Movies developed gradually from a carnival novelty to one of the most important tools of communication and entertainment, and mass media in the 20th century. Motion picture films have had a substantial impact on the arts, technology, and politics.
THE BIRTH OF FILM
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, chief engineer with the Edison Laboratories, is credited with the invention of a practicable form of celluloid strip containing a sequence of images, the basis of a method of photographing and projecting moving images. Celluloid blocks were thinly sliced, the slice marks were then removed with heated pressure plates. After this, the celluloid strips were coated with a photosensitive gelatin emulsion. In 1893 at the Chicago World Fair Thomas Edison introduced to the public two pioneering inventions based on this innovation: the Kinetograph, the first practical moving picture camera, and the Kinetoscope. The latter was a cabinet in which a continuous loop of Dickson’s celluloid film (powered by an electric motor) was backlit by an incandescent lamp and seen through a magnifying lens. The spectator neared an eye piece. Kinetoscope parlours were supplied with fifty-foot film snippets photographed by Dickson, in Edison’s “Black Maria” studio. These sequences recorded mundane events (such as Fred Ott’s Sneeze, 1894) as well as entertainment acts like acrobats, music hall performers and boxing demonstrations.
Kinetoscope parlors soon spread successfully to Europe. Edison, however, never attempted to patent these instruments on the other side of the Atlantic, since they relied so greatly on previous experiments and innovations from Britain and Europe. This enabled the development of imitations, such as the camera devised by British electrician and scientific instrument maker Robert William Paul and his partner Birt Acres.
Paul had the idea of displaying moving pictures for group audiences, rather than just too individual viewers, and invented a film projector, giving his first public showing in 1895. At about the same time, in France, Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the cinematograph, a portable, three-in-one device: camera, printer, and projector. In late 1895 in Paris, father Antoine Lumière began exhibitions of projected films before the paying public, beginning the general conversion of the medium to projection (Cook, 1990). They quickly became Europe’s main producers with their actualities like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory and comic vignettes like The Sprinkler Sprinkled (both 1895). Even Edison, initially dismissive of projection, joined the trend with the Vitascope within less than six months. The first public motion-picture film presentation in Europe, though, belongs to Max and Emil Skladanowsky of Berlin, who projected with their apparatus “Bioscop”, a flickerfree duplex construction, November 1 through 31, 1895.
Still older, May, 1895, was Lauste in the U. S. A. with an Eidoloscope which he devised for the Latham family. The first public screening of film ever is due to Jean Aimé “Acme” Le Roy, a French photographer. On February 5, 1894, his 40th birthday, he presented his “Marvellous Cinematograph” to a group of around twenty show business men in New York City.
The movies of the time were seen mostly via temporary storefront spaces and traveling exhibitors or as acts in vaudeville programs. A film could be under a minute long and would usually present a single scene, authentic or staged, of everyday life, a public event, a sporting event or slapstick. There was little to no cinematic technique: no editing and usually no camera movement, and flat, stagey compositions. But the novelty of realistically moving photographs was enough for a motion picture industry to mushroom before the end of the century, in countries around the world.
Inventors and producers had tried from the very beginnings of moving pictures to marry the image with synchronous sound, but no practical method was devised until the late 1920s. Thus, for the first thirty years of their history, movies were more or less silent, although accompanied by live musicians and sometimes sound effects, and with dialogue and narration presented in intertitles.
Paris stage magician Georges Méliès began shooting and exhibiting films in 1896. His stock-in-trade became films of fantasy and the bizarre, including A Trip to the Moon (1902), possibly the first movie to portray space travel. He pioneered many of the fundamental special effects techniques used in movies for most of the twentieth century, demonstrating that film had unprecedented power to distort visible reality rather than just faithfully recording it (Cook, 1990). He also led the way in making multi-scene narratives as long as fifteen minutes.
