Post-WWII, the film industry brought us wholesome family fare (It’s a Wonderful Life) , big-budget spectacles (Ten Commandments), and musicals (The Sound of Music).
In the 60’s an influence from European (Truffaut, Fellini) and Asian (Kurosawa) filmmakers begin infiltrating the cinemas, creating such high-grossing, “edgy” films as Bonnie & Clyde, the Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The big budget failures (Cleopatra) of the 60’s gave way to the “free-thinking” independent films of the 70’s. Starting with Easy Rider, released in 1969, becoming one of the highest grossing films eve.
The studio’s, unable to understand their audience as well as the auteur’s did, gave the power over to the filmmakers, setting the way for movies such as the Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, and Taxi Driver to be made.
However, on the heels of Jaws and Star Wars, the 80’s issued in the Blockbuster! My personal favorite era of cinema, where you could tell how good a film was by how much money it made. (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Towards the end of the 80’s, studio’s started to take the power back away from the filmmakers, with films such as Top Gun – starting, not with a director or screenplay, but with a producer reading a magazine article and saying “this would make a good movie.”
This trend continued into the 90’s as the big budget movies took a nose dive creatively (Armageddon, Godzilla). Studio’s started banking all their money on the huge opening weekends. You could no longer judge the quality of a movie based on box office, you could only judge the hype.
In a response to this, the filmmakers turned to independent film-making and we saw the rise of Miramax, who independently produced many of the biggest, most well-received movies of the 90’s (Pulp Fiction, The English Patient).
Not to be outdone, the studio’s began imitating the Miramax model and created their own mini-studio’s (Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent) to produce small-scale films and further blurred the term “independent.”
Currently, this is where we sit – huge, big budget movies that open to record breaking weekends, but whose quality doesn’t hold up (Spiderman 3, Pirates 3). And “independent” films, produced by specialty divisions of studios, eating up all the critical response and awards. (No Country For Old Men, Juno)
So, what’s coming next?
I think you’ll see a return to “quality blockbusters.” Studio’s are realizing that “making big budget films and banking on the opening weekend box office before the audience can realize they are duds” isn’t a successful model.
And the filmmakers of today grew up on the great blockbusters of the 80’s… You’d be hard pressed to find a filmmaker under 40 who doesn’t count Steven Spielberg as an influence. I think there is a desire to recreate that magic of the Back to the Futures and the Ghostbusters.
Hopefully we’ll see studio’s return power to some of these filmmakers, which if you look at the best movies of the past few years, seems to be the best model for making great, high-quality, successful films. With the movies like Titanic, Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix being filmmaker-driven, not studio driven.