The American film industry has undergone considerable change from the 1970s to the present. During the 1970s, audiences were offered independent films that were successful at the box office and which reflected the changing political and cultural environment. However, as the decade came to a close, blockbuster films such as Jaws and Star Wars as well as changing tastes among the filmgoing public brought about changes in the motion picture industry, as well. This research considers the motion picture industry since 1970 and the economic, creative and cultural shifts that have driven the industry during that time.
Some mark the 1969 release of Hello Dolly! as the last nail in the studio system coffin. That film, with its cheery plot and over-the-top production numbers, was considered out of touch with the changing culture of an America steeped in anti-war demonstrations and growing disillusion with the status quo. By contrast, Easy Rider was popular at the box office and proved that there was a market for edgier films that reflected the changing political and cultural environment (Rooney 8).
When Jaws was released in 1975, the motion picture industry was changed forever. The film brought in considerable profit on a relatively small investment ($9.5 million), and the era of the blockbuster film was born. Increasingly, investors were interested not in films that would make traditional–and sometimes lackluster–profits, but in films that were blockbusters. The release of Star Wars in 1977 not only duplicated the success of Jaws, reinforcing the belief that blockbusters could be created on a regular basis, but also capitalized on licensing fees. At this point, the film industry recognized that films which could have action figures and promotional tie-ins had the opportunity to produce revenues well beyond traditional films (Carvell 166).
The motion picture industry was also swept up in the merger and acquisition frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s, and today, many Hollywood studios are owned by companies whose primary business is entertainment, not just filmed entertainment. Examples include Disney (which owns the Walt Disney, Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures, Buena Vista and Miramax brands), AOL Time Warner (formerly Warner Brothers) and Sony (which owns the Columbia and TriStar brands). These conglomerates are no longer controlled by individuals who understand and have participated in filmmaking, as the original studios were, but are instead run by professional managers who seek to maximize shareholder value. These companies are less likely to back controversial independent films that may not find a wide audience in favor of the next blockbuster, or a film with strong licensing tie-ins (Desjardins 16).
At the same time, the proliferation of cable and satellite television, the rise of videos and DVDs, and the large number of multiplex theaters that have opened around the country have fueled demand for filmed entertainment. Festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival have given independent filmmakers the opportunity to find distributors and to have their films reviewed by a media eager to provide publicity. When an independent project is able to include an actor or director of recognized importance, it can be far more successful than a similar project lacking such a “name,” and more likely to attract financing that will enable the filmmakers to retain creative control over the picture (Fee 681).
There are three factors which have been critical in the development of the filmmaking industry since 1970: the emergence of the blockbuster film, the consolidation of the film industry to include a few corporate giants controlling the majority of the brands, and the emergence of new markets that have a high demand for content. Blockbuster films promised considerable returns, but made investors wary of producing films that were not popular successes. Hollywood had long been characterized by a handful of studios, but during the past 30 years, the large studios became smaller parts of even larger corporate entities whose primary business was not necessarily filmed entertainment. The corporate culture influenced the way that films were created and distributed. New markets provided additional outlets for independent filmmakers, however, as cable, video/DVD, pay-per-view and multiplexes helped fuel strong demand for filmed content.