Hollywood Spotlight – The Evolution of American Cinema

This course surveys the cultural and political ramifications of Hollywood’s global operations. It also focuses on films outside the commercial mainstream: symbolist in technique and Freudian in subject; women’s psychothrillers; and special effects pictures.

When film attendance started to decline in the 1950s, studios began producing movies for TV. This was a much more efficient business model.

The Origins

The explosion of home video technology and VCRs opened the door to a whole new market for film companies. Beholden to shareholders and the bottom line, major studios could no longer maintain vertical integration, so they rushed to promote films for the new sphere of distribution.

Suddenly, movies weren’t just an occasional diversion for a few hours in a darkened theater, they became an integral part of many people’s weekly entertainment routine. Star power proved to be an invaluable asset, as directors realized that casting fan-favorites would keep audiences coming back week after week.

In the 1960’s, a new generation of filmmakers emerged, such as Francis Ford Coppola who brought us the iconic films, Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. This group of independent filmmakers wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for the mainstream, which resulted in a surge in groundbreaking films that were both popular and critically acclaimed.

The Early Years

As movie audiences began to demand more and more, a new industry emerged in Hollywood. The major studios built film factories able to produce dozens and sometimes hundreds of films each year to fill the thousands of new movie theaters that popped up everywhere.

Mark Ruffalo nailed his portrayal of Michael Rezendes, the Spotlight team’s passionate and relentless reporter who uncovered the clergy abuse scandal. His performance reflects the real-life journalist’s unwavering determination to bring the truth to light.

As television became cinema’s greatest rival, Hollywood embraced color and widescreen technology to draw audiences back into the theaters. Movies like Taxi Driver pushed the boundaries of what was deemed appropriate for the screen. This era saw the arrival of a new generation of directors, such as Martin Scorsese. It also introduced new stars, such as Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age was the period of time after the transition to sound film. This era was marked by the emergence of stars like Bette Davis who is considered one of the most iconic actresses in cinema history.

Studios consolidated power, taking over production, distribution and exhibition. This was called vertical integration and allowed the studios to minimize risk while maximizing profits.

During this time, movie theaters became one of the largest businesses in the United States, with people trading their real-world struggles for a glimpse into fictional and often dazzling worlds. This success fueled the development of new filmmaking techniques, including close-ups and montage sequences.

Filmmakers also began to push back against the studio system. Towering figures like Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch made provocative and engaging cinema that challenged the traditional structure of the Hollywood film industry.

The Great Depression

With the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, the world entered a period of extreme turmoil. This was a decade of change for America as well as for Hollywood.

During this time, studio moguls such as Paramount’s Adolph Zukor and Universal’s Carl Laemmle began losing control of their major film corporations. This was largely due to economic pressures and the emergence of social consciousness among audiences.

The economic problems of the 1930s helped to transform American filmmaking and to reshape public perceptions of Hollywood. People were no longer interested in glamour or spectacle and wanted to see movies that told meaningful, human stories. For many, a trip to the movie theater was an opportunity to forget their daily worries for a precious few hours. This was the era that gave rise to films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.

The Second World War

In the summer of 1942, Hollywood had under consideration or in production 213 films that dealt with war in some way. Forty percent focused on the armed forces in combat. Other categories, such as the United Nations and home front issues received little attention.

Most combat films promoted a message of patriotism and the value of individual sacrifice for a greater cause. They also portrayed enemy soldiers as ruthless and efficient.

Despite the wartime success of American cinema, the film industry struggled at home with serious problems, including shortages and production limitations. In addition, prewar labor concerns resurfaced as the upstart Conference of Studio Unions made serious inroads against IATSE. Moreover, cracks in national unity were visible during the war years, as evidenced by government intervention in race riots in Detroit and Harlem. These were issues that Hollywood could not ignore.

The 1960s

The 1960s ushered in a new era of moviemaking. Movies expanded from short actualities and simple stories screened as multifilm programs to feature-length works that could be seen in one sitting. In addition, the film frame and space within it consolidated around legible storylines and characters.

The decade saw the graphic representation of sex and violence in films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider. It was also a time when young urban intellectuals discovered the work of French auteur directors like Truffaut, Godard, and Brigitte Bardot and Italian filmmakers such as Antonioni and Fellini.

At the same time, Hollywood struggled to confront its own racism. Boxoffice Pro, for instance, only briefly mentioned “Negro” theaters in its ads from the 1920s to the 1950s. The film The Searchers influenced a generation of directors by turning archetypal American hero John Wayne into an antihero.

The 1970s

Filmmakers in the 1970s were rewriting the rule book. Young up-and-coming directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were using their gritty and stylish films to challenge audiences and push the boundaries of what Hollywood could produce.

Stars such as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were also proving themselves in this new breed of grittier films, edging out stars from the Cary Grant mould and paving the way for the next generation of actors to come.

Films of this era, including Dog Day Afternoon, MASH, Nashville and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were dealing with taboo subjects but were not shying away from the hard realities of society. This helped to make them relevant, thought-provoking and incredibly entertaining for audiences. The 1970s is an amazing era to explore for those wanting to understand the evolution of American cinema.

The 1980s

After the ’70s success of Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters, studio executives realised that audiences wanted to see more high-concept action movies. Filmmakers responded with a boom in blockbusters using the latest advances in special effects techniques.

The 1980s saw depictions of American suburbia take a turn for the grotesque, as films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Brian Yuzna’s Society showcased the horrors lurking behind the pristine white picket fences. And while TV still churned out after-school specials that showed nuclear families resolving their issues in 22-minute chunks, cinema was able to explore themes of politics and social hierarchy that the mainstream could not touch.

Comedy-action films also found a home, with stars such as Leslie Nielsen, John Candy and Chevy Chase making their mark in Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. Female action stars such as Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock and Yukari Oshima established the girls with guns trend.

The 1990s

The 1990s saw a return to director-centric filmmaking. A number of films from the era, including Kevin Smith’s low-budget black and white debut Clerks (June 1994) and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (1994), were embraced by audiences but largely rejected by the Hollywood studio system. Independent production and distribution companies flourished. The 1996 Oscar race was a reflection of this, with only one major studio film, Jerry Maguire, receiving an Academy Award nomination.

Cinematographers also continued to experiment with new techniques. Conrad L. Hall, ASC shook up the visual-effects world with Alien3 (July ’92, with VFX coverage in AC Feb. ’95), while Mikael Salomon, ASC and Alex Thomson, BSC used 65mm cameras on Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer (June ’92).

The 2000s

The 2000s saw a revival of several genres. Fantasy film franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean dominated the box office. Superhero films also enjoyed a resurgence with the releases of X-Men and The Dark Knight. Historical epics such as Gladiator returned to prominence as well, helped by advances in computer graphics that allowed filmmakers to create scenes that would have been prohibitively expensive or impossible with previous technology.

Meanwhile, the independent film movement continued to grow with movies by such directors as Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino, who challenged conventions with works like Do the Right Thing, Sex, Lies & Videotape, Clerks, and Pulp Fiction. At the same time, American multinational media corporations became unchallenged champions of cultural globalization, releasing films that resonated with audiences around the world.

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