Stephen King novels and short stories saw multiple adaptations per year from 1983 onward. Filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg, all of whom got their start on the B-picture circuit of the '70s, are notable for gaining respect among gutsier professional critics for their imaginative, provocative films as they graduated to bigger budgets and ideas.
The 1980s also brought two important developments in monetizing films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial popularized Product Placement when a preteen boy's use of Reese's Pieces to draw out the titular creature from hiding resulted in a gigantic uptick in the candy's sales. And at the end of the decade, Back to the Future Part II rolled out internationally over a few weeks in November and December 1989, an unprecedented move probably sparked by the popularity of home video (contrast this with the fact A New Hope had its European premiere in France three months after the American release, while it didn't get released in the UK until Christmas, seven months after it premiered stateside) and resultant fears of piracy.
The faltering animation industry got a badly-needed kick in the pants at the end of the 1980s with the releases of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast. The "Disney Renaissance" became one of the main factors of a new age for not only cartoons, but also for the film industry as a whole as studios began to take interest in animation. However, the success of 1995's Toy Story meant the end not only for the in-house animation divisions, replaced by up-starts like Dreamworks and Blue Sky, but also caused the decline of live-action family films.
More importantly, it revived the fortunes of the Walt Disney Company, which declined after its founder's demise and during The '80s saw a lot of defections and came close to becoming a theme park-based company with film-making as a side-business. By the mid-1990s, Disney became a major money-spinner with a huge slew of valuable properties; in the 2000s it acquired Pixar, Star Wars (via Lucasfilm) and Marvel Comics, becoming far and away the biggest studio in Hollywood.
The second half of the 2010s has seen a trend for greater consolidation with some controversial merger proposals: The first being AT&T's proposed acquisition of Time-Warner, which has been subject to congressional scrutiny. Meanwhile, Disney's takeover of Fox has given way to concerns about a potential near-monopoly of the industry as two of the largest media conglomerates amalgamated, even if both will keep their separate operations.
There has been an independent cinema in America since The '50s (with John Cassavetes being seen as The Pioneer) but until The '70s, the understanding was that independent cinema was a proving ground for talented artists to transition into the mainstream. Now of course some independents will stay independent and be better off for it, but most people who made independent films could conceivably expect some kind of audience and a shot at the big league. In The '80s and The '90s, independent film-makers were more or less expected to make a career in the margins and remain there and at best hope to break through by carving out some niche or the other, or somehow reinventing themselves into a mainstream film-maker (such as Steven Soderbergh who was a Sundance discovery who later made Ocean's Eleven and Out of Sight). The real hope of revenue for these films was home video and international sales. Home Video provided wide accessibility but also greater marginalization and invisibility from the mainstream. Prior to home video, independent films would often get (at best) limited releases in "arthouse" theaters that would limit their exposure, and films with controversial subject matter or offensive content often found themselves getting consigned to the "grindhouse" circuit by virtue of the X or NC-17 ratings. Now they could bypass theaters entirely and go Direct to Video. Much of the DTV sales model was built by independent studios that couldn't afford theatrical runs for their films. But this meant that the audiences for these films were largely niche fans or genre-specialists and cinephiles and provided little room to reach audiences from other demographics. Film critics note that before one could say that both the mainstream and the independent scene had great talent and visionaries, now the independent scene had the bulk of the innovation, much of it was unrewarded, little-known and had little to no cultural impact.
