© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
One of the most powerful forces in world culture, American cinema now has a long and complex history that stretches through more than a century. This history not only includes a legacy of hundreds of important films but also the evolution of the film industry itself, which is in many ways a microcosm of the history of American society as a whole. The time-honored and widely held notion of Hollywood as a “dream factory” encapsulates many of the complexities of this history. Like much great art, American films often have a dreamlike quality, transporting audiences to other worlds (sometimes pleasant, sometimes nightmarish). But these films are expensive commodities, designed and manufactured through the cooperative efforts of numerous individuals, generally under the management and with the financing of large corporate entities whose principal goal is the generation of profits.
American films, then, are almost always produced through a complex series of negotiations between aesthetic aspirations and commercial interests, which often involve conflicts between the talented artists involved in making the films and the studios (and, more recently, the corporate owners of those studios) producing the films. Meanwhile, the relationship between American film and American society is complex as well; from the beginning, many observers have suspected films of having an unsavory effect on their audiences, while others have seen film as a glorious expression of American values. In any case, American films have often reflected important phenomena in the world at large, sometimes exercising an influence on those events.
By the 1920s, the studio system emerged to give corporate structure to the film industry, often treating actors, directors, and other artists simply as marketable commodities to be exploited for maximum profit. In response, artists have long struggled in a variety of ways to gain greater creative control over their work, including the founding of creator-controlled studios such as United Artists and the evolution of a variety of forms of “independent” film. Still, most artists in the film industry remained under the control of the corporate-dominated studio system into the 1950s, bound to specific studios by long-term and highly restrictive contracts. In that decade, however, the original studio system collapsed beneath the weight of federal antitrust laws, the rise of television, and controversies over potential communist infiltration of the film industry. That collapse led to decades of reshuffling in the film industry, though by the early years of the 21st century the situation had somewhat stabilized, with all of the major studios owned by large multimedia conglomerates.
The (sometimes antagonistic) intermingling of art and commerce in the film industry is accompanied by a similarly complex relationship between art and technology. Indeed, the earliest film audiences seemed more interested in the technological novelty of moving pictures than in the actual content of the pictures, though rapid increases in technology for the recording and projection of pictures also meant that the individual films could be made more interesting. Of course, the increasingly high-tech nature of filmmaking also made film production more expensive, even as the increasing popularity of film made the business more lucrative. Thus, from the beginning, the relationship between art and technology in film was closely connected to the relationship between art and commerce. Technology has often had a major impact on the business of filmmaking, as when the new sound film technologies pioneered by Warner Bros. in the late 1920s made the small, struggling studio a major Hollywood power. Indeed, the coming of sound film at the end of the 1920s provided probably the single greatest watershed in American film history, though subsequent developments in color film technologies, wide-screen processes, and (eventually) computergenerated effects (including three-dimensional ones) were crucial to the history of American film as well.
The complexities of the American film business are easily matched by the complexity and variety of the films themselves. American films can be funny or sad, comforting or thought-provoking. They often provide cheery, feel-good entertainment, and they can transport audiences to idealized versions of their own world or to different worlds entirely. Yet they also often provide trenchant commentary on very real social and political issues. While the best-known films today tend to be megabudget spectacles driven by expensive computer-generated special effects, many of the best films are smaller efforts, earnest and thoughtful. While certain genres (such as fantasy and science fiction) have tended to dominate at the box office in recent decades, American films can be of any genre and can tackle virtually any subject matter. There is, in the films themselves, ample reason for both the praise and the criticism that have been aimed at the American film industry over the decades
THE EMERGENCE OF AMERICAN CINEMA
Forms of projected images (some of them even with limited movement) go back to the magic lantern shows of the 18th century. But what we think of as the cinema begins in the late 19th century with the development of new techniques for recording and displaying moving images via film. The American film industry, now the most powerful and influential in the world, was also one of the earliest, with the company headed by Thomas Edison leading the way with the introduction of kinetoscope “peep shows” in 1891. In the 1890s, French filmmakers were at the forefront of the development of motion picture technology and technique, with the Lumière brothers (Auguste and Louis) pioneering the use of realistic photography and magician Georges Méliès developing a number of “trick” techniques that were the forerunners of modern special effects. In 1893, the Edison Company introduced the Vitascope projection camera (invented by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins, but widely attributed to Edison, largely for marketing purposes), used to exhibit large-screen motion pictures by early 1896; it was quickly followed by former Edison employee W. K. L. Dickson’s Biograph projector in the fall of 1896.
