Around this time of year, what with all the Best Of 2021 lists showing up all over the internet, I tend to dwell on how we come to like what we like (and, of course, dislike what we do). Actually, I’ve been mulling that particular question off and on for quite some time. The natural go-to explanation is tastes and sensibilities change over time, from generation to generation, but then I ask, if so, why? What it is that shapes the media mind of a generation?
Some of the recent incidents that have fed my recent thinking on the matter:
Last summer, my oldest – then 22 – walked in on me watching Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) on Turner Classics. It was more out of nostalgia on my part than any kind of appetite for the awful puns, shabby slapstick, and barely adolescent-caliber humor. My daughter stood transfixed, an unpleasant look on her face, then looked from the screen to me. “You’re watching this?”
I explained the nostalgia value of revisiting a flick I’d gone to as a kid.
“You went to the movies to watch this?”
This past fall, I was leafing through Entertainment Weekly’s “Fall TV Preview.” Of the forty-three new scripted shows debuting across the broadcast, cable, and streaming spectrum covered in the issue, by my possibly faulty count about one-third were some kind of sci fi/fantasy/horror/superhero show, and another fourteen were either reboots or spinoffs. These were just new shows, not returns like What We Do in the Shadows, Star Trek: Discovery, The Flash, Stranger Things, ad infinitum — one excursion into the fantastic and/or the revisited after another. I had that same feeling I’ve had standing in the lobby of a megaplex looking at a raft of titles of similar fantastical flavor which were either sequels or spinoffs: an overwhelming desire not to partake.
I suppose the capper crystallizing my thinking – and that perhaps gave me the code key as to the how and why audience sensibilities change – came in a discussion with my younger college-aged daughter just a few weeks ago. I don’t remember how we got on the topic, but I was describing the media universe I grew up in; a considerably smaller universe than what she knew: no cable or satellite TV, no internet, no satellite radio, no DVDs or CDs, no streaming, no home video of any kind, no home computers, no cell phones…
She looked at me, mouth agape: “How did you survive?” And she wasn’t completely joking.
But when she said that, I had my Ah-HA! moment. See, what she didn’t understand – couldn’t understand – was that we hadn’t “survived.” We thought we were having a pretty good time.
It was, I would posit, a representative inter-generational exchange; neither side quite able to comprehend the other’s universe and how in-tune with that particular universe the respective tastes were. That’s why these sorts of exchanges often have the flavor of —
Elder: “They don’t make movies like they used to!”
Younger: “Thank God!”
Yes, times have changed and so have the movies. Look at the Top 20 earning movies of 2021, and 15 are some kind of sequel, reboot, or remake. Look at them by genre, and 15 are some kind of sci-fi/fantasy/horror story. Between those two categories, that covers all 20 titles.
And this isn’t because of how the pandemic has impacted the box office. Look at the year-end tallies for 2019, the year before the pandemic hit, and 17 of the Top 20 earners were sequels/remakes/reboots, and/or something set in the fantastic. For at least the last 20 years, you’ll find similar proportions among the big money-makers year-to-year. Nobody denies the obvious: these things make gobs of money.
But contrast that with what made gobs of money in the 1960s. These are the top ten earners 1961-1970:
The Sound of Music (1965)
Love Story (1970)
The Graduate (1967)
Mary Poppins (1964)
M ⃰A ⃰S ⃰H (1970)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
One sequel – the James Bond flick Thunderball – and not a remake or spinoff to be found. And as far as fantasy and the like goes, you’ve got Mary Poppins and — … Well, that’s it.
Yes, there’s a case to be made that sensibilities can calcify over time, but what shaped them in the first place? Why are they what they are?
Movies (and TV for that matter) have never evolved in a predictable, inevitable fashion; nothing naturally led to the next thing. There’s always been a complicated dynamic between the business, the creative community, audience demographics, entertainment chasing trends in popular culture… It goes on and on, and then, as if the interactions aren’t complicated enough, every so often, some out-of-the-blue variable throws the industry status quo into utter chaos (i.e. Warner Bros. turns to sound in 1927 to rescue their failing company and winds up sparking a revolution in motion pictures).
As for generational sensibilities, well, dig around a bit and one finds they’re not generationally universal. Sometimes where someone is from has as much impact on shaping their tastes as when. I guarantee you that someone of my generation who grew up in Butte, Montana probably shares as little with me in movie likes/dislikes as a Gen Zer living next door to me.
