William Friedkin, the director of classic films such as The French Connection, The Exorcist, and To Live and Die in L.A., is one of many onlookers that sees the current Hollywood landscape as unsustainable. To him, the rise of scripted television is not necessarily a case of the television medium catching up with film, but of television pushing for the tried-and-true method of smart storytelling while Hollywood filmmaking hurdles toward increasingly spectacle.
Friedkin is especially critical of superhero movies, which he believes will eventually be Hollywood’s undoing. “In cinema, that is the assumption: You just want to see guys flying around with Spandex suit and a cape and a mask, solving crime everywhere,” Friedkin told THR. “This is 80 percent of American cinema … to me, much of it is like opium for the eyes. It does not go into your brain or make you think about it later.” However, he noted that, “cable television programs in America is what people talk about the next day, week, and on and on.”
Friedkin is not the first major figure to bemoan the current state of cinema, and he won’t be the last. That’s because 2014 has seen a 20 percent decline in the summer box office year-over-year, stirring many onlookers to see this as the breaking point for Hollywood’s tentpole model. So far this year, the box office has earned $5.89 billion giving Hollywood a little over five months to match last year’s $10.92 billion.
Even five years ago, the current state of Hollywood would have seemed ripe for a pendulum shift back to original, auteur-driven filmmaking — something that may not be assured this time around, which we’ll get to later. In fact, the 1970s era of studio filmmaking, dubbed the New Hollywood era, bears striking similarities to where the industry finds itself today.
New Hollywood, or post-classical Hollywood, roughly refers to the period of time from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when a new generation of young filmmakers exploded onto the scene, many of whom where educated in film school and were well-versed in film history. The most prominent filmmakers of this generation included Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese — all filmmakers who injected much-needed energy into a Hollywood that was still slowly evolving from the clean, classical studio-style that had existed for decades before.
So using the New Hollywood era as a reference model, the modern version of “classical Hollywood” could be defined as the modern blockbuster. Sure, some blockbusters still deserve their place in cinemas, just as classical-style Hollywood films still continued to hit theaters in the 1970s, but there’s no doubt that the modern blockbuster has become this era’s version of the Hollywood’s go-to. So are we heading towards a “post-blockbuster” era? Some might say we’re already getting there.
As mentioned earlier, even five years ago might have seen a movement very similar to what we saw in the late 1960s with the New Hollywood era, but there’s a huge difference now: television. We’re already seeing major creative figures leave film for TV — Steven Soderbergh famously retired from film and immediately went to work in television — and it’s TV, not film, that now holds the crown for intelligent storytelling. “Television today is better than cinema; it’s deeper and more complex and it is for adults,” says Friedkin.
So the question remains: what does all of this mean for Hollywood? Well, chances are that Hollywood will undergo huge changes in the near future, but ebbs and flows have and will always be a part of Hollywood. There’s little doubt that the tentpole model can’t go on forever (unless Hollywood finds a way to conquer the rest of the world) and chances are likely that a mini New Hollywood era would at least gain prominence in its wake. But it’s also much harder to speculate on what Hollywood has in store because of the rise of television and the still-unknown future of technology and distribution. One thing’s for sure: the history of Hollywood has shown us that smart, original storytelling eventually makes it to the top even when nothing looks ready to change.