For Edison and other early film companies, the technology that allowed for the display of moving images was regarded as their central product, while films themselves merely provided material for the demonstration of that technology. As a result, the same companies that were involved in the early development of filmmaking technologies were also involved in the production of films, though these early films were typically brief, displaying little in the way of plot or inventiveness (with the exception of the “trick” films of Méliès, which were quickly imitated by Edison and others). In 1903, however, the Edison Company released Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which introduced greater narrative richness and pointed the way for the more complex films that followed. Meanwhile, by this time the technology for recording and exhibition of films was becoming mature enough that more attention was being paid to the films themselves.
AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE SILENT FILM ERA
After the success of The Great Train Robbery,narrative soon became the dominant mode, and genres such as the Western quickly evolved and developed a following. Most films remained short, however, and companies such Biograph, with director D. W. Griffith leading the way, cranked out dozens of films (many now lost) per year. Other stars, such as Charles Chaplin, emerged during this early period as well. Then, in 1915, Griffith released The Birth of a Nation through his own company. This three-hour epic proved the potential of feature-length films, which became the dominant mode by the 1920s.
During that decade, Soviet and German filmmakers were widely regarded as the world leaders in cinematic artistry, but the Hollywood studios were already at the economic forefront of the film industry, and they began to use their economic strength to import European directors in a quest for greater legitimacy, especially among the middle and upper classes, who often looked upon filmgoing as an unsavory activity engaged in primarily by workingclass (and often immigrant) viewers. Numerous American silent films of the 1920s are still regarded as classics, including dramas such as King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928) and F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). The decade was also a key one for silent film comedy, with Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd emerging as major stars.
THE COMING OF SOUND AND HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE
Though Chaplin’s most highly respected film, City Lights, was released in 1931,the silent film era was by this time essentially at an end due to the rapid rise of “talkies” after the breakout success of The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson in 1927. This film allowed the upstart Warner Bros. to make a successful bid to become a major studio by being on the forefront of new technology for the production of integrated sound and picture. This technology quickly caught on and swept the industry, taking the film industry into the sound era with Hollywood now at the forefront of world cinema, a position the American film industry has yet to relinquish. In fact, Hollywood’s dominance was extended and solidified during the 1930s, as the studio system for film production was fully established and the “Hollywood style” became fully developed. This style involved what came to be known as “invisible editing,” which sought to make technical factors such as camera placement and movement and cuts between scenes as unnoticeable as possible, encouraging audiences to focus on characters and narrative and to ignore the status of a film as a crafted artifact.
American film in the 1930s, of course, was dominated by the looming reality of the Depression, as can be seen in such classic statements as Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), which also addresses the potential threat to film art of the coming of sound, including the famous shot of the Tramp caught in the gears of factory machinery, looking like film going through a projector. Studios such as Warner Bros. led the way in developing gritty, realistic dramas such as gangster films and “social problem” dramas that addressed the hardships of life in the Depression, while documentary film, which addressed the Depression even more directly, also enjoyed an unprecedented prominence. On the other hand, such films of the early 1930s brought protests from some circles with regard to their content, leading to the implementation, by 1934, of the Motion Picture Production Code, which seriously limited the kinds of materials (especially related to crime and sex) that could be featured in American films for the next three decades.