The major positive effect of home video was that it provided a channel for young film geeks who had spent much of their lives watching old films on TV and video, picking up the various techniques used by classic directors, and deciding that they wanted to become filmmakers themselves. People like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh made such films as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Do the Right Thing and sex, lies, and videotape, sparking a renaissance in independent film that lasts to this day. Other directors, such as The Coen Brothers, worked with both independent and major studios interchangeably. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the big studios started their own subsidiary labels devoted to independent films such as Fox Searchlight Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics, Universal's Focus Features and (prior to 2008) Paramount Vantage, in order to farm Hollywood's award-season arsenal, winning critical acclaim and, sometimes, commercial success. In addition, many independent studios, such as Lionsgate, Annapurna, STX and Magnolia (as well as the now-defunct PolyGram, Miramax, The Weinstein Company, FilmDistrict, New Line and Summit), have gained footholds in the mainstream market by both distributing independent and foreign films and, increasingly, making films in-house (Lionsgate's Saw franchise, Summit's Twilight adaptations), often raking in enough money to blur the line between "indie" and "major". At the same time, the "Indie wave" not only rehabilitated the names of the New Hollywood-era auteurs which had spent the 1980s dealing with financial failures and critical indifference, but in many cases drove them to a degree of mainstream recognition they never expected.
The Franchise Age of Hollywood
While 1990s film-making was marked by a resurgence of New Hollywood tropes amid a slump of high-budget films and franchises, Corman alumnus James Cameron stumped Hollywood in 1997 with Titanic, an update of the old-fashioned Epic Movie blended with Disaster Movie elements, featuring the then little-known actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. It became the first film to gross over one billion dollars, thanks in no small part to its marketing campaign, aimed at the teen/young adult audience in addition to the more traditional female audience an old studio head honcho would have targeted thoroughly, something that was seen as a huge gamble back then as it was thought that youngsters would just not be interested in an old-fashioned love story. Not only Cameron's vision had paid off but it would set the pattern for an ever-increasing focus not only on how a film should be made, but more importantly how it should be sold. Movies now had to appeal to the widest audience possible to be successful, putting special attention to the Fleeting Demographic Rule.
While movies have always depended on other media for material, adaptations of popular works would not become a dominating force in the industry until 2001, the year Warner Bros. released films based on the literary sagas of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, which would become the two biggest films of a year that also saw the debuts of the Shrek, Ocean's 11 and The Fast and the Furious sagas. The success of both The Sorcerer's Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring changed the industry entirely, even establishing the modern storytelling structure found in Hollywood films. Their successes immediately sent waves to the other studios, now urged to look for a) "fantasy" material, as it is attractive to audiences of all ages, b) a propriety with long-term potential, and most importantly c) get your hands on anything popular (extending the previous point) — a video game, a 1980s TV show (preferably a cartoon), a comic strip, toys or even internet symbols — to take advantage of existing fandoms and merchandising.
But one source, carrying all these attributes, would prove by far, the most popular to be translated to the screen: superhero comic books, something that actually came off as a surprise at the beginning, considering that it had been confined to low-budget fare for decades, except for WB's attempts to cash on its newly-acquired DC Comics properties in The '80s (Superman) and The '90s (Batman), with both attempts eventually crashing. Then, 2000's X-Men (released by 20th Century Fox) became a surprise hit (following on the footsteps of 1998's Blade by New Line Cinema) and Sam Raimi's 2002 film Spider-Man (released by Columbia Pictures) turned out to be an unprecedented success that set the trend for more superhero films: Universal attempted to turn Hulk into a franchise to no avail, while Fox had mediocre results with Fantastic Four (2005) and Warners decided to give their DC characters another chance, but they would only have success with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. With time, Marvel decided to get a larger piece of the cake and started their own film studio, 2008's Iron Man kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and revived Robert Downey Jr.'s career). By the time The Avengers was released in 2012, the MCU became a major player in Hollywood, also helped by Disney's acquisition of the publisher in 2009. By the mid-2010s, Warner Bros. launched the DC Extended Universe, which has also been commercially successful (although not to the extent of Marvel) although it would be generally mauled by critics until Wonder Woman (2017), with Aquaman, Shazam and Joker establishing the DCEU as a more serious alternative to the MCU (although there is debate about the latter being either part of the franchise or a stand-alone drama loosely adapted from a comic book character).
