Friday, 26 February 2021

New Hollywood and the box office Part II

The previous post, where I wrote about "New Hollywood" and some conventional wisdoms surrounding it, has generated an unusually large number of comments and agreements/disagreements, and misunderstandings. It seems appropriate to follow it up with another piece with clarifications and elaborations, and a couple of responses to some of the comments I have received. For that reason, this post is one week earlier than usual, and will primarily be of interest to those who have read the first article. [Part III is also available now here.]

The first thing I want to clarify, as some have misunderstood this, is that I am not suggesting that the critics/scholars I am talking about are saying that audiences wanted one thing when in reality they wanted another thing. My point is that there were large audiences for different kinds of films, including expensive musicals, as well as cheaper "counter-cultural" films (whatever a "counter-cultural" film is), but too much of the critical and scholarly writings about it have been focusing on the latter films, and arguing that it was primarily this that audiences wanted, all evidence the contrary. Neither am I claiming that nobody has questioned that conventional wisdom before, because some scholars have, such as Steve Neale. But Neale and a few others have unfortunately not had as big an impact on the conversation around "New Hollywood" as for example Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and other books and articles with a similar story to tell. Biskind’s unearned reputation shows itself in how often he is generously quoted in even some of the better books on the subject.

One reaction I have had is "I did not know this!" and another has been "Well, does not everybody know this by now?" and while the first response negates the second response, it is worth pointing out that one of the challenges with writing about such a topic is to figure out how widespread the tendency that you describe is. I think it is fair to say that what I have described is the most prevalent view among scholars, critics, students, and among film enthusiasts in general. Only the few who have explicitly researched the films and era of New Hollywood with a critical eye take a different view, and even among them some inaccurate claims, such as about the release of Jaws and about the history of blockbusters, usually remain unchallenged. There is also, persistently, a confusion as to whether "New Hollywood" refers to a period in time, and if so, which time, or to a group of films. If it is a group of films that share certain characteristics, then it cannot be boxed in by arbitrary years but must always be true for films with these characteristics, regardless of when the films were made. It is the same problem that we have with film noir. If film noir refers to a certain kind of film with certain characteristics, you cannot say that the first one appeared in 1941 and the last in 1958 (as is often claimed) because films with such characteristics have been made before and after those arbitrary years, unless it was technologically impossible to do so, and it was not.


Something I did not mention in the previous post was that despite the undeniable successes of The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), it did not follow that such films replaced the roadshow musicals, despite what many scholars and critics seem to be saying. There were films, made on the back of Easy Rider and The Graduate, that were aimed for an audience who supposedly wanted edgy, counter-culture stuff about the young ones, people such as themselves, but they did not make much of a mark. According to Variety in 1971, the studios were despairing because most of their youth-films flopped. The title of one article sums it up, "Youth Shuns Youth-Lure Films." The year before, an article titled "Youth Lure Alone Not Enuf" said: ”Through [sic] all this would seem to indicate that the “Easy Rider Syndrome” has been put to rest already, [producer Irwin] Winkler indicates one part of it is stronger than ever – the attempt to trim budgets."

It is not easy to specify what an edgy, youth-oriented film is, but we could perhaps include Goodbye, Columbus (1969) as one of the few that was a hit after The Graduate. Love Story (1970) was for example a huge success, and youth-oriented, but hardly edgy, however you define that term.

Ali MacGraw in Goodbye, Columbus

Instead, the musicals were replaced by disaster movies. By this I mean that whereas in the 1960s, musicals had dominated at the box office, in the early 1970s it was instead the disaster films. 1974 was their peak year, when three of them, The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), and Airport 1975 (1974), were among the top ten films in the United States. In the second half of the decade they began to fizzle out, and titles such as The Swarm (1978), Avalanche (1978), Meteor (1979), or Hurricane (1979) came and went almost without a trace. This is a reminder of something else: it is often the case, throughout film history, and not just in Hollywood, that a film will appear and become a huge unexpected success, and then others try to replicate that success with increasingly diminishing returns. This is almost a law of the business and therefore not especially interesting to analyse.

But it was not only disaster films that were popular in the early 1970s, they were competing with other kinds of films such as the live-action Disney films or films like Summer of '42 and Carnal Knowledge to mention two equally popular, but very different, films from 1971. That is one of my key points: it was a diverse selection of films that were popular, and choosing one and proclaim that "This is the one that captures the zeitgeist!" will not wash.