Edwin S. Porter, Edison’s leading director in these years, pushed forward the sophistication of film editing in works like Life of an American Fireman and the first movie Western, The Great Train Robbery (both 1903). Porter arguably discovered that the basic unit of structure in a film is the shot, rather than the scene (the basic unit of structure in a play).
These helped establish the medium as more than a fad and encouraged the increase of nickelodeons, the first permanent movie theaters (“The oldest cinema in the world still in operation today is the Pioneer Cinema which opened as the Helios on the 26 September 1909 in Stettin, Germany (now Szczecin, Poland)” – Guinness World Records). There were 10,000 in the U.S. alone by 1908 (Cook, 1990). The previously anarchic industry increasingly became major business, which encouraged consolidation. The French Pathé Frères Company achieved a dominant position worldwide through methods like control of key patents and ownership of theaters. In the U.S., Edison led the creation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which achieved a brief, virtual monopoly there, using not just aggressive business tactics but sometimes violent intimidation against independent competitors (Parkinson, 1995).
RISE OF THE FEATURE FILM AND FILM AS ART
The standard length of a film remained one reel, or about ten to fifteen minutes, through the first decade of the century, partly based on producers’ assumptions about the attention spans of their still largely working class audiences.
The Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang (also screened as Ned Kelly and His Gang) is widely regarded as the world’s first “feature length” film. Its 80 minute running time was unprecedented when it was released in 1906. In 1906 Dan Barry and Charles Tait of Melbourne produced and directed ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang.’ It wasn’t until 1911 that countries other than Australia began to make feature films. By this time 16 full length feature films had been made in Australia.
Soon Europe created multiple-reel period extravaganzas that were even longer. With international box office successes like Queen Elizabeth (France, 1912), Quo Vadis? (Italy, 1913) and Cabiria (Italy, 1914), the feature film began to replace the short as the cinema’s central form.
Leading this trend in America was director D.W. Griffith with his historical epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Unprecedented in scale, they also did much to fix the developing codes of editing and visual storytelling that remain the foundation of mainstream film grammar. The former film was also notable as perhaps the first to inspire widespread racial controversy.
Along with a boom in high-toned literary adaptations, these trends began to make the movies a respectable diversion for the middle class and gain them recognition as a genuine art form with a secure place in the emerging culture of the twentieth century.
In France brothers Lafitte in 1907. Created so-called Films d’art. They were supposed to draw the higher classes of society into movie theaters. The more educated classes thought that film was just for uneducated people and preferred traditional theater. Films d’art was theater plays shot with camera and played in movie theaters. People didn’t like them and the ‘experiment’ showed that film has its own expressive language different from theater.
Until this point, the cinemas of France and Italy had been the most globally popular and powerful. But the United States was already gaining quickly when World War I (1914-1918) caused a devastating interruption in the European film industries. The American industry, or “Hollywood,” as it was becoming known after its new geographical center in California, gained the position it has held, more or less, ever since: movie factory for the world, exporting its product to most countries on earth and controlling the market in many of them.
By the 1920s, the U.S. reached what is still its era of greatest-ever output, producing an average of 800 feature films annually, or 82% of the global total (Eyman, 1997). The comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the swashbuckling adventures of Douglas Fairbanks and the romances of Clara Bow, to cite just a few examples, made these performers’ faces well-known on every continent. The Western visual norm that would become classical continuity editing was developed and exported – although its adoption was slower in some non-Western countries without strong realist traditions in art and drama, such as Japan.
This development was contemporary with the growth of the studio system and its greatest publicity method, the star system, which characterized American film for decades to come and provided models for other movie industries. The studios’ efficient, top-down control over all stages of their product enabled a new and ever-growing level of lavish production and technical sophistication. At the same time, the system’s commercial regimentation and focus on glamorous escapism discouraged daring and ambition beyond a certain degree, a prime example being the brief but still legendary directing career of the iconoclastic Erich von Stroheim in the late teens and the ‘20s.