The main reason for this flood of adaptations, sequels, remakes, reboots and the like was a series of improvements on the home entertainment field during the second half of the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s: Cable TV became ubiquitous, with channels upping their ante on terms of original content, especially in the case of "premium" networks such as HBO and AMC, both of which launched series with unheard-of production values such as The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the booming Internet, game consoles and the fact that TV networks were skewing towards younger audiences kept the coveted 15-34 demographic away from the movie house. To complicate matters, the arrival of DVDs meant that people could enjoy a movie at home not only with reliable, high-quality image and sound compared to VHS, but also allowed access to added features and other freebies. Their popularity and later decline led to the "theatrical window" to shrink from six months (or more) to 90 days, which added to the urge for higher first-weekend grosses at the box-office. All this also contributed to the use of gimmicks to attract audiences: IMAX offered high-resolution images at a time HDTV was a novelty while 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound systems attempted to counter the popularity of "home theaters". Later on, movie circuits began adding "premium" services with reclining bergere-type seats and dine-in options. These changes eventually translated in a general increase on the prices of tickets from the mid-2000s onwards, and grosses have increased in a sustained basis even if attendance hasn't reached the heights of the late 1990s and early 2000s (peaking with 2002's 1,575,700,000 admissions, with no year surpassing 1.4 billion tickets after 2009).
The post-9/11 landscape also bolstered escapism, a trend that would establish in the 2006-07 film season—As late '90s/early 2000s prosperity began to wear thin, studios were compelled to make flashier pictures to keep moviegoers in theaters. By the end of 2006, studios rolled back their mature and/or independent projects in favor of investing in more family-friendly franchises, big-budget blockbusters and adult comedies, a pattern that would define filmmaking for the rest of the decade. The 2009-10 season had another turning point: 3D films took off (again) and raunchy comedies reached a peak at the same time dependence on adaptations and franchises increased.
The releases of James Cameron's Avatar (which surpassed Titanic's record, holding the title of the highest-grossing movie for nine years) and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) led to a(nother) three-dimensional craze, although it did not take long for the arrival of a glut of poorly-made films with 3-D added in post-production mostly to make them marketable. All this alienated audiences, which saw in 3-D an excuse to rise prices further instead of actually using it to improve storytelling or experience, the fact some theaters had no "flat" prints becoming an annoyance to many who did not have the money or the inclination to see a 3-D movie. By the end of the 2011-12 season, 3-D pretty much became the province of animated films and superhero movies, being gradually and quietly sidelined by the middle of the decade, although without completely disappearing in contrast to previous 3-D waves.
Adult comedies, which had become increasingly successful during the late 1990s and early 2000s with films like There's Something About Mary, American Pie. Dude, Where's My Car? and Scary Movie, came to the forefront with the surprise success of 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which sparked a trend for outrageous humor, including genre satires in the vein of SM, ethnic humor and stoner hijinks, the trend hitting its peak in 2009, when The Hangover became one of the ten highest-grossing films of the year. By this time, even comedies promoted to family audiences would offer material that would have been considered distasteful years earlier. 2010 however, marked a turning point, as stricter MPAA guidelines made it harder to portray borderline-vulgar material, particularly prominent in these films. Social attitudes towards humor in general also shifted early in the decade, especially regarding the constant use of certain actions and language that had come to be considered offensive. 2011's The Hangover II and Bad Teacher, 2012's Ted, 2013's The Hangover: Part III and 2014's Neighbors were among the few bona-fide comedic successes for the succeeding years, even though the sequels for Ted and Neighbors as well as a TV spin-off for Teachers became massive failures). With the exception of the superhero comedy Deadpool (2016), the animated film Sausage Party (also 2016), the two theatrical adaptations of It (2017-19) and the loosely-based-on-comics dramas Logan (2017) and Joker (2019), female-geared films pretty much became the only commercially-viable type of R-rated films during the 2010s, beginning with the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (2015-18). Similarly, comedy films became mostly geared to women after the success of Bad Moms (2016).