Other fare of the 1930s was lighter, as studios such as MGM had great success during the decade with lavish escapist spectacles, especially musicals, designed to take audiences away from the reality of the Depression, if only for a short while. The Depression also contributed to the rise of particular forms of comedy that provided another sort of escape from conditions during the Depression. For example, the anarchic films of the Marx Brothers, perhaps best represented by the 1933 Duck Soup, can only be understood in relation to their Depression setting. Meanwhile, 1930s film comedy is probably best remembered for the rise of the so-called screwball comedy, in which a sequence of mishaps and misunderstandings complicates a budding romance (often between members of different classes), only to be resolved in the end.
The mid-1930s were marked by advances in color film technology, especially via the three-strip Technicolor process. In 1937, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved the viability of animated feature films as well as demonstrating the potential of color films. The 1930s then ended with a particularly successful year in 1939, with the release of such films as the romantic historical epic Gone with the Wind and the musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz, both of which would go on to become among the most admired films in American history.The Hollywood style remained dominant through the 1940s, as the major studios became more and more entrenched as the industry’s trendsetters. Meanwhile, film itself became ever more firmly situated as a crucial element of American popular culture, while movie stars, actively promoted by the studios as a branding and marketing tool, became some of the best-known individuals in the world. Most of the leading films of the 1940s epitomized the Hollywood style, as in the case of Casablanca (1942), sometimes regarded as the quintessential example of the style. On the other hand, the most highly regarded films of the decade (and, in many circles, of all time) was Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), a film that achieves its effects largely by violation of the conventions of the Hollywood style (with an overtly constructed nonlinear plot, intrusive camera angles, mixtures of genres, and so on).
The first half of the 1940s, of course, was dominated by World War II, which affected Hollywood in a number of ways, including the fact that numerous prominent figures within the film industry served actively in the military during the war, effectively putting their film careers on hold. Films themselves, meanwhile, often addressed the reality of the war, as pro-war, anti-Nazi, and even pro-Soviet films came to the fore, initiated even before the U.S. entry into the war by the 1940 release of Chaplin’s anti-Hitler satire The Great Dictator.
The war years also saw the rise of the phenomenon that would come to be known as “film noir,” though the genre would not be identified as such until after the war when French critics, without access to American films during most of the war, were surprised to find the new, dark, stylish, and gritty films about crime and corruption that had appeared in the United States during the war. Films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) employed low-key lighting and moody black-and-white photography reminiscent of the German expressionist films of the 1920s to produce atmospheric effects that reinforced their dark subject matter and helped to inspire an extensive cycle of such films over the first postwar decade.
THE 1950S AND THE END OF THE GOLDEN AGE
As the film industry sought to move forward after the end of the war—and directly responded to postwar social realities in such films as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—the industry was sent reeling when hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in October 1947 suggested (though with little real evidence) extensive communist influence in the film industry. The industry was then thrown into further turmoil when a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the industry in the Paramount Antitrust Case forced the major Hollywood studios to divest themselves of their selfowned chains of movie theaters over the next several years. In the meantime, the industry responded to charges of communist influence by establishing an extensive blacklist of individuals with suspected political leanings, making it impossible for hundreds of screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors to work in Hollywood film until the blacklist finally fell apart in the early 1960s.
The American film industry experienced additional pressures when television began its meteoric rise as a force within American culture in the early 1950s. The industry responded by attempting to produce lavish, full-color, wide-screen spectacles (such as biblical epics), employing technologies that could create viewing experiences unavailable on television. It also gradually began to introduce subject matter that might be deemed unacceptable on television, though the combination of the Production Code and the repressive political climate of the 1950s placed severe limitations on how far film could go in this sense. Meanwhile, films by “prestige” directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, gained a new importance, marketed as material of a quality far beyond what could be found on television—though by 1955 Hitchcock was hosting his own weekly anthology series on television, indicating the gradual merger of the two industries, as Hollywood film studios, strapped for cash, began to produce more and more programming for the rival medium.
