Paul’s post “Science in the Ghetto” got me thinking about the infantilizing of Hollywood movies. I wanted to see if reality matches my impression (which is that Hollywood films these days are less oriented toward adult audiences), so I gathered the lists of the top-ten grossing English-language films for each year of the 1970s and the 2000s. Let’s compare.
I took this data from the Wikipedia (I know, I know), but it seemed easiest. Apologies also for how klugey this data-display is—but I think we’ll get the general idea. Also, * = after theatrical re-issue(s). Forgive me not linking to the IMDb for every film, but while I have near-infinite time, I don’t have infinite time. Along the same lines, I left out the actual box-office totals, because unless I win a research grant, there’s no way in hell I am adjusting that for inflation. Suffice to say, these were the movies that most people were going to see:
|Love Story||Fiddler on the Roof||The Godfather||The Exorcist||The Towering Inferno|
|Airport||The French Connection||The Poseidon Adventure||The Sting||Blazing Saddles|
|MASH||Summer of ’42||Cabaret||American Graffiti||Young Frankenstein|
|Patton||Diamonds Are Forever||Deliverance||Enter the Dragon||Earthquake|
|The Aristocats*||Dirty Harry||What’s Up, Doc?||Papillon||Chinatown|
|Woodstock||Carnal Knowledge||Jeremiah Johnson||The Way We Were||The Godfather Part II|
|Little Big Man||A Clockwork Orange||The Getaway||Magnum Force||Airport|
|Ryan’s Daughter||Klute||Lady Sings the Blues||Robin Hood*||The Great Gatsby|
|Tora! Tora! Tora!||The Last Picture Show||Everything You Always Wanted to Know…||Last Tango in Paris||The Man with the Golden Gun|
|Catch-22||Bedknobs and Broomsticks*||Sounder||Paper Moon||Murder on the Orient Express|
|Jaws||Rocky||Star Wars*||Grease||Kramer vs. Kramer|
|The Rocky Horror Picture Show*||A Star is Born||Close Encounters of the Third Kind*||Superman||Rocky II|
|One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest||All the President’s Men||The Rescuers*||Animal House||Apocalypse Now|
|Dog Day Afternoon||The Omen||Saturday Night Fever||Every Which Way But Loose||Star Trek: The Motion Picture|
|Shampoo||King Kong||The Goodbye Girl||Heaven Can Wait||Alien|
|Tommy||Silver Streak||Annie Hall||Jaws 2||10|
|Three Days of the Condor||The Enforcer||The Deep||Coming Home||The Jerk|
|Funny Lady||Carrie||Smokey and the Bandit*||Halloween||Moonraker|
|Nashville||Family Plot||The Spy Who Loved Me||Hooper||The Muppet Movie|
|The Day of the Locust||Marathon Man||Julia||California Suite||The China Syndrome|
|Mission: Impossible II||Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers||The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King||Shrek 2|
|Gladiator||The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring||Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets||Finding Nemo||Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban|
|Cast Away||Monsters, Inc.||Spider-Man||The Matrix Reloaded||Spider-Man 2|
|What Women Want||Shrek||Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones||Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl||The Incredibles|
|Dinosaur||Ocean’s Eleven||Men in Black II||Bruce Almighty||The Passion of the Christ|
|How the Grinch Stole Christmas||Pearl Harbor||Die Another Day||The Last Samurai||The Day After Tomorrow|
|Meet the Parents||The Mummy Returns||Signs||Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines||Meet the Fockers|
|The Perfect Storm||Jurassic Park III||Ice Age||The Matrix Revolutions||Troy|
|X-Men||Planet of the Apes||My Big Fat Greek Wedding||X2||Shark Tale|
|What Lies Beneath||Hannibal||Minority Report||Bad Boys II||Ocean’s Twelve|
|Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire||Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest||Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End||The Dark Knight||Avatar|
|Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith||The Da Vinci Code||Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix||Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull||Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince|
|The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe||Ice Age: The Meltdown||Spider-Man 3||Kung Fu Panda||Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs|
|War of the Worlds||Casino Royale||Shrek the Third||Hancock||Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen|
|King Kong||Night at the Museum||Transformers||Mamma Mia!||2012|
|Madagascar||Cars||Ratatouille||Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa||Up|
|Mr. & Mrs. Smith||X-Men: The Last Stand||I Am Legend||Quantum of Solace||The Twilight Saga: New Moon|
|Charlie and the Chocolate Factory||Mission: Impossible III||The Simpsons Movie||Iron Man||Sherlock Holmes|
|Batman Begins||Superman Returns||National Treasure: Book of Secrets||WALL-E||Angels & Demons|
|Hitch||Happy Feet||300||The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian||The Hangover|
I think the data speaks for itself (and confirms my suspicions), but let’s look at it more closely. What broad claims can we make about it?
1. In the 2000s, fewer of the top-grossing films were aimed toward adult audiences than in the 1970s. Looking at the past decade’s top films, I count only seven R-rated movies—Bad Boys II, Gladiator, The Hangover, Hannibal, The Last Samurai, The Passion of the Christ, and 300. We might also include What Women Want, since it’s primarily pitched toward adults, and Hancock, which was originally rated R, but was edited for a PG-13.
So, 9 of the top 100 grossing films intended primarily for adult audiences.