And then there’s those distinct factors unique to each individual. Would Martin Scorsese have become Martin Scorsese if he’d grown up in a Midwestern suburb as a Protestant? Doubtful, very doubtful.
Scholar/author/writer/producer and my first film teacher, Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap:
“I personally am fascinated by how personal memory comes into play in watching old films and in how, with repeated viewings, we go beyond the narrative for little revelations of how people lived or depicted reality. But, though I have an avid historical interest in the films of Melies and the Lumiere brothers, my involvement is different in films from the era in which my parents came of age (now a full century ago), or I myself came of age (sixty or more years ago)…I recently watched Swing Time (1936) on TCM, and aside from the immortal dance routines (even the discomforting Bojangles number), I was really caught up in the ‘social documentary’ aspect of the film. Similarly with Trouble in Paradise (1932), but not with A Lion in Winter (1968) in which I lost all interest very quickly. With A Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), I myself was on the streets of Paris while they were shooting it, and I kept scanning the backgrounds as I watched to see if I’d blundered into a shot!”
Who we are is often shaped in our young years by when and where we are (which often determines what we have access to) and the experiences we live through in that particular when and where. Combined, these all produce a lens through which we judge the movies and television we watch and the music we listen to, at least to some extent, for the rest of our lives.
AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan:
“The music one listened to in their teens is seemingly hard-wired to emotional development. A bit like first love, no other music can replace how it makes one feel. It doesn’t matter if it’s Frank Sinatra, the Four Tops, or ZZ Top.
“The same is true for movies (although emotional connection to film seems a bit more flexible).
“The time in life one experiences music, film, and romance creates a bond that can make comparisons foggy. Bing Crosby, Victor Fleming, and, in my case, Bonnie Finerman in 9th grade geometry, were wonderful. But a comparison to Paul Simon, Stanley Kubrick, and my wife are confused by chemistry.”
With the exception of the four years I attended college in South Carolina, I spent all of my growing up in Newark, New Jersey, or the Newark suburbs; part of what the media trade labels the New York Designated Market Area (DMA) covering New York City and its environs, much of northern New Jersey, and parts of southern Connecticut. There was and is not a larger mass media audience or more media service in the country (or the world, for that matter).
In the pre-cable days when I was growing up, the New York DMA was served by – hold on to your hats! – a whopping six channels of broadcast TV! Six! Few DMAs in the country could match that, most had less, and rural America considerably less (there were areas receiving only two broadcast channels – how did they survive?).
In our area, we had the flagship affiliates for the three networks: ABC, CBS, NBC (in the 1960s, Fox and The CW weren’t even someone’s fantasy yet). We also had three “independent” stations; local broadcasters unaffiliated with any network (there was also a PBS station but until watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus became cool, I never knew anyone to watch it).
The Big Three networks dominated the airwaves, holding over 90% of the viewing audience. Because there were only three channels, there was little on broadcast TV of which a viewer was unaware…even if they didn’t watch it. If you liked to watch Combat! on Tuesdays at 7:30 on ABC, you still knew that airing opposite was Rawhide on CBS and My Mother the Car on NBC.
This gave the national audience a sort of pop culture coherence – a unity – no longer possible. It was truly a mass audience with widely recognized and shared points of reference. If you want to see how that worked, dig around and find the parody flick Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), or The Groove Tube (1974), Tunnel Vision (1976), or Airplane! (1980). All of them riffed on decades of TV and classic movie tropes which they knew their Boomer audience shared en masse. Just the casting of Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! was a pop culture in-joke for Boomers who recognized the three actors were skewering their own 1950s-1960s staunch hero movie personas!
You find a similar strip-mining of decades of pop culture touchstones in the first years of Saturday Night Live, and in that, the show provides a measure of how things changed – of how the audience changed — over time. David Breckman, who would go on to be one of the producers behind the hit cable series Monk, was a writer on SNL in the 1990s. He once told me the writers had been instructed not to reference anything older than three years prior for fear that that generation of the show’s audience “wouldn’t get it.”
The three indies filled a lot of their programming time with old, syndicated TV series, local sports, and old movies the studios had pulled out of their libraries, dusted off and sold in packages with license periods running from 5-20 years (license periods were so long because there were no other aftermarkets; no home video, no cable, etc.). Those packages of oldies were my generation’s education in American cinema history.
