Friday, 19 February 2021

New Hollywood and the box office

When teaching film history the other year I included a question about "New Hollywood" on the exam paper; asking which period the term was associated with and what some of the important films were. Several students replied with 1948, the Paramount Decision (which broke up the business model of having vertically integrated studios), and mentioned some films from the years thereafter. This was not the answer I was expecting, as both my lecture and the readings were using New Hollywood to refer to the late 1960s/1970s, although I had mentioned that there is some disagreement about which period the term should be used for: either 1967-1975, or the period after 1975, after Jaws. Sometimes the period 1967-1975 is referred to as "New Hollywood I" and the period after 1975 "New Hollywood II." (I suppose we should be happy that the second phase is not called "post-New Hollywood.")

But I understand why they replied that way. Partly because the radical disruption of the Paramount Decision means it is appropriate to use an expression like "New Hollywood" about the post-1948 period, and partly because on that film history course I had two weeks about Hollywood; the first week was the silent era and sound films until 1948, and the second week was the time after 1948. You might say that I had unintentionally primed them into thinking that New Hollywood began in 1948.

That priming is an interesting thing because I think that, in general, when something is referred to as "New" the natural assumption is that there must have been a radical change, usually for the better, and that this assumption leads to a way of looking (consciously or subconsciously) at the surrounding historical context for things that will confirm this assumption. Confirmation bias is a well-known psychological trait in us humans. "New Hollywood", in the conventional usage, is an example of this.

That conventional view is that in the 1960s, the studios and the studio bosses had become tired, lost their touch, were out of step with the audience, and the films had become bloated and unadventurous. Some examples often given are Cleopatra (1963), Star! (1968), Doctor Dolittle (1968), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969), Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Darling Lily (1970), which are also called box office failures. Then in the late 1960s, a new generation allegedly took over, inspired by the New Waves of Europe, hip to a younger audience, and eagerly cheered by Pauline Kael. The paramount examples given for this are Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), and Easy Rider (1969). The films of New Hollywood are said to be better and more interesting that what had come before, some claim that never before had Hollywood been this exciting. Geoff King, in New Hollywood Cinema, thinks that "[m]oral ambiguity and complexity are two of the primary virtues of many of these films, marking them out from the usual melodramatic Hollywood fare based on more simplistic oppositions between 'good' and 'evil'." (p. 32) This happy era is said to have lasted until 1975 when Jaws ruined the fun, and Hollywood entered an age of blockbusters.

It is curious how dominant this view of Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s is, despite being based on a flawed, cherry-picked emphasis on some box office figures while disregarding others of equal value, and despite a lack of understanding about audience preferences, and instead being guided by personal preferences of what should be regarded as a good film, worthy of a scholar's attention. That is not an appropriate way to study or understand film history.

One misunderstanding is to think it was stupid of Hollywood not to realise that the audience where not interested in musicals of epic length, and that the production of them showed how out of touch the studios were. Here are two quotes to illustrate that argument. The first is from Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and the second is from David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film:

The old men who ran the studios were increasingly out of touch with the vast baby boom audience coming of age in the '60s, an audience that was rapidly becoming radicalized and disaffected from its elders. The studios were still churning out formulaic genre pictures /.../ Even when a few of the expensive musicals, like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, did spectacular business in the mid-'60s, they spawned an orgy of imitations /.../ The Sound of Music represented the last gasp of family entertainment (p. 20)

In 1965, the unprecedented success of Fox's The Sound of Music, which grossed more than $135 million nationwide, rekindled false hope in the spectacle format, but a succession of stunning failures /.../ pushed the industry to the brink of catastrophe by the early 1970s. (p. 670)

But musicals like My Fair Lady (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Oliver! (1968), and Funny Girl (1968), all except Mary Poppins over 2.5 hours in length, were noticeably successful at the box office. Paint Your Wagon is routinely referred to as a flop, but it was Paramount's most popular film of that year, and the fifth most popular of all releases that year. It was however very costly to make, partly due to its star Lee Marvin's hard drinking, but that is not the same as the studio being out of touch. The same is true for Hello, Dolly!, which was only marginally less popular than Easy Rider.