Something that is often said about the period, whether called "New Hollywood" or "Hollywood Renaissance," is that it was auteur-driven, unlike the earlier days in Hollywood. If you make that argument you need to explain how it was more auteur-driven than, say, when John Ford made films produced by his own company Argosy Pictures, or when Preminger and Hitchcock became the producers of their own films, or Howard Hawks, or any other of the many directors who either worked freelance, was his own producer, or had his own production company. Mostly it was a he, but Ida Lupino was also one of them. It is not enough to just say that once it was all run by the studios and now individual creative agency was possible, because that is not an accurate description of how things worked, either before 1967 or after. (As I have written earlier, I think the word "auteur" is usually used in a way that is confusing and a-historical, and should preferably be retired.)


To continue the discussion of Jaws, the most recent edition of The Film Experience, one of the most widely used introductory textbooks for film students, says that it was "the first film to be released simultaneously on hundreds of screens and promoted though [sic] national television advertising" (p. 75) but as I said in the earlier piece, this is not correct. Some who have responded to my piece have been reluctant to accept this, which I can understand as it has been treated as a truth for decades. But I wonder where this belief comes from, and why it has been so entrenched, despite being relatively easy to disprove. To repeat two counter-examples, among several others, the James Bond films Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) were each released simultaneously in around 600 prints, and were advertised on TV. You can click on this link for a TV ad for Live and Let Die and here for The Man With the Golden Gun.

The negligent treatment of James Bond within film history is an issue in its own right. If you are working on, writing about, a history of blockbusters, marketing strategies, merchandise, franchises, tie-ins, and similar things, you should also include the Bond films. The Bond phenomenon was not just about the films, it was a whole culture around it with toys, clothes, games, replicas of gadgets, and so on. The films were not Hollywood productions, so maybe that is part of the reason why insufficient attention has been paid to them, and their release campaigns, but they were not disconnected from Hollywood either, and United Artists were handling the American campaigns. Including them in a discussion about "New Hollywood" is relevant, not least Live and Let Die as it is so clearly influenced by blaxploitation and partly takes place in a less than glamorous New York. ("White face in Harlem. Good thinkin' Bond. Let's get outta here." is the sigh of the black CIA agent Strutter, after rescuing Bond from a tight spot.)


There are several things that lie at the heart of the problems I wanted to address in my initial post, and they have to do with how research is being done; the art, craft, and ethics about researching and writing about film history. But since that is not specifically related to New Hollywood, it is something I better return to in a different post. The difficulties with dealing with box office statistics is another topic that should also be addressed.

Yet another topic to pursue is that of directors from the older Hollywood, and how they managed the new business arrangements and more liberal censorship rules. They are often said to have failed, artistically as well as commercially, in this period but that is to simplify things. John Huston for example was successful, and Billy Wilder was making some of his best films. Henry Hathaway made one of his most successful and beloved films in 1968, True Grit. Another interesting case study is Don Siegel, who, while having made fine films in the 1940s and 1950s, seems to have found an additional gear for his career and creativity in the late 1960s and 1970s. But it is a complex story.


One scholar who replied to me, Peter Labuza, thought I could have mentioned some of the more recent research that, like me, has questioned the conventional wisdoms. While I thought about doing so for the initial post I finally decided not to, as I wanted to emphasise that conventional wisdom. I only recommended one book: Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters by Steve Neale and Sheldon Hall. But with my initial point made, I can now recommend more books. An earlier piece by Neale, "'The Last Good Time We Ever Had?' Revisiting The Hollywood Renaissance," makes many of the same points I have been making, and it was published in Contemporary American Cinema from 2006. I can also recommend an article by Lawrence Webb from 2015, "New Hollywood in the Rust Belt: Urban Decline and Downtown Renaissance in The King of Marvin Gardens and Rocky," published in Cinema Journal. A good, recent, book is Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History (2018) by James Russell and Jim Whalley. Of interest is also Nicholas Godfrey's The Limits of Auteurism: Case Studies in the Critically Constructed New Hollywood (2018). 

But, as always when doing film history, the most important thing is to watch the films.



Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) by Peter Biskind. 

Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters (2010) by Steve Neale and Sheldon Hall.

Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History (2018) by James Russell and Jim Whalley.

"New Hollywood in the Rust Belt: Urban Decline and Downtown Renaissance in The King of Marvin Gardens and Rocky" by Lawrence Webb, published in Cinema Journal, (Vol. 54, Issue 4, 2015).

The Film Experience (5th edition 2018) by Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White.

"'The Last Good Time We Ever Had?' Revisiting The Hollywood Renaissance" by Steve Neale, published in Contemporary American Cinema (2006).

The Limits of Auteurism: Case Studies in the Critically Constructed New Hollywood (2018) by Nicholas Godfrey.

“Youth Lure Alone Not Enuf” Variety (November 4, 1970)

"Youth Shuns Youth-Lure Films" Variety (November 3, 1971)

My previous post:

My piece about the usages of the term "auteur": 

Added 2021-03-07: Part three is now available:

No comments:

Post a comment