WORLD FILM AT THE PEAK OF THE SILENTS
In 1915, after a ban was ended on foreign imports in France the early Hollywood fare inspired the birth of the cinematic avant-garde. A group of filmmakers began experimenting with optical and pictorial effects as well as rhythmic editing. The trend became known as French Impressionist Cinema.
Germany was America’s strongest competitor. Its most distinctive contribution was the dark, hallucinatory worlds of German Expressionism, which advanced the power of anti-realistic presentation to put internal states of mind onscreen, as well as strongly influenced the emerging horror genre.
The newborn Soviet cinema was the most radically innovative. There, the craft of editing, especially, surged forward, going beyond its previous role in advancing a story. Sergei Eisenstein perfected the technique of so-called dialectical or intellectual montage, which strove to make non-linear, often violently clashing, images express ideas and provoke emotional and intellectual reactions in the viewer.
Meanwhile, the first feature-length silent film was made in India by Dadasaheb Phalke, considered to be the Father of Indian Cinema. The film was the period piece Raja Harishchandra (1913), and it laid the foundation for a series of period films. By the next decade the output of Indian Cinema was an average of 27 films per year.
The cultural Avant gardes of a number of countries worked with experimental films, mostly shorts that completely abandoned linear narrative and embraced abstraction, pure aestheticism and the irrational subconscious, most famously in the early work of Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. In some ways, in fact, this decade marked the first serious split between mainstream, “popular” film and “art” film.
But even within the mainstream, refinement was rapid, bringing silent film to what would turn out to be its aesthetic summit. The possibilities of cinematography kept increasing as cameras became more mobile (thanks to new booms and dollies) and film stocks more sensitive and versatile. Screen acting became more of a craft, without its earlier theatrical exaggeration and achieving greater subtlety and psychological realism. As visual eloquence increased, reliance on inter titles decreased; the occasional film, such as F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Germany, 1926) even eschewed them altogether. Paradoxically, at about this time, the silent cinema period ended.
THE SOUND ERA
Experimentation with sound film technology, both for recording and playback, was virtually constant throughout the silent era, but the twin problems of accurate synchronization and sufficient amplification had been difficult to overcome (Eyman, 1997). In 1926, Hollywood studio Warner Bros. introduced the “Vitaphone” system, producing short films of live entertainment acts and public figures and adding recorded sound effects and orchestral scores to some of its major features. During late 1927, Warners released The Jazz Singer, which was mostly silent but contained the first synchronized dialogue (and singing) in a feature film. It was a great success, as were follow-ups like Warners’ The Lights of New York (1928), the first all-synchronized-sound feature. The early sound-on-disc processes such as Vitaphone were soon superseded by sound-on-film methods like Fox Movietone, DeForest Phonofilm, and RCA Photophone. The trend convinced the largely reluctant industrialists that “talking pictures”, or “talkies,” were the future.
INDUSTRY IMPACT OF SOUND
The change was remarkably swift. By the end of 1929, Hollywood was almost all-talkie, with several competing sound systems (soon to be standardized). Total changeover was slightly slower in the rest of the world, principally for economic reasons. Cultural reasons were also a factor in countries like China and Japan, where silents co-existed successfully with sound well into the 1930s, indeed producing what would be some of the most revered classics in those countries, like Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (China, 1934) and Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (Japan, 1932). But even in Japan, a figure such as the benshi, the live narrator who was a major part of Japanese silent cinema, found his acting career was ending.
Sound further tightened the grip of major studios in numerous countries: the vast expense of the transition overwhelmed smaller competitors, while the novelty of sound lured vastly larger audiences for those producers that remained. In the case of the U.S., some historians credit sound with saving the Hollywood studio system in the face of the Great Depression (Parkinson, 1995). Thus began what is now often called “The Golden Age of Hollywood,” which refers roughly to the period beginning with the introduction of sound until the late 1940s. The American cinema reached its peak of efficiently manufactured glamour and global appeal during this period. The top actors of the era are now thought of as the classic movie stars, such as Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and the greatest box office draw of the 1930s, child performer Shirley Temple.