After over a decade of mounting criticism from parents' associations and watchdog groups, the MPAA enacted more stringent measures that radically changed its ratings system: "PG-13" became both the most common rating for films and the highest-grossing one, replacing "PG" which soon gained the "G" rating's reputation of being a sign of "kiddie stuff", being now associated with animated films. By the second half of the 2010s, the number of G- and PG-rated films released per year combined was not more than twenty. 2016 marked the first year in which not a single non-documentary film was rated G, while in other years, this was mostly reserved for Pixar films. On the other hand, the number of R-rated films also decreased (many of the films receiving this rating primarily, if not only, for language) while the NC-17 rating, never able to shake off its being a successor to the "X" rating, pretty much fell into disuse, with films that would have received the rating choosing to go unrated.
All this has generated a Broken Base among film fans. One side has considered that Hollywood has underwent a "kid-ification", spearheaded by fantasy-laden High Concept productions, while the other considers that the opposite has occurred, with the prevalence of Family-Unfriendly Violence in action films and raunchy humor in family movies.
This has meant a shift on the animation industry, the irreverent humor of films like the Despicable Me saga and The LEGO Movie put Universal and Warner Bros. on the map as prominent makers of animated movies. In addition, Disney's in-house feature animation studio regained pulse with the enormous success of films like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen (2013) and Zootopia. Meanwhile, the already-established Pixar and DreamWorks Animation faced numerous problems: "The House Woody and Buzz Built" faced its first critical failure with 2011's Cars 2 after the magnum opus that was Toy Story 3, released the previous year, and would not redeem itself until the release of Inside Out in 2015. They would however face their first domestic Box Office Bomb with the The Good Dinosaur that winter, not returning to top form until 2017 with Coco, which kicked off a renaissance of sorts for the studio. That same year, DWA released Home, which ended a parade of flops which coincided with the studio's shift in tone towards more character-based stories following 2010's How to Train Your Dragon. The studio behind Shrek and Madagascar was absorbed by Comcast in 2016, becoming Illumination's "second unit".
The 2008 writers' strike heavily affected the film industry as these became more expensive. The solution came in the form of making less films, and more of them based on popular works. Budgets also grew higher to make up for the lesser quantity. However, this has brought concerns over a narrowing landscape, the bulk of mainstream releases being epics mostly aimed at young adults. As other audiences drifted to other platforms, numerous voices aired their concerns about the future of movies: Steven Spielberg commented on the disappearance of the "middle film", defending himself from cries of hypocrisy by pointing out he made a wide variety of movies instead of just action/adventure or fantasy films. He also joined George Lucas in his concerns that the current business model could collapse like in the 1960s if too many films bombed, in that case the model could shift into a system similar to live theater (or the "roadshow" treatment high-profile films often got during the Golden Age), with movies playing at certain locations for years on end. Between late 2010 and 2014, it didn't seem too far-fetched to see this scenario play out in the near future: In 2010-11 a number of family films flopped even if some of these were released in 3-D, killing the genre for live-action productions. The following years meanwhile saw much-hyped productions like John Carter, The Lone Ranger and Dracula Untold tank at the box-office. Contrast this with the fact the early 2010s became the peak years for cable TV with highly-regarded series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, leading some actors to consider the notion that video work was degrading to be no longer true.
The second half of 2014 saw Guardians of the Galaxy became an overnight success in spite of not being backed by a particularly popular property while the middling reception The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 became harbingers that the YA literature craze was reaching its peak. 2015 and early 2016 had originally-sourced films like American Sniper, Inside Out, Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets as well as adaptations of less prominent works such as Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Martian, The Peanuts Movie and Deadpool (2016) becoming critical and financial successes. In addition, domestic gross records were broken twice during 2015, first by Jurassic World and then by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, demonstrating that the reports of the death of the film industry and appetite for original content had been exaggerated. The second half of the 2010s has also seen a resurgent prominence of auteur filmmaking, which has enjoyed a renewed credibility, financial success and mainstream influence at the same time that numerous franchises, genres and actors popular at the turn of the decade took a beating.