Cleopatra, while not a musical, is often said to be a flop too but it was not, it is one of the most successful films of all times in terms of box office returns, partly due, no doubt, to the rumours and publicity around its stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The film nearly ruined 20th Century Fox, but not because nobody wanted to see it but because it was ridiculously expensive to make. Still, eventually Fox got all its money back, and more. In 1968, the year after Bonnie and Clyde, Funny Girl was the most popular film in the United States, ahead of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fifth most popular film of 1968 was Oliver!. In 1971, Fiddler on the Roof, a three-hour-long musical, was the most popular film. All this flies in the face of the widespread belief that musicals were a thing of the past, produced by ignorant studios who were holding on to a tradition that had lost its appeal with audiences.

In the quote above, Biskind says that "The Sound of Music represented the last gasp of family entertainment" and while I would like to point out that there is nothing wrong with making family entertainment, it is not true that The Sound of Music was a last gasp of anything. In any given year, musicals, live-action features by Disney, and similar fare, such as Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) or The Love Bug (1969), would be among the five or ten most successful films of that year. Hollywood did not stop making family entertainment just because Biskind dislikes them.

Herbie aka The Love Bug

Also puzzling is the argument that the alleged revolution is claimed to have rescued the studios and brought the audiences back. This is contradicted by the fact that the years in which Hollywood was in its worst troubles, financially, was 1968/1969 and consecutive years. This is when they began to panic due to diminishing returns and it is peculiar to argue that the new films of the late 1960s saved Hollywood, when it was spiralling out of control despite those films. It was not until the mid-70s that Hollywood was saved from financial ruin, and it was exceptionally successful films like The Godfather (1972), Jaws, Rocky (1976), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978) that were responsible for this rather than Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider.

Cook says that Easy Rider "became the box office phenomenon of the decade. Produced for $375 000, it grossed $50 million and convinced old-guard Hollywood that a vast new youth market was ready to be tapped." (p. 677) But its success was not that remarkable, and less impressive than many of the musicals. It followed in the steps of earlier, similar films that were cheaply made and very successful, such as The Wild Angels (1966) with Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. What is interesting though is that while these earlier films were not released by a large, prestigious studio, Easy Rider was released by Columbia.

One of the biggest hits of 1974 was even cheaper than Easy Rider. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, an adventure story for the whole family about a woodsman and his life in the wilderness, was shot in Utah for $140 000, less than Easy Rider yet it made about the same amount of money. (I have been unable to find a reliable sum.) It is peculiar that Cook, Biskind and most other scholars ignore it, but I assume it is because it does not fit with their idea of what the audience wanted.

As for appealing to a younger audience, in 1967 Seventeen magazine polled the teenagers of the United States about their favourite film. Doctor Zhivago (1965) won. This is a film that critics and scholars of today would discuss as an example of the kind of turgid and bloated films that showed how the studios were not speaking to the youngsters of the 1960s. I think it is fair to say that studios and producers of the 1960s were more in tune with what an audience might want then scholars today are, even though they now have ample access to the relevant facts and figures. The box office successes of the years 1965 to 1980 are dominated by conventional mainstream films, often what might be called old-fashioned, and there is not much that can be considered counter-cultural. (By calling something old-fashioned I do not imply any judgement of value, only to a style of filmmaking. The films themselves might be good or bad, regardless of their perceived novelty or old-fashionedness, and my personal likes and dislikes are irrelevant right now.)

The image above shows the top ten films of each year from 1965 to 1980, based on rentals on the domestic market in the United States. Re-releases not included. As these figures can be counted differently, not all sources provide the exact same titles, or order of titles.


Speaking of Jaws, conventional wisdom has it that it was the first film to open on a large scale simultaneously across the whole of the United States, a so-called saturation release or saturation booking. Here is another quote from Geoff King that sums up this belief: "Jaws was the first big-budget Hollywood film to be given both saturation television advertising and to be released from the start in a large number of cinemas. /.../ Jaws opened in more than 400 theatres, a small total by recent standards but almost unprecedented for a big-budget picture at the time." (p. 55)