CREATIVE IMPACT OF SOUND
Creatively, however, the rapid transition was a difficult one, and in some ways, film briefly reverted to the conditions of its earliest days. The late ’20s were full of static, stagey talkies as artists in front of and behind the camera struggled with the stringent limitations of the early sound equipment and their own uncertainty as to how to utilize the new medium. Many stage performers, directors and writers were introduced to cinema as producers sought personnel experienced in dialogue-based storytelling. Many major silent filmmakers and actors were unable to adjust and found their careers severely curtailed or even ended.
This awkward period was fairly short-lived. 1929 was a watershed year: William Wellman with Chinatown Nights and The Man I Love, Rouben Mamoulian with Applause, Alfred Hitchcock with Blackmail (Britain’s first sound feature), were among the directors to bring greater fluidity to talkies and experiment with the expressive use of sound (Eyman, 1997). In this, they both benefited from, and pushed further, technical advances in microphones and cameras, and capabilities for editing and post-synchronizing sound (rather than recording all sound directly at the time of filming).
Sound films emphasized and benefited different genres more so than silents did. Most obviously, the musical film was born; the first classic-style Hollywood musical was The Broadway Melody (1929) and the form would find its first major creator in choreographer/director Busby Berkeley (42nd Street, 1933, Dames, 1934). In France, avant-garde director René Clair made surreal use of song and dance in comedies like Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) and Le Million (1931). The trend thrived best in India, where the influence of the country’s traditional song-and-dance drama made the musical the basic form of most sound movies (Cook, 1990); virtually unnoticed by the Western world for decades, this Indian popular cinema would nevertheless become the world’s most prolific. (See also Bollywood.)
At this time, American gangster films like Little Caesar and Wellman’s The Public Enemy (both 1931) became popular. Dialogue now took precedence over “slapstick” in Hollywood comedies: the fast-paced, witty banter of The Front Page (1931) or It Happened One Night (1934), the sexual double entrendres of Mae West (She Done Him Wrong, 1933) or the often subversively anarchic nonsense talk of the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup, 1933). 1939, a major year for American cinema, brought such films as like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with The Wind.
THE 1940S: THE WAR AND POST-WAR YEARS
The desire for wartime propaganda created a renaissance in the film industry in Britain, with realistic war dramas like Forty-Ninth Parallel (1941), Went the Day Well? (1942), The Way Ahead (1944) and Noel Coward and David Lean’s celebrated naval film In Which We Serve in 1942 , which won a special Academy Award. These existed alongside more flamboyant films like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), as well as Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V, based on the Shakespearean history Henry V.
The onset of US involvement in WWII also brought a proliferation of movies as both patriotism and propaganda. American propaganda movies included Desperate Journey, Mrs. Miniver, Forever and a Day and Objective Burma. Notable American films from the war years include the anti-Nazi Watch on the Rhine (1943), scripted by Dashiell Hammett; Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s direction of a script by Thornton Wilder; the George M. Cohan biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), starring James Cagney, and the immensely popular Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart. Bogart would star in 36 films between 1934 and 1942 including John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the first movies now considered a classic film noir.
The strictures of wartime also brought an interest in more fantastical subjects. These included Britain’s Gainsborough melodramas (including The Man in Grey and The Wicked Lady), and films like Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, I Married a Witch and Blithe Spirit. Val Lewton also produced a series of atmospheric and influential small-budget horror films, some of the more famous examples being Cat People, Isle of the Dead (film) and The Body Snatcher. The decade probably also saw the so-called “women’s pictures,” such as Now, Voyager, Random Harvest and Mildred Pierce at the peak of their popularity.
1946 saw RKO Radio releasing It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra. Soldiers returning from the war would provide the inspiration for films like The Best Years of Our Lives, and many of those in the film industry had served in some capacity during the war. Samuel Fuller’s experiences in WWII would influence his largely autobiographical films of later decades such as The Big Red One. The Actor’s Studio was founded in October 1947 by Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford, and the same year Oskar Fischinger filmed Motion Painting No. 1.