With films becoming more expensive, the international market for Hollywood films has grown more prominent than ever, and has even begun to overshadow the once all-important domestic North American market. For instance, the true biggest animated feature film of 2011 worldwide, Kung Fu Panda 2 earned a gross of $665,692,281 with 75.2% of it from international markets, including $95 million from China alone.note Furthermore, many films since the 2011-2014 period were saved from bombing by overseas rentals. For instance, the Steven Spielberg film The Adventures of Tintin earned $230 million (more than covering its budget) before it ever opened in North America outside of the Canadian province of Quebec, and a remarkably short-sighted failure to account for the international popularity of The Golden Compass ultimately destroyed New Line Cinema as an independent studio.note And films like the Fast & Furious series, Transformers and Minions among others have become more popular overseas than in the domestic market.
The growing importance of global markets has also marked a shift in focus towards the story and visuals instead of relying on "star power". This, coupled with the fact many 2000s-era headliners basically disappeared from prominence by the end of the decade led to doubts about if movie stars could be still capable of pulling a film on their own as it often happened for decades.
Unfortunately, The New Tens has brought a major Dork Age for two of Hollywood's major studios, Columbia Pictures and Paramount. Both studios suffered from lack of preparedness for challenges from the tech world, poor creative decisions brought on by Executive Meddling, turmoil within their parent companies (Sony and Viacom, respectively) due to their core businesses suffering continued financial losses, lack of synergy between their various subsidiaries and divisions, and movies that were considered mediocre at best and atrocious at worst. This has resulted in many of their Cash Cow Franchises dying off, a number of their films being considered some of the worst of the decade, executives being shuffled around, and the two studios falling behind even mini-majors in terms of box office share. Viacom even tried at one point to sell a majority stake in Paramount just to make a profit, only to see their plans torpedoed following objections from their controlling shareholders, the Redstone family, which attempted to merge it with CBS, only to be rebuffed by their minority shareholders who wanted to get rid of the studio (Viacom and CBS re-merged in 2019). Columbia, meanwhile, has had to deal with rumors of Sony contemplating selling off their entertainment properties due to loss of box office share and continued turmoil, rumors that both companies have repeatedly denied.
The Web Goes to the Movies
The internet offers several new revenue streams for the studios, most notably streaming movies from home. With Netflix leading the way in this area, the studios can look ahead to a future where they can charge customers every time they want to watch movies at home — something that was attempted in The '90s with the DIVX disc system, but which didn't take (chiefly because DIVX was a physical format). Many of the major film companies are now planning to try out a "premium download" distribution model to offer downloads of their theatrical feature films only one or two months after their theatrical release for around $30 each, which means that, for a bit of patience, whole families could be able to forgo going to the cinema altogether. Of course, this has run into heavy resistance from theaters — Universal was forced to cancel plans for a limited VOD release of Tower Heist after the Cinemark and National Amusements theater companies responded by threatening to refuse to show the film. Keep in mind that this VOD release was to happen in just two cities (Atlanta and Portland), and at a price of $60 per viewing. However, while many have feared this might be the end of the blockbusters, theatrical runs have not been replaced just yet.
Meanwhile, the major film studios drove the issue forward when they decided to convert their film distribution to digital instead of physical film stock. This was done to in part to economize on film processing, printing and the physical delivery of the heavy film reels. Unfortunately, this proved a serious financial burden on theater chains who had to convert to costly digital projectors that were expected to be usable for about 10 years, compared to regular film projectors that can run on their proven design for decades. While major theater chains often got financial support for the conversion, small independent movie houses, especially in smaller communities, had to pay for it themselves, which prompted pleas for donations from their customers and/or crowdfunding effort to stay alive. In addition, there is a more serious implication to the conversion: it meant that cinemagoers were not technically going to see films anymore, but now essentially giant widescreen projection video presentations instead... with all its disadvantages (digital projectors are way harder to keep in focus than analog ones given the fact the image is composed of pixels—cue the complaints from hardcore film goers about digital lacking film's perceived warmth as well). The movie companies apparently did not consider the possibility if they removed a key difference from the televisions their audiences have at home, what's to stop them from staying there if other factors changed?