The decline of the Golden Age studio system also opened up opportunities in the 1950s for smaller, independent studios, which often sought niche audiences through the production of genre films, especially science fiction and the Western. By the late 1950s, an unprecedented emphasis, especially among lower-budget films, was being placed on teenage audiences, with the notion that such viewers would attend films as a social or dating experience that could not be attained from watching television. Many of these films were poorly and quickly made, especially given the sense that teens were coming to movies for the social experience, with relatively little regard for the actual content of the films. Still, some of the landmark films of the decade, such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause (1955), were teen-oriented films, while others among the decade’s finest films were genre films, such as the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Westerns such as High Noon (1952) and The Searchers (1956).
THE 1960S AND THE 1970S:
THE COMING OF THE NEW HOLLYWOOD
The 1960s continued the decline of the old studio system as the film industry went through a number of corporate reshufflings, meanwhile still seeking to redefine its product as something that could compete with television. Most of the decade was marked by diversity and variety, including a new air of open-mindedness that was signaled by the breaking of the blacklist, beginning with Spartacus (1960), based on a novel by the leftist novelist Howard Fast and scripted by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Meanwhile, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) showed a new willingness on the part of Hollywood directors to borrow techniques from French and other international films. By the latter years of the 1960s, the political activism of the decade was reflected in an increasing emphasis on films containing social and political commentary, such as Mike Nichols’s The Graduate or Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (both released in 1967). The film industry then took some important turns at the end of the decade as films such as the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) challenged the usual conventions of genre films, while the surprise success of Easy Rider (1969) indicated the economic viability of films made from the point of view of the 1960s counterculture.
Such films took the industry into the 1970s in a mood that was highly receptive to innovation, just as most of the leading directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age were ending their careers and a whole new generation of filmmakers, educated in film schools, moved to the forefront of the industry in the phenomenon that came to be known as the New Hollywood. These intensely self-conscious directors produced a number of notable films, making the decade, in the minds of many, the richest in Hollywood history.
New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s continued to challenge the conventions of established genres, as in Robert Altman’s update of the war film in MASH (1970). One important genre revision came with films such as Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), which revived the film noir with new energies and triggered a new cycle of “neonoir” films, including such important films of the 1980s as Body Heat (1981) and Blade Runner (1982). The New Hollywood also produced important works of social commentary, such as Altman’s exploration of the violent tendencies in American society (via an excursion into the country music industry) in Nashville (1975). The most important of such films, however, were those that commented on the recent American experience in Vietnam, including Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) linked the legacy of Vietnam to the contemporary violence in American society.
The horror genre experienced its own New Era in parallel with the mainstream New Hollywood films, beginning with the success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. The 1970s are now widely regarded as a sort of Golden Age for American horror, with a wide variety of films appearing in the decade. The Exorcist was a shocking demonic possession film that took full advantage of the demise of the Production Code to become, at the time, the highest-grossing horror film of all time. Two years later, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, a much glossier horror film, grossed even more.The low-budget films of Larry Cohen, such as It’s Alive (1974), also broke new ground in graphic imagery, while occupying the other end of the financial spectrum. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) became the founding work of the slasher-film craze that came to dominate American horror in the 1980s, producing a number of low-quality shockers that essentially brought the New Hollywood era in horror to and end, though Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) was an additional masterpiece of the genre.
Francis Ford Coppola breathed new life into the gangster film genre with what might be its two greatest works as well as the two most important works of the New Hollywood, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974). These films were also huge commercial successes that indicated the growing importance of blockbusters to the business plans of the major studios, a trend that was continued with the huge success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977), which initiated a Golden Age of American science fiction film, though one could argue that the science fictional branch of the New Hollywood began in 1968, with the release of Planet of the Apes and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released shortly after Star Wars, continued the momentum of that film, triggering a major renaissance in science fiction film that lasted into the mid-1980s. On the other hand, many felt that the new emphasis on special effects in such films was ultimately detrimental to the production of genuinely thoughtful works of science fiction cinema, just as the emphasis on production of blockbusters that marked the end of the 1970s was ultimately detrimental to the production of fine works of cinematic art in general.