In 1943, Ossessione was screened in Italy, marking the beginning of Italian neorealism. Major films of this type during the 1940s included Bicycle Thieves, Rome, Open City, and La Terra Trema. In 1952 Umberto D was released, usually considered the last film of this type.
In the late 1940s, in Britain, Ealing Studios embarked on their series of celebrated comedies, including Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Man in the White Suit, and Carol Reed directed his influential thrillers Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. David Lean was also rapidly becoming a force in world cinema with Brief Encounter and his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would experience the best of their creative partnership with films like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.
The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Hollywood in the early 1950s. Protested by the Hollywood Ten before the committee, the hearings resulted in the blacklisting of many actors, writers and directors, including Chayefsky, Charlie Chaplin, and Dalton Trumbo, and many of these fled to Europe, especially the United Kingdom.
The Cold War era zeitgeist translated into a type of near-paranoia manifested in themes such as invading armies of evil aliens, (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The War of the Worlds); and communist fifth columnists, (The Manchurian Candidate).
During the immediate post-war years the cinematic industry was also threatened by television, and the increasing popularity of the medium meant that some movie theatres would bankrupt and close. The demise of the “studio system” spurred the self-commentary of films like Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).
In 1950, the Lettrists avante-gardists caused riots at the Cannes Film Festival, when Isidore Isou’s Treatise on Slime and Eternity was screened. After their criticism of Charlie Chaplin and split with the movement, the Ultra-Lettrists continued to cause disruptions when they showed their new hypergraphical techniques. The most notorious film is Guy Debord’s Bombs in Favor of DeSade of 1952.
Distressed by the increasing number of closed theatres, studios and companies would find new and innovative ways to bring audiences back. These included attempts to literally widen their appeal with new screen formats. Cinemascope, which would remain a 20th Century Fox distinction until 1967 , was announced with 1953’s The Robe. VistaVision, Cinerama, boasted a “bigger is better” approach to marketing movies to a dwindling US audience. This resulted in the revival of epic films to take advantage of the new big screen formats. Some of the most successful examples of these Biblical and historical spectaculars include The Ten Commandments (1956), The Vikings (1958), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and El Cid (1961).
Gimmicks also proliferated to lure in audiences. The fad for 3-D film would last for only two years, 1952-1954, and helped sell House of Wax and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Producer William Castle would tout films featuring “Emergo” “Percepto”, the first of a series of gimmicks that would remain popular marketing tools for Castle and others throughout the 1960s.
In the U.S., a post-WW2 tendency toward questioning the establishment and societal norms and the early activism of the Civil Rights Movement was reflected in Hollywood films such as Blackboard Jungle (1955), On the Waterfront (1954), Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty and Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men (1957).
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was released on January 29, 1959 by The Walt Disney Company after nearly a decade in production.
Across the globe, the 1950s marked a very productive period for Indian Cinema, with more than 200 films being made. Indian films also gained greater recognition through films like Pather Panchali (1955), from critically acclaimed Academy Award winning director Satyajit Ray. Television began competing seriously with films projected in theatres, but surprisingly it promoted more moviegoing rather than curtailing it.
During the 1960s the studio system in Hollywood declined, because many films were now being made on location in other countries, or using studio facilities abroad, such as Pinewood in England and Cinecittà in Rome. “Hollywood” movies were still largely aimed at family audiences, and it was often the more old-fashioned films that produced the studios’ biggest successes. Productions like Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) were among the biggest money-makers of the decade. The growth in independent producers and production companies, and the increase in the power of individual actors also contributed to the decline of traditional Hollywood studio production.
There was also an increasing awareness of foreign language cinema during this period. During the late 1950s and 1960s the French New Wave directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard produced films such as Les quatre cents coups and Jules et Jim which broke the rules of Hollywood cinema’s narrative structure. As well, audiences were becoming aware of Italian films like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the stark dramas of Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman.