This is not accurate. While Jaws was released in June 1975 in 409 prints across the United States, this is less than, for example, Prince of Foxes (1949) and The Black Rose (1950). Those 20th Century Fox productions were each released simultaneously in about 500 prints in their respective years. Columbia, United Artists and Allied Artists also liked to release some of their films on a similar scale in the late 1940s and 1950s. Later, the producer/distributor Joseph E. Levine had used this method with, for example, Hercules (1958) and The Carpetbaggers (1964). In 1974, The Trial of Billy Jack was released in over 1000 prints. A month before Jaws, Breakout (1975) had been released in about 1300 prints. Some James Bond films had been, for their respective premieres in the United States, simultaneously released in over 500 prints, years before Jaws. Neither was the use of TV commercials something unique for Jaws, as is often said. It had been used in the 1960s and early 1970s for various films, including The Sound of Music and the James Bond films. There was nothing new with the marketing and distribution of Jaws; what was new was how immediately successful it became. Probably no film in the United States had been seen by so many in cinema theatres, in such a short period of time, before. Some earlier films had been more successful, but it had taken longer time and usually required re-releases.
Something else. It is often said that a change during the early 1970s (including Jaws) was that it, to quote Cook again, this time from Lost Illusions, "marked a turn toward 'pre-sold' properties like best-selling novels or hit plays." (p. 27) This is not true either, as using best-selling novels, hit plays, and shows as the basis of your film, and use this in the marketing, had been common in Hollywood at least since the 1910s. Many of the biggest hits from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were based on well-known sources, such as big 19th century novels or bestsellers of the day that are now forgotten.

Jaws is sometimes referred to as the first blockbuster. Here is a 2019 quote from The Atlantic as an example of this: "In the 1970s, the blockbuster arrived, in which event movies would release simultaneously on screens around the country; Steven Spielberg’s Jaws broke records in 1975 when it opened to $7 million on 409 screens."

But the term blockbuster and the kind of films it refers to is a lot older than that, and was used by the trade papers at least as early as the beginning of the 1950s. Quo Vadis (1951) was called a blockbuster by Variety when it was released, and it might have been the first time the term was used to describe a film like that, in the same way as it is used today. Two Selznick productions, Gone with the Wind (1939) and Duel in the Sun (1946) could be called that as well. Many of the films mentioned in this post are blockbusters, including some of the musicals (Kael referred to them as "blockbuster musicals" in her 1969 review of Paint Your Wagon), as well as films such as Love Story (1970), Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Towering Inferno (1974), all old-fashioned films for a mainstream audience, except young children. These were films that did exceptionally well at the box office, in the top five of their respective years, and were to some extent event movies.


This quote by Matthew Kennedy in Bright Lights Film Journal sums up the widely held belief about the guilt of Jaws for ruining American cinema: "That vaulted neo-golden age, when executives played musical chairs while maverick directors made boldly reflective movies, was gasping by 1975. The blood of Jaws begat a more profitable revolution, and Hollywood has yet to recover." But blaming Jaws for all that changed in the coming ten years is unfair and misleading. Rocky and Star Wars, and those films mentioned in the paragraph above, are equally responsible for the development of Hollywood. One might also note the paradox of producers in the 1960s being criticised for not making the kind of films people allegedly wanted to see and producers in the 1970s being criticised for making the kind of films people wanted to see. But there were many other factors involved as well, unrelated to any specific film, such as large conglomerates, with no particular interest in film, buying the old studios (such as Gulf + Western buying Paramount), or the Tax Reform Act of 1976 that shook up the way films were funded, as it removed tax shelters and made it more difficult for the studios to do business the way they had. The projects that suffered from this were often smaller and more experimental. Another important development was the launch in 1975 of a satellite for television use, SATCOM 1, which meant that HBO could broadcast films for home viewing across the United States. 1975 was also the year in which videotapes for home recording/viewing was introduced, in the form of the Betamax tapes.


So much for box office numbers and marketing strategies, which do not support the conventional wisdom. What about the kind of films that were made? Was there a shift in 1967, and another one in 1975? Alas, this is a mug's game with no easy answers as it depends on what you are looking for. Whether a film is good or not is too subjective to be meaningful, and to which degree it is "new" or "different" or "daring" is complicated, and also to some extent subjective. It has been established that as far as box office successes are concerned there is no sign of any shifts in the kind of films that the audience went for. Other approaches can be to check the nominees for Oscar for best film, or Sight & Sound's decennial lists of the best films of all time, or a list of all the films being made in Hollywood during these years. But it will only provide suggestions, nothing more substantial.

On the latest Sight & Sound's list, from 2021, 250 films are included and among them there are eight Hollywood productions from the 1960s, five from before 1967 and three from 1967 or later. This does not support the idea that the early 1960s was a wasteland. It does however support a view of the 1960s as underrated. Among the 250 films, there were five Hollywood films from the 1920s, 10 from the 1930s, 16 from the 1940s, 13 from the 1950s, and 19 from the 1970s. Only eight from the 1960s is puny.