THE 1980S AND 1990S
The key films of the 1980s included such early blockbusters as Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which triggered a succession of successful sequels, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), which contributed to the ongoing science fiction renaissance, a phenomenon that would soon include such films as the first two Star Trek sequels and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986). One of the classic films of the 1980s was Tootsie (1982), a role-reversal film that responded to changing attitudes toward gender in American society. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War films of the 1970s were followed by such works as Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), while the gangster film cycle triggered by The Godfather continued with Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983).
Scorsese also started out the decade on a high note, with Raging Bull (1980), perhaps now his most admired film. Still, the early 1980s began with the apparent exhaustion of the New Hollywood in the commercial failure of films such as Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), and the decade as a whole was marked by financial instability among many of the major studios and a general decline in the number of truly remarkable films relative to the 1970s. On the other hand, films such as Stone’s Wall Street (1987) provided important commentary on the social and economic climate of the Reagan years, while new independent filmmakers such as John Sayles—with Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988)—showed that important, politically engaged films could be made outside the mainstream Hollywood system.
The 1980s ended on a positive note, as 1989 saw the release of such films as Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), another important science fiction film, while Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) signaled the emergence of a major new African American filmmaker. That same year, Tim Burton’s Batman revived the superhero movie and put its director on the road to stardom. Disney’s return to success in animated films for children began with The Little Mermaid (1989), triggering a Disney renaissance that was one of the crucial phenomena in American film of the 1990s. Such positive signs at the end of the 1980s foreshadowed a rich and varied decade in the 1990s, which saw continued growth in the success of children’s film (buoyed by the emergence of computer-animated films), an explosive expansion of the independent film industry, and the continued strength of individual blockbusters, such as Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which went on, at the time, to become the top-grossing film of all time.
Both Jurassic Park and Titanic made heavy use of computer-generated special effects, the rapid development of which was one of the crucial driving factors of American film in the 1990s, leading by the end of the decade to such effects-driven science fiction films as The Matrix (1999). One of the most important developments in computer-generated imagery, however, was the evolution of techniques to generate entire animated films by computer, beginning with Toy Story (1995), a film the success of which put the upstart Pixar on the road to becoming the leading player in the children’s film industry, driving Disney (long skeptical of the possibilities of computer animation) and others in that direction as well.
More conventional filmmaking continued apace as well, and major directors from earlier decades continued to produce important works. Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990) was something of a disappointment, but Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) was another important gangster film classic. Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player (1992) was a key film of the early 1990s, while, in addition to Jurassic Park, Spielberg scored major successes with Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). In 1991, Stone’s JFK became one of the most talked-about films of the decade, as did his Natural Born Killers (1994), a critique of violence in American culture that many saw as a glorification of violence in its own right. The latter was based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, who had made an impressive directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992), following with Pulp Fiction (1994), the film that made him a top Hollywood director and helped to fuel the surge in independent film that marked the decade. Other key directors gained prominence in the 1990s as well, include the brother team of Joel and Ethan Coen, who released such films as Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1993), Fargo (1996), and The Big Lebowski (1998) in the decade.
Other highly successful films of the 1990s included such varied fare as the tense thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the Western Unforgiven (1992), the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and the unusual romantic drama Forrest Gump (1994). Meanwhile, the horror genre gained a new level of self-consciousness with such works as Wes Craven’s three Scream films (1996, 1997, 2000), while The Blair Witch Project (1999) pointed toward a coming wave of grittier, low-budget horror films.
AMERICAN FILM IN THE 21ST CENTURY
By the early years of the 21st century, decades of corporate instability in the film industry were coming to an end as large and powerful media conglomerates gained solid control of the major studios. By the end of the first decade of the century, Disney had become the largest of these, while Paramount was a subsidiary of Viacom, Twentieth Century Fox of Newscorp, and Warner Bros. of Time Warner. This development brought a certain economic stability to the industry, while positioning film to take its place among the proliferation of “new media” that marked the new century.
Probably the most important film phenomenon of the early years of the 21st century was the year-by-year release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2001, 2002, and 2003, elaborate adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels made possible by the availability of highly sophisticated computer-generated imagery. The year 2001 also saw the release of the first film adaptation of the Harry Potternovels, beginning a major film franchise that would include the release of eight films in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (with films released in 2003, 2006, and 2007) continued the domination of big-budget effects-driven fantasy films at the box office, usurping the place once held by science fiction, though science fiction would reclaim the box-office crown with Cameron’s Avatar, released at the end of 2009, an environmentalist science fiction epic that went on easily to surpass Titanic as the top-grossing film of all time.