In Britain, the “Free Cinema” of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and others lead to a group of realistic and innovative dramas including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving and This Sporting Life. Other British films such as Repulsion, Darling, Alfie, Blowup and Georgy Girl (all in 1965-1966) helped to reduce prohibitions sex and nudity on screen, while the casual sex and violence of the James Bond films, beginning with Dr. No in 1962 would render the series popular worldwide.
During the 1960s, Ousmane Sembène produced several French- and Wolof-language films and became the ‘father’ of African Cinema. In Latin America the dominance of the “Hollywood” model was challenged by many film makers. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino called for a politically engaged Third Cinema in contrast to Hollywood and the European auteur cinema.
In documentary film the sixties saw the blossoming of Direct Cinema, an observational style of film making as well as the advent of more overtly partisan films like In the Year of the Pig about the Vietnam War by Emile de Antonio. By the late 1960s however, Hollywood producers were beginning to create more innovative films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and The Wild Bunch (1969). Bonnie and Clyde is often considered the beginning of the so-called New Hollywood.
1970S: THE ‘NEW HOLLYWOOD’ OR POST-CLASSICAL CINEMA
‘The New Hollywood’ and ‘post-classical cinema’ are terms used to describe the period following the decline of the studio system during the 1950s and 1960s and the end of the production code. During the 1970s, filmmakers increasingly depicted explicit sexual content and showed gunfight and battle scenes that included graphic images of bloody deaths.
‘Post-classical cinema’ is a term used to describe the changing methods of storytelling of the “New Hollywood” producers. The new methods of drama and characterization played upon audience expectations acquired during the classical/Golden Age period: story chronology may be scrambled, storylines may feature unsettling “twist endings”, main characters may behave in a morally ambiguous fashion, and the lines between the antagonist and protagonist may be blurred. The beginnings of post-classical storytelling may be seen in 1940s and 1950s film noir movies, in films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
During the 1970s, a new group of American filmmakers emerged, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian de Palma. This coincided with the increasing popularity of the auteur theory in film literature and the media, which posited that a film director’s films express their personal vision and creative insights. The development of the auteur style of filmmaking helped to give these directors far greater control over their projects than would have been possible in earlier eras. This led to some great critical and commercial successes, like Coppola’s The Godfather films, Spielberg’s Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’s Star Wars. It also, however, resulted in some failures, including Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love and Michael Cimino’s hugely expensive Western epic Heaven’s Gate, which helped to bring about the demise of its backer, United Artists.
The financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate marking the end of the visionary “auteur” directors of the “New Hollywood”, who had unrestrained creative and financial freedom to develop films. The phenomenal success in the 1970s of Jaws and Star Wars in particular, led to the rise of the modern “blockbuster”. Hollywood studios increasingly focused on producing a smaller number of very large budget films with massive marketing and promotional campaigns. This trend had already been foreshadowed by the commercial success of disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
During the mid-1970s, more pornographic theatres, euphemistically called “adult cinemas”, were established, and the legal production of hardcore pornographic films began. Porn films such as Deep Throat and its star Linda Lovelace became something of a popular culture phenomenon and resulted in a spate of similar sex films. The porn cinemas finally died out during the 1980s, when the popularization of the home VCR and pornography videotapes allowed audiences to watch sex films at home. In the early 1970s, English language audiences became more aware of the new West German cinema, with Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders among its leading exponents.
The end of the decade saw the first major international marketing of Australian cinema, as Peter Weir’s films Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith gained critical acclaim. In 1979, Australian filmmaker George Miller also garnered international attention for his violent, low-budget action film Mad Max.