In 2014, Sony Pictures got the necessity to find out for real with the film, The Interview, when vague terrorist threats against showing it caused all the major theatre chains to drop the film. As a result, Sony decided to shelve the film, which drew a storm of criticism ranging from media pundits to US President Barack Obama himself about "giving in to terrorists." As a result of the pressure, Sony decided to open it not only in the few independent theaters willing to show it, but also simultaneously made it available online such as on iTunes and Google Play as well. The result of this move was that it earned about $31 million.
After achieving success with their own TV programs, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have begun producing their own movies as well as buying the rights to others. While Amazon productions tend to get a rather traditional theatrical run before hitting the streaming service, Netflix tends to prefer to give their films a very limited release (usually the minimum to qualify for Oscars) while putting those films on the streaming service at the same time. This has received mixed reception amongst the people within the film industry. Some are supportive as they feel Netflix gives certain projects a chance that many of the major studios won't, particularly films that would be financially risky to distribute in a traditional manner. On the other hand, many feel the theatrical experience is superior to the home viewing experience and supporting Netflix's distribution model would harm those in the exhibition side of the industry. Some went to question if these films should be allowed to be screen in competition at film festivals or be eligible for major awards such as the Oscars. As a result, Netflix has strove to win respectability by financing Oscar Bait such as Roma by Alfonso Cuarón in 2018. When its fight for the Best Picture Oscar fell short, Netflix tried again in 2019 by taking on The Irishman with the most prestigious Production Posse possible: Martin Scorsese as director with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin starring.
Seeing the success of the streaming services, Hollywood has sensed the game has changed and now almost all the major Hollywood studios and TV networks are jumping on that bandwagon. For instance, Disney has started Disney+ to display all the vast library from not only all its family friendly original content but also acquisitions such as the library of 20th Century Fox, while more adult content is on Hulu, which Disney has gained complete control over. CBS has CBS All Access (rebranded as Paramount+ in 2021), and NBC debuted their own service "Peacock", while HBO premiered HBO Max to cover not just that premium cable channel's content but all of its owner, Warner Bros.. Meanwhile, one of the biggest tech companies in the world, Apple Corporation, got into the game with its own deep pockets to create Apple TV+. In fact, it has been speculated that the influence of this new medium is growing so dominant that Disney is considering a long-term goal to exit theatrical distribution for its films entirely so they don't have to split revenues with the theater chains. For now, the service has released a couple of films that were released directly in the service without a theatrical run.
With the decline of print journalism and movie review TV shows having all but disappeared (and replaced by "hype-shows"), online reviewing has exploded with both professionals from the remaining print publications' websites and exclusive website and amateurs. Furthermore, ways have been found to make their influence more organized as a whole with the rise of aggregate review sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic providing scores that now have the influence that "Two Thumbs Up" used to have. The studios tend to have a love-hate relationship with the former. Some studios have blamed them sometimes for box office flops if the film in question got a low score. However, it is common to see a film's score as part of its marketing if the film got a high score.
