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A Brief History of Film

wilder · 3 · 1839

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on: December 12, 2017, 01:06:02 AM
-Started mostly in France. Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) is one of the first famous films.

-1890s-1920s. Silent Films

-1927. In the USA, The Jazz Singer (1927) introduces sync sound to film for the first time. “Talkies” (movies with audible dialogue) followed.

-Until 1934, movies were “Pre-Code”, a retrospective label applied after the “Hayes Code” was introduced in 1934, which essentially amounted to censorship. Prior to this, films made in the early 1930s were more sexually suggestive and even violent than audiences might expect, now. The Hayes Code, however, had unintended consequences, as writers and directors began weaving in thinly veiled double-entendres and had characters speak suggestively instead of explicitly to subversively include content they knew would otherwise be excised. Gilda (1944) is one such film this post-code effect can be seen in.

-1930s-early 1940s. Movies are a national escape from The Great Depression. The average American goes to the movies at least once a week. Lots of musicals and fast-talking romantic and screwball comedies are made. The general tone of mainstream films, historically, has an inverse relationship to what’s happening out in the real world. During hard times, light films are made, and during good times, darker films are made.

-1940s-1950s. The major Hollywood studios are defined by the different styles of film they’re producing at this point:
   -Warner Bros. - Grittier, darker films, gangster pictures
   -MGM - Musicals with elaborate production design. Glamorous movie stars.
   -20th Century Fox - Musicals
   -Universal - Monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, W.C. Fields, Abbot & Costello
   -Paramount - More European influenced. Hired a lot of directors and stars who fled Germany to work in the USA.
   -Columbia - Frank Capra movies such as It’s A Wonderful Life, lighthearted movies
   -RKO - Made Orson Welles’ first films, King Kong, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers comedies

-1950s. The heyday of the Hollywood studio system. Everyone was “under contract”, meaning you worked on salary instead of a per-project basis. Studios literally had rooms full of writers working on typewriters like a factory. Actors were hired by single studios and could only work on films that studio was producing at the time. They were managed like real employees - told what roles they were going to play and what films they would be in. No one was working freelance yet. Movies are made quickly by workhorse and gun-for-hire directors. Even at the breakneck pace that the movies were being churned out in, the general quality was very high because people had tons of experience that let them hone their craft.

-1960s. A group of film critics in France give birth to the idea of “auteurism” — the idea that the director is an artist and the ultimate “author” of a movie, not just a hired hand. The basis of their theory is formed around Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Hitchcock did not consider himself an artist, but the critics in France (who included Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who go on to direct, themselves, and form the cornerstone of what would come to be known as the “French New Wave") argued that despite any studio interference on his films, Hitchcock’s voice and style were so strong they would always come through. The auteur theory eventually led to a retrospective, critical re-assessment of films by other hired-hand type directors such as John Ford, Anthony Mann, and many other 1930s-1950s directors.

-Late 1960s / early 1970s “The New Hollywood” emerges, younger directors with original voices. This group of directors includes Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. Dennis Hopper makes Easy Rider (1969) for almost no money about a couple of hippie bikers going cross country, and it's a major hit with the youth market and makes a ton of money. Hollywood studio bosses threw up their hands and said “We don’t know what the kids want! We better start hiring some young blood outta film school!” As a result all these new kids on the block get a ton of creative control and many of their original ideas get funding. The style of Hollywood films changes forever, partly because the younger directors mentioned above were equally as influenced by European art cinema as by US film history.

-1970s. Continuation of The New Hollywood. The directors who emerged in the 1960s graduate to making larger and larger films, and eventually are no longer the underdogs of Hollywood but are running the show, becoming the old guard. 1970s films are marked by darker, more adult themes and a stronger sense of realism than in previous decades. This period is considered by many film critics and cinephiles as the Golden Age of Cinema — producing the best mainstream films in film history. The era includes The Godfather I & II (Francis Ford Coppola), Serpico (Sidney Lumet), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola), Chinatown (Roman Polanski), Star Wars (George Lucas), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), Annie Hall (Woody Allen), The French Connection (William Friedkin), Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)

-1975.  Jaws is released. Jaws, along with Star Wars and E.T. a few years later, is one of the first “blockbuster” movies to make over $100 million. This changes everything. No longer are studios interested in making small profits from risky ventures, they want every movie to appeal to everyone. The “four quadrant picture” is born, meaning: The movies made should appeal to men, women, and children, both young and old. Many broad comedies and sillier pictures are made now, with an emphasis on happy endings and a shying away from the realism that permeated the decade past.

-1989. A new era of independent film is born with Steven Soderbergh’s hit Sundance feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

-1990s. A major CGI element is introduced for the first time in James Cameron’s 1988 film The Abyss, and CGI’s appearance in movies continues to rise and evolve in Terminator 2 (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), and Independence Day (1996). Whereas up until the 1970s a large number of studio movies were aimed at adults, in the 90s and beyond the most coveted target audience is teenage boys between the ages of 14 and 21. Therefore, the PG-13 rating for a film is most desirable. It doesn’t prohibit anyone younger than 17 from buying a ticket, as an R rating would, but also doesn’t necessarily turn off adults from buying tickets to what could be perceived as a youth-market only film, as a PG or G rating would. Actors and story become increasingly unimportant as spectacle becomes paramount for making a movie’s money back at the box office. Merchandising tie-ins such as toys and lunch boxes become equally important considerations for studios as a quality screenplay when making the decision to “greenlight”, or go ahead and make a film. Fun fact: Jack Nicholson makes one of the most lucrative deals in Hollywood history in demanding merchandising rights for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), in which he played the Joker. Your friendly neighborhood Jack Nicholson is worth almost $400 million today.