1980S: SEQUELS, BLOCKBUSTERS AND VIDEOTAPE
During the 1980s, audiences began increasingly watching movies on their home VCRs. In the early part of that decade, the movie studios tried legal action to ban home ownership of VCRs as a violation of copyright, which proved unsuccessful. Eventually, the sale and rental of movies on home video became a significant “second venue” for exhibition of films, and an additional source of revenue for the movie companies.
The Lucas-Spielberg combine would dominate “Hollywood” cinema for much of the 1980s, and lead to much imitation. Two follow-ups to Star Wars, three to Jaws, and three Indiana Jones films helped to make sequels of successful films more of an expectation than ever before. Lucas also launched THX Ltd, a division of Lucasfilm in 1982, while Spielberg enjoyed one of the decade’s greatest successes in E.T. the same year. American independent cinema struggled more during the decade, although Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), After Hours (1985), and The King of Comedy (1983) helped to establish him as one of the most critically acclaimed American film makers of the era. Also during 1983 Scarface was released, was very profitable and resulted in even greater fame for its leading actor Al Pacino. Probably the most successful film commercially was vended during 1989: Tim Burton’s version of Bob Kane’s creation, Batman, exceeded box-office records. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the demented Joker earned him $60,000,000 (the most money an actor has ever made from one film) and it brought Tim Burton and Michael Keaton great fame.
British cinema was given a boost during the early 1980s by the arrival of David Puttnam’s company Goldcrest Films. The films Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Killing Fields and A Room with a View appealed to a “middlebrow” audience which was increasingly being ignored by the major Hollywood studios. While the films of the 1970s had helped to define modern blockbuster motion pictures, the way “Hollywood” released its films would now change. Films, for the most part, would premiere in a wider number of theatres, although, to this day, some movies still premiere using the route of the limited/roadshow release system. Against some expectations, the rise of the multiplex cinema did not allow less mainstream films to be shown, but simply allowed the major blockbusters to be given an even greater number of screenings. However, films that had been overlooked in cinemas were increasingly being given a second chance on home video and later DVD.
1990S: NEW SPECIAL EFFECTS, INDEPENDENT FILMS, AND DVDS
The early 1990s saw the development of a commercially successful independent cinema in the United States. Although cinema was increasingly dominated by special-effects films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Titanic (1997), independent films like Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) had significant commercial success both at the cinema and on home video.
The major studios began to create their own “independent” production companies to finance and produce non-mainstream fare. One of the most successful independents of the 1990s, Miramax Films, was bought by Disney the year before the release of Tarantino’s runaway hit Pulp Fiction in 1994. The same year marked the beginning of film and video distribution online. Animated films aimed at family audiences also regained their popularity, with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. During 1995 the first feature length computer-animated feature, Toy Story, was produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Disney. After the success of Toy Story, Disney returned to traditional animation and made three more popular films: The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996, Hercules in 1997, and Mulan in 1998. In 1999, Disney released Tarzan, which employed the use of a CGI rendering technique called Deep Canvas. During the late 1990s, another cinematic transition began, from physical film stock to digital cinema technology. Meanwhile DVDs became the new standard for consumer video, replacing VHS tapes.
The documentary film also rose as a commercial genre for perhaps the first time, with the success of films such as March of the Penguins and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. A new genre was created with Martin Kunert and Eric Manes’ Voices of Iraq, when 150 inexpensive DV cameras were distributed across Iraq, transforming ordinary people into collaborative filmmakers. The success of Gladiator lead to a revival of interest in epic cinema. Home theatre systems became increasingly sophisticated, as did some of the special edition DVDs designed to be shown on them. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released on DVD in both the theatrical version and in a special extended version intended only for home cinema audiences.
Future: Problems of digital distribution to be overcome — higher compression, cheaper technology. Content security. Expiration of copyrights, enforcing copyright.
THE LONG TAIL
One major new development in the early 21st century is the development of systems that make it much easier for regular people to write, shoot, edit and distribute their own movies without the large apparatus of the film industry. This phenomenon and its repercussions are outlined in Chris Anderson’s theory, The Long Tail.