The growing importance of franchises in the new century was part of a tendency, begun in the 1990s, toward more and more sequels to and remakes of earlier successful films, a trend that some saw as indicative of a lack of creative energy or, alternatively, of a greater emphasis on profitability than creativity. Meanwhile, other trends were also viewed by many with alarm, as in the proliferation of grisly, low-budget slasher films such as the Saw sequence, which stretched to seven films from 2004 to 2010. Still, directors such as Tarantino, Burton, and the Coens continued to produce impressive work, while art-director David Lynch moved more into the mainstream with Mulholland Dr. (2001), widely considered to be his finest film. Meanwhile, older directors continued to produce interesting films as well, such as Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006).
Serious films were also produced in response to events such as the 9/11 bombings and the subsequent U.S. “war on terror” and invasion of Iraq. Among the more important of these were Jarhead (2005), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Lions for Lambs (2007), Redacted (2007), Body of Lies (2008), The Hurt Locker (2008, a Best Picture Oscar winner), and The Messenger (2009). Most of these films, however, did not do well at the box office, perhaps because they reflected serious matters with which many filmgoers would prefer not to deal. Other serious, politically engaged films of the century’s first decade sometimes did a bit better, including several featuring actor George Clooney, such as Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Syriana (2005), and Michael Clayton (2007), the first of which he also directed.
Though the Disney renaissance of the 1990s had cooled, children’s animated films continued to score big at the box office, with Pixar (acquired by Disney in 2006) leading the way with such films as Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and WALL-E (2008), while DreamWorks scored big with its Shrek sequence (four films from 2001 to 2010), and Fox/Blue Sky Studios had major hits with the Ice Age films (released in 2002, 2006, and 2009). By the end of the decade, all major animated children’s films were being released via newly developed digital 3D processes, representing a major change in film-viewing technologies. One of these new 3D films was Burton’s 2010 remake of Disney’s classic Alice in Wonderland, which employed a combination of live actors and computer animation to become the top-grossing children’s film of all time, only to be surpassed a few months later by the 3-D feature Toy Story 3.
The new 3D revolution, employing digital technologies far superior to the original 3D processes of the 1950s, moved well beyond children’s film with such works as Avatar. New digital technologies were beginning to have large impacts on other aspects of 21st-century American film as well, as films of all kinds were increasingly being shot in digital video instead of on film. Film distributors were also increasingly mulling the potential of beaming films digitally from satellites to theaters, rather than distributing conventional reels of film. All in all, given the decline of the American economy in the first decade of the new century, the U.S. film industry was doing well indeed—and looking forward to a bright future in which a climate of technological change would offer both challenges and opportunities.
THE 2010S: A NEW AGE OF BLOCKBUSTERS
One of the key developments of the 2010s was the increasing globalization of the film industry in the decade. While national cinemas continue to maintain an individual character, more and more individuals and organizations are now crossing national boundaries, and more and more films are international co-productions, rather than the product of any one national cinema. Because of the immense global popularity of American films, the American film industry is becoming especially international in nature, and it is becoming more and more common for American films—especially large blockbusters—to make more money at the box office outside the U.S. than inside.
Otherwise, the 2010s were a complex decade for the American film industry. A-list established directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and the Coen Brothers had extremely productive decades, even though Scorsese was 77 years old at the end of the decade. Other established directors—Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater—continued to produce impressive work as well. Women directors still lagged behind, but at least one major new woman director, Greta Gerwig, emerged at the end of the decade, scoring major successes with Lady Bug (2017) and Little Women (2019). And yet, Academy Awards for Best Director were dominated by international directors. In fact, no American-born director won that award until Damien Chazelle, for La La Land (2016). In contrast, Mexican directors won a total of five such Oscars in the decade, though all five (two each for Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu and one for Guillermo del Toro) were for U.S.-produced films.