-1994. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which was made independently for about $8 million, an average budget for an independent feature film at the time, is shown at a film festival and is bought by producer Harvey Weinstein for wide distribution in theaters. The movie becomes a cultural phenomenon and makes over $100 million worldwide. Seeing the potential in indie films as high dollar earners, all of the major movie studios want in on the action and many, many independent films start getting bought at film festivals for millions of dollars.

-1997. Titanic is the first movie to gross over a billion dollars worldwide, and has the highest budget of any movie made at this time, at $200 million. To put this in perspective, just over 10 years earlier, in 1986, James Cameron was making another big-budget feature film with Aliens - a giant mainstream movie. It had a budget of $18 million, which was considered high at the time.

-1997. DVDs are introduced, an untapped market for film profits. They catch on with the average consumer like wildfire.

-1990s. The major studios (Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Sony Pictures), which used to be independent corporations, are bought by major American conglomerates such as Viacom and Time Warner. Now the movie business is just another, smaller part of these giant companies profits — the parent company might be making as much money from dish detergent or breakfast cereal as they are from the movie businesses they own.

-2000s. Pirates of the Carribbean (2003) makes more money than god, is one of the main movies to give birth to the idea of endless tentpole franchises. Studios stop being satisfied with making millions of dollars and instead want to make BILLIONS of dollars. They decide the best way to do this is to make movies based on “I.P.”, or intellectual property - a book, a comic book, an existing TV series, a remake of an existing movie — because these stories already have brand recognition and built-in marketing.

-2000s. Production of Reality TV begins to accelerate. One of the very first instances of reality TV was “An American Family” (1971), but it really started tracking towards the form it’s taken today with the airing of MTV’s “The Real World” (1992). In the independent film world, independent movies made on small budgets are still being bought by studios for wide distribution (meaning they place in over 1,000 to 3,000 theaters nationally).

-2008. Wall St. financial crash and WGA (Writers Guild of America) writer’s strike. During the strike, screenwriters are not allowed to work with studios until the Guild/Union that represents them negotiates better terms. Hollywood, having to halt production on most of their projects because they aren’t legally allowed to work with writers, decide “Fuck writers!” and focus their efforts on producing Reality Television, which is cheap to make, and although largely “scripted”, has people called “story editors” instead of actual writers, which is sort of a workaround so writers don’t actually have to be credited or hired. Original screenplay ideas slowly stop getting bought or made…

-2008. The smaller “shingle” companies that operated within the major studios but focused on making more serious, adult-oriented fare start closing down in reaction to the bad economy and market pressures (Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage, etc.) These are the companies responsible for movies like Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Rachel Getting Married (2008), and Little Miss Sunshine (2008).

-2008. Somehow the studios convince the average Joe that he should know and care about box office numbers. A film’s large budget starts to become a marketing tool. Joe doesn’t realize he’s not getting a piece of the pie no matter how much a film makes.

-2010s. The DVD market starts shrinking. Blu-ray doesn’t make up for it at all. Whereas most people bought DVDs in the late 1990s to early 2000s, less than a tenth of those have converted to blu-ray. This added profit, which many smaller films and riskier films counted on to get made, disappears.

-2010s. Whereas in decades previous, a movie made in the USA would make 75% of its money back in USA theaters, and 25% or less when released internationally, this equation has now flipped, with American-made films making the majority of their money abroad. This is largely due to China’s rising economy and their population’s newfound disposable income and purchasing power. As a result, studios focus more and more on recognizable intellectual property, and on action, fantasy, and sci-fi films, because these ideas translate visually across all cultures in ways that dramas and comedies do not. Studios are more interested in making films with budgets over $100 million, because, perversely, films made at this budget are more likely to make their money back. “The middle” budget movies, based on original screenplays, made for between $10-60 million (most movies you remember from the 80s and 90s) start to disappear.

-2010s. Most studios stop buying movies at film festivals for wide distribution in theaters. As a result, the budgets of independent movies shrink to a tenth of what they were in the previous decades, and they’re sold primarily to streaming and VOD outlets such as Netflix, Amazon, and Apple’s iTunes. The budgets for independent films now range from between $500,000 to a little over $1 million. Lower multi-million budgets still exist but are rare. It’s difficult to make a movie look professional at this level, and as a result tons of indie movies shrink in scope or are set exclusively in one location.

-2010s. “Name” actors, i.e. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, etc. who used to be able to get a movie made regardless of the subject matter just by having their name attached to the project matter less and and less to younger generations. Star power declines. Brands become king.

-2015 onward. Chinese media companies such as Wanda Group buy major stakes in American movie studios. Movies start being made primarily with a Chinese audience in mind. A movie that had a large futuristic battle with Chinese enemies is put back into post-production and the enemies are turned Korean.

-2016 onward. The political, social, or ideological narrative around a film seems to play into its success just as much as its story, aesthetics, and technical execution. Reality becomes stranger than fiction and writers can't keep up.


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Reply #1 on: December 12, 2017, 11:20:25 PM
Great post.

Is this a page on the wiki that could be expanded on? Studio era especially is pertinent to the vertical-VOD model.


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Reply #2 on: December 12, 2017, 11:26:33 PM
At the moment the wiki isn't editable due to it being repeatedly hacked. It could also probably be reconfigured down the line into multiple linked pages instead of one long scroll, which I think people have suggested. But yeah possibly at some point in the future.