As far as Academy Award nominees for best picture are concerned, you cannot see much difference from one year to the next in the 1960s. Each year has an eclectic combination of more conventional mainstream and the slightly more edgy. 1963 for example had America America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, Lilies in the Field, and Tom Jones. The mid-1970s had a more dramatic selection. This is 1975: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Winners underlined.) Overall, I think you can say that in the 1950s and 1960s the Academy Award nominees for best picture are not necessarily related to what is now considered among the best of that year, or most famous. But in the 1970s this correlation is stronger, as it was in the 1930s and 1940s.

The 1970s was an exciting time in American moviemaking, there is no doubt about that. But not obviously more so than any proceeding decade, even the 1960s. Consider, say, 1962 when these ten films were released, among many others: Advise and Consent, Cape Fear, Hell Is for Heroes, Lonely Are the Brave, Merrill's Marauders, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Manchurian Candidate, The Intruder, Ride the High Country, and Two Weeks in Another Town.

Or 1964, when a selection of ten films might include the following: Behold a Pale Horse, Lilith, Marnie, Seven Days in May, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Killers, The Naked Kiss, The Night of the Iguana, The Pink Panther and The Train.

You may or may not like these films, but they are not films that signal creative crisis, decay, and irrelevance. I think you might even say that the late 1960s were less interesting than the earlier part, despite what other critics and scholars claim.


To sum up, the conventional wisdom about Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s is mistaken and contradictory, and is often based more on the personal taste of the individual critic or scholar than on how things were back then, and which films were popular. Personally, I would prefer if "New Hollywood" was not used at all, as it is mainly a source of confusion. It also gives the impression that before 1967, or 1975, everything had been the same and now suddenly everything changed, it was all new. But this is not the case, as drastic changes had happened on a regular basis.

One final point. The reckless spending in the late 1970s/early 1980s on, for example, Sorcerer (1977), 1941 (1979), Apocalypse Now (1979), Heaven's Gate (1980), and One from the Heart (1982), is often blamed on auteur hybris, and how this ended a golden age. An argument in obvious conflict with the equally common belief that it was Jaws that ended this alleged golden age. It is ironic how this mirrors the end of the 1960, when several well-known examples of financial calamities, such as the above-mentioned Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Dolittle, and Darling Lili, also caused a crisis. It would be difficult however to claim that Joshua Logan or Richard Fleischer, to mention two directors who went badly over budget and over schedule, were pampered auteurs.

In the beginning of this article I mentioned priming and confirmation bias. To return to psychology, I think we might consider the sunk cost fallacy, that when you have spent a certain sum on something without getting the result you wanted, you just keep spending because you think that what you had just spent is otherwise spent in vain, to partly explain what was happening in the late 1960s and the late 1970s.

I must admit that I am amused by Biskind's confused view that "the studios/.../ had been rotting from within since the late '40s" (p. 20) and that the "great directors of the studio era, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, regarded themselves as nothing more than hired help (over-) paid to manufacture entertainment, storytellers who shunned self-conscious style lest it interfere with the business at hand." (p. 15) This is not how they saw themselves. It shows a lack of understanding of how the studios worked, and a lack of familiarity with Hawks and Ford, or any of the great filmmakers of the era. I am fond of the fact that Henry Hathaway held up production for three days when making Home in Indiana (1944) because the overcast sky meant that the light and colour of a lake did not look the way Hathaway wanted it to. I am sure Coppola would approve. But while Biskind's book is amusing, in a guilty pleasure kind of way, it is not amusing that it is considered appropriate as required reading for film students across the world, considering how poorly researched and misleadingly argued it is.

Quoted books:
A History of Narrative Film (2016, 5th edition) by David A. Cook.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) by Peter Biskind.
Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979 (2000) by David A. Cook.
New Hollywood Cinema (2002) by Geoff King.
Quoted articles:
"Book review: Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris" (2008) by Matthew Kennedy, in Bright Lights Film Journal.
"Hollywood’s Endgame" (2019) by David Sims, in The Atlantic.
"Somebody Else's Success" (1969) by Pauline Kael, reprinted in Deeper Into Movies (1973).
Non-quoted complementary sources:
Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters (2010) by Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale.
"New Hollywood" (1992) by Thomas Schatz, printed in Film Theory Goes to the Movies.
The Films of 20th Century-Fox (1989) by Aubrey Solomon and Tony Thomas.

Some background to the Tax Reform Act of 1976 here.
I highly recommend Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters.

1 comment:

  1. Convincingly argued, with facts to back up your points. A revelation that exposes the cliches that have grown up around this era. Well done!