Box office was also big news in the 2010s. Prior to the huge success of Avatar in 2009, billion-dollar-grossing films were a rarity. Avatar, in fact, was only the fifth film to reach that level. One of the great phenomena of the following decade was the rise of such mega-blockbusters, so that it is now common for four or five films in one year to reach the billion-dollar plateau. This phenomenon ws particularly propelled by the rise of hugely popular, effects-driven comic book adaptations, with the 22 films of the intial cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) becoming the most successful film franchise of all time. Indeed, the 22nd film of that sequence, Avengers: Endgame, finally supplanted Avatar as the top-grossing film of all time.
The MCU films contain a great deal of science fiction content. The 2010s also saw big box-office business for more conventional science fiction films, with a number of blockbusters appearing in the decade. Films from the Star Trek, Alien, and Terminator franchises all appeared during this decade, though the much-maligned Transformers films did better commercially than any of these. Giant monster movies also made something of a comeback in the deace, though the biggest commercial hits in 2010s science fiction were the films of the third trilogy of the Star Wars franchise, which had—like the MCU films and Marvel Comics itself—been acquired by Disney, contributing to the growing dominance of Disney as a commercial force within the American film industry.
The 2010s also turned out to be something of a second Golden Age in American horror film, which was, in many ways, even richer—commercially and aesthetically—than it had been in the 1970s. While remakes and extensions of earlier franchises continued to appear, the most important phenomenon of the decade was th appearance of a number of strikingly original horror films, mostly from emerging directors—such as Robert Eggers (The Witch and The Lighthouse), Jordan Peele (Get Out and Us), and Ari Aster (Hereditary and Midsommar)—who made films with strong links to the horror-film past that nevertheless broke important new ground in intellectual depth and aesthetic complexity. Such films led to extensive use of terms such as “elevated horror” and “smart horror,” though many felt that such terms were too dismissive of the quality and complexity of earlier horror films. Women directors also made significant inroads into horror film in the 2010s, with directors such as Karyn Kusama, Leigh Janiak, Ana Lilly Amanpour, and Anna Biller producing substantial new works of horror.
In addition to the computer-generated imagery that propelled the comic book and science fiction blockbusters of the 2010s, other technogical developments were also crucial to the evolution of American film in the decade. For one thing, filming in digital video (and digital projection in theaters) became the dominant practice in American “film,” with actual film becoming relatively rare. Films also became much more easily available for home (or even on-the-go) viewing, largely due to advances in streaming video, which made virtually every extant film available in one form or another, with the large digital streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video dominating the rise of streaming video by making huge on-line libraries available to their customers. By the end of the 2010s, in fact, streaming video had become the hot topic in discussions of the future of the American film industry, ranging from concerns by some (including Spielberg) that these platforms were a threat to the very existence of movie theaters, to the rise of a number of other streaming platforms (from heavyweights such as Disney and Apple, among others). Indeed, the biggest phenomenon in American film at the beginning of the 2020s is the so-called “streaming wars” as these various platforms compete for both content and customers. Meanwhile, the globalization of Netflix in 2016 signaled the way in which these streaming platforms are likely to contribute to the globalization of the film industry in the future, with audiences all over the world having easy access to virtually the same content.
The most important outside event in terms of its impact on the film industry was the worldwide outbreak of a Coronavirus Pandemic that, by April of 2020, was shutting down film production and closing film theaters in the U.S. and elsewhere. As a result, streaming video services gained even more traction, as audiences, sheltering at home, were able to have vast amounts of cinematic entertainment streamed directly into their homes. A number of recently released films shifted directly to streaming video, while others, primed for theatrical release, were released on streaming video instead. Other films, such as Christopher Nolan’s megabudget spy thriller Tenet, simply had their theatrical release delayed in the hope that conditions would improve. The eventual release of Tenet at the end of August brought in substantial box-office income, though its relatively limited success made it clear that theaters were a long way from making a full comeback.