Block... busted?While in the early 2010s, it was expected for the movie exhibition industry to wither and die in a few years' time as mentioned above, the second half of the decade saw box-office numbers swell to unknown heights (conversely, cable television was rapidly reduced in the late 2010s to a seldom-consumed media that most people only use nowadays as background noise thanks to the concurrent rise of streaming service-based shows, leading many to comment on the irony of the seemingly obsolete movie theater outliving the very medium that was supposed to succeed it). By the end of the decade, however, Hype Backlash set on, with filmmaker Martin Scorcese questioning the artistic value of modern commercial film, joining critiques for the perceived lack of mature themes and omnipresence of franchise movies. While 2019 saw Avengers: Endgame beating Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time, it also saw sure bets for success get underwhelming returns (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) or become downright failures (Cats) while "genre" films became unlikely successes, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ford V Ferrari, Knives Out and Joker (2019). This trend continued in early 2020 with Bad Boys for Life making gains while Birds of Prey barely earned its budget back. Furthermore, the attention given to films made by streaming services, such as Netflix's The Irishman and Marriage Story or released through such platforms in most countries such as Parasite did not help theatrical movies regarding their quality.
By February-March 2020, another blow, which could become more significant depending how long the situation lasts, came in the form of the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic, with many countries encouraging their citizenry to avoid large crowds to avoid being infected. Movie theater chains took measures to ensure social distancing between filmgoers, initially reducing the number of available seats as much as by 50% (unlike live theater and concerts, movie theaters were not liable to bans on events hosting over 500 people as most movie screens seat less than 150 people) but eventually enacted temporary closings en masse upon advice to avoid social gatherings or legal bans over it as well as national lock-downs in various countries.
In addition to the already dismal box office numbers from before the health emergency plummeting by the middle of March, movie production and distribution practically ground to a halt, with many high-profile films delaying their releases as much as by a year, meaning billions of dollars lost on advertising. With people turning to streaming services and potentially becoming scared of being among crowds, there are serious concerns that going to the movies will become extinct. In response, Universal announced that it would temporarily abandon the 90-day "theatrical window" (The period of time when movie theaters have exclusive access to new theatrical films), its films currently in theaters, The Hunt (2020), The Invisible Man (2020) and Emma. being released on certain on-demand video platforms on March 20, 2020, months ahead of schedule.
The studio also scheduled a simultaneous theatrical and on-demand release of the much-hyped Dreamworks Animation feature film, Trolls: World Tour, which proved a success with a 200 million+ haul that Universal doesn't have to share with online retailers to the same percentage that it would have had to do with the theatrical chains. The theatrical chains, took umbridge with that business move, especially when Universal forwent the opportunity to be diplomatic about it as an experiment for families looking for new entertainment during a trying time and announced more films would be similarly distributed in the future. As such, the major theatrical chain, AMC, announced that it would no longer exhibit Universal in its theatres, but few seriously expected that boycott to last considering that would mean forgoing the upcoming major blockbuster films of series like The Fast and the Furious and James Bond when the theatre chains need all the major content they can get to attempt to regain their patrons.
Meanwhile, other film companies have announced similar distribution moves for their own films such as Disney with the online release of Artemis Fowl, while Warner Brothers did the same with the latest Scooby-Doo film, SCOOB!. In May, the trend took on a new intensity when the major war drama, Greyhound, starring the beloved two-time Oscar winner, Tom Hanks, was acquired by Apple TV+ to be available on their service after its theatrical release date was twice delayed due to the pandemic. Paramount followed suit with The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, with Viacom divvying the streaming rights between Netflix and their Paramount+ streaming service. Despite the belief that a release of this kind could never be financially viable for an expensive tentpole, Disney further added to this by announcing that the long-awaited and delayed Mulan (2020) would be made available as VOD at an additional charge to Disney+ members. This trend shows no sign of abating any time soon, as big-budget, high-profile films such as Soul and Wonder Woman 1984 are continuing to make their debuts on their distributors' respective streaming platforms, often simultaneously with a threatrical release. In fact, this trend has become so prominent with the prevailing public health necessity that the Academy Award rules have officially waived its theatrical presentation rules for the 2021 awards, allowing potentially all streaming films to be eligible.