That’s opposed to the 1970s, when 42 of the top 100 grossing films were rated R: Love Story, The Godfather, The Exorcist, The French Connection, Blazing Saddles, MASH, Summer of ’42, Deliverance, Enter the Dragon, Dirty Harry, Chinatown, Woodstock, Carnal Knowledge, The Godfather Part II, A Clockwork Orange, The Getaway, Magnum Force, Ryan’s Daughter, Klute, Lady Sings the Blues, The Last Picture Show, Everything You Always Wanted to Know…, Last Tango in Paris, Catch-22, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, A Star is Born, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Animal House, Apocalypse Now, Dog Day Afternoon, The Omen, Shampoo, Alien, 10, Three Days of the Condor, The Enforcer, Coming Home, The Jerk, Carrie, Halloween, Nashville, The Day of the Locust, and Marathon Man. To which I think we can also add the PG-rated Annie Hall, which is obviously more an adult’s film than a kid’s film. (We might also consider some of the other PG films—such as the Neil Simon adaptations The Goodbye Girl and California Suite—more for adults than for kids, even though I’m not doing so here.)
Now, of course the creation of the PG-13 rating plays a major role in why so few of today’s top-grossing films aren’t rated R. But that’s exactly my point: Hollywood obviously created that rating in the early 1980s (after controversy surrounding Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins) so it could make what once would have been R-rated films, shooting and editing them so they’d be appropriate for younger audiences, then release them to greater box offices. The result has been fewer adult-oriented films.
2. There are also more films geared primarily toward kids in the top 2000s list: The Harry Potter films, the Shrek films, the Pixar films, Dinosaur, that abominable Grinch thing, The Mummy Returns, the Ice Age movies, Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda, Night at the Museum, Happy Feet. Contrast that with the 1970s, where you have basically Robin Hood, Bedknobs and Broomksticks, The Aristocats, and The Muppet Movie.
3. In the 2000s, more of the top-grossing films were parts of ongoing franchises: 60 by my count—and that’s not counting Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, 300, or The Hangover, all of which are guaranteed to become franchises. That’s compared with 28 in the the 1970s—a number that skews high due to the fact that I counted any film that eventually spawned a sequel, including The French Connection, The Poseidon Adventure, American Graffiti—even Carrie. Note also that most of those 1970s franchise films—Airport, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, Rocky, Star Wars, Superman, Dirty Harry, Alien, Halloween, The Omen—are the beginnings of their respective franchises. It’s always been true in Hollywood that any successful film is ripe material for a sequel, but today studios tend to design more of their films from the start as ongoing franchises.
…So, according to this data, what many critics say rings true: starting in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Hollywood gradually switched its production model toward creating franchises that appeal to the largest possible audiences. (See also my recent obituary for Arthur Penn, a brief analysis of his 1975 film Night Moves.)
A major result of this, I’d argue, has been not only an infantalizing, but a homogenizing of mainstream Hollywood films. Looking through that list of 2000s films, it seems to me that most of them are generic CGI-laden action movies. In contrast, one finds a far greater diversity in the 1970s lists—which, to be fair, contain plenty of action schlock. But it isn’t entirely action schlock.
I would also argue that Hollywood’s strategizing has had a broader effect on the culture at large. Cinema (and television) have been the dominant artistic media in our culture for the past seventy years or so, and any trend in those media is necessarily going to have an impact on all other media. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the same infantilization has been occurring in literature, comics, theater, music—even the visual arts.
…For a somewhat different perspective on 1970s and 1980s cinema, I’d recommend this essay by David Bordwell. I actually agree with his arguments, none of which I think directly contradict anything I’ve presented here. As I noted above, there was plenty of schlock in the 1970s. And since the 1970s, there have been many great 1980s Hollywood films, both major and minor, all the way through until today. But I do think there has been a shift in the films we see being made—in their content and structure—and that has been driven by which films have consistently been the most successful. Hollywood has always been a business.
Also, while I’ve tried to stay away from qualitative judgments in this post, because people will like what they like, and it often takes time to see how great something really is, I do think it’s worth noting that there are fewer great films on the 2000s list than there are on the 1970s list. Or, put another way, even though I enjoy many of the films on the 2000s lists, and think that some of them are wonderful films (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I’ve argued is Generation Y’s Time Bandits), I don’t see anything that strikes me as the equal of Chinatown or Last Tango in Paris or Nashville or The Last Picture Show or Annie Hall.
Which is to say, I guess, that film artists could get away with a lot more, and still be commercially successful, in the 1970s—hence Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, John Boorman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Carpenter, Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Donner, William Friedkin, Mike Nichols, others. Even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are very stylized artists, in their own ways. (I think American Graffiti and Jaws and Star Wars all terrific films.) The only comparable 2000s directors I see represented on the above lists are Alfonso Cuarón, Ridley Scott (more of a great 80s director, I suppose), Steven Soderbergh, some of the Pixar folk…and arguably Mel Gibson and the Wachowskis (who are certainly…idiosyncratic, if nothing else). But time will of course tell…
Again, that isn’t to say there aren’t great, highly artistic Hollywood films now—but that they don’t seem to be as popular with mainstream audiences as they were in the 1970s… (It seems to me they’ve been crowded out by the franchises.)