The situation became even more stark when sure enough, Universal and AMC soon came to an agreement that allowed Universal to pull films from AMC theatres for online distribution after only 17 days as opposed to the usual 90 while AMC gets a percentage of online sales of those films. Since the theatrical window is viewed in the movie theatre industry as a necessary guarantee of its business viability, these change in practices could set a trend depending on how long the aforementioned pandemic lasts and how quickly people resume their normal activities if they do in the short or medium term, which might ultimately make the very idea of going to movie theaters a victim of COVID-19. Warner Bros. has gone even further by announcing that their entire slate of films for 2021 will be available to stream on HBO Max for one month, concurrently with a theatrical release. As of April 2021, the development and distribution of vaccines appears to be encouraging a resurgence in theater attendance, as Godzilla vs. Kong is pulling in the highest domestic and international box office numbers since the pandemic's start, despite the simultaneous release on HBO Max.
As for the future, an analogy has been made with the fate of the video arcade as an entertainment destination. In The Golden Age of Video Games, with entertainment computer technology still in its infancy, the video arcade was the most commercially viable means of making the best available technology available as coin-operated machines. By contrast, the home systems like the Atari 2600, the Mattel Intellivision and later the Nintendo Entertainment System were underpowered and crude in their graphics and sounds. However, when later home systems starting with the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo which presented much more powerful performance equal to video arcade games for a reasonable affordable price, the arcade accelerated its decline until it was finally reduced to a specialized entertainment sector with expensive dedicated equipment for immersive experiences that could not be justified for the home, be it dance pads, fancy light guns and the beginnings of virtual reality systems. Likewise, once the public decides that home entertainment in film can be matched as easily and affordably such as sufficiently large display screens to resemble a cinema's viewing auditorium to a practical degree, the latter's appeal may decline like the video arcade to have only specialized high end venues like the IMAX design of theatre or perhaps combine with the restaurant concept for something like dinner theatre for movies.
Key filmmakers of this era include:
- J. J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Wars)
- Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
- Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil)
- Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up)
- Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers)
- Tim Burton (Batman, Alice in Wonderland (2010))
- James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic, Avatar)
- John Carpenter (Escape from New York, Halloween (1978))
- The Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski)
- Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter, Night at the Museum)
- Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther)
- Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream)
- David Cronenberg (Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers)
- Nia DaCosta (Candyman (2021), Captain Marvel 2)
- Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water)
- Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange (2016))
- Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon)
- Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Sully, Million Dollar Baby)
- Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012)
- Jon Favreau (Elf, Iron Man, The Jungle Book (2016))
- David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl)
- Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ)
- James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
- Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
- John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off)
- Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong (2005), The Hobbit)
- Patty Jenkins (Monster, Wonder Woman)
- Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider)
- Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi, Knives Out)
- Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, Captain America: The First Avenger)
- Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut; the former two also overlap with the New Hollywood era; also planted the first seeds for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which was completed by Steven Spielberg)
- Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi).
- George Lucas (Star Wars)
- James Mangold (Walk the Line, Logan)
- Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917)
- George Miller (Mad Max, Babe)
- Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine)
- Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk)
- Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us)
- Sam Raimi (Spider-Man Trilogy, Evil Dead)
- Rob Reiner (This is Spın̈al Tap, The Princess Bride)
- Guy Ritchie (Snatch., Sherlock Holmes (2009), Aladdin (2019))
- Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids)
- Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever)
- The Russo Brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame)
- Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner)
- Tony Scott (Top Gun)
- Seltzer and Friedberg (Scary Movie)
- M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense)
- Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men)
- Kevin Smith (Clerks)
- Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder's Justice League)
- Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven)
- Steven Spielberg (Jaws, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park)
- Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
- Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kick-Ass)
- Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring)
- James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Aquaman)
- The Wachowskis (The Matrix)
- Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok)
- Joss Whedon (The Avengers)
- Edgar Wright (Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy, Baby Driver)
- Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away)
- Rob Zombie (The Devil's Rejects)