Stephen Whitty, one of New Jersey’s premier film critics:
“(The) late baby-boom era generation grew up at a time when all genres were readily accessible on TV. We had fewer choices, but the choices we had couldn’t afford twenty-four hours a day of original programming; hence, tons of old movies. You turned on local TV in the afternoon or late at night, and there were melodramas, musicals, gangster pictures, historical dramas, ‘women’s pictures’ – many of them made long before you were born. It not only opened you up to what kind of stories could be told, it brought you into an adult world.”
Which is how stars who’d been long dead or whose careers were on the wane by the time we were able to turn the channel dial on our own became icons for us: Bogart and the rest of the Warner Bros. gangster stable, Gable, the Marx Brothers, Grant, Crawford, the Universal monsters, Fields, Davis, King Kong and mighty Joe Young, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and so many more. They were as much a part of our media iconography as then rising new bloods like Coburn, Beatty, Christie, McQueen, Dunaway, Eastwood…
And so were the movies: war movies, Westerns, giant bug monster flicks, dubbed Italian Hercules movies, RKO noirs, MGM and RKO musicals…
Because of the way these oldies were programmed, they had a certain — … I’m not sure there is a word for it. See, despite the length of those licenses, these movies would usually only run once or twice a year. Catching a previously unknown pleasure, like Key Largo (1948) or the original The Haunting (1963 – I turned all the lights on in the house for that one), or a brick of aged sci fi cheese like Invaders from Mars (1953), produced the exquisite pain of wondering when – or if – you’d ever be able to see it again.
And so it also was for how the Big Three broadcasters scheduled their regular programming. Today, a series on a major network might turn out 22-24 episodes (seasons for series produced for cable or streaming services are considerably shorter, sometimes as short as 6-8 episodes). What this means for today’s audience is that even a major network series is in reruns for most of the year.
Back in the 1960s, one-hour dramas typically ran for seasons of 30+ episodes. Thirteen weeks over the summer was the traditional rerun season; miss an episode of a favorite show and your only hope of catching it was that it might be one of the handful of eps chosen for a summer rerun. Otherwise, it was one-and-done.
Your only other hope was to catch it (or rewatch a fave) when the show went into syndication, where local broadcasters would “strip” the series, offering it daily. But even then…
The accepted norm was that a series had to run for a minimum of three seasons to be viable for syndication as opposed to today where, with the bottomless appetite for programming among cable and streaming platforms, damned near anything can be licensed for re-airing. Another difference: just because a series was syndicated, didn’t mean it would be sold to your particular market whereas today’s multiplicity of nationally available platforms means anybody can see anything at any time. And, yet another difference: typically, shows were not syndicated until some time after a series had completed its network run, while today, highly popular shows, like Law & Order: SVU or NCIS, are re-broadcast while they still have a life on network TV.
The point is that rarity creates a kind of value; knowing you might not see something you enjoyed again – ever – or that you might have to wait a year for a possible repeat performance, made those moments, even with the most mundane programming, at least a little bit memorable. Throw in that we were watching them at the proverbial “impressionable young age,” and those moments became indelible memories. Amp up the dynamic to theatrical features, and those moments become so treasured they become the baseline against which we measure everything that comes thereafter.
Theatrical releases in that era also operated in the realm of rarity, even more so. Films were rarely released nationally (at that time, that was a tactic to make a quick buck off titles considered prospective losers). Movies were released in major cities first, places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. Afterward, they would cycle down to smaller markets like my Newark neighborhood.
While multiplexes were starting to appear in our area by the time I was in high school, movie-going was still dominated by the neighborhood single-screen movie house. What this meant was that, even as a kid, I didn’t need to be old enough to drive to go to the movies on my own, or even catch a ride since I never lived in a place where a theater – often more than one – wasn’t within walking distance. And since parents in my grade school days didn’t view the world as all that dangerous a place, it wasn’t unusual for a squad of us to go trooping off to the local movie house unsupervised, especially during summer vacations when it was a near-weekly ritual.
Since a child’s ticket at that time was only 50¢ ($8.82 in 2021 dollars) vs. an average 2021 movie ticket price of $9.16 (considerably more in my part of the country; ticket prices in New York City typically run between $15-20), it was a cheap way to spend a Saturday and/or Sunday afternoon (and sometimes it was the whole afternoon because they didn’t clear the auditoriums between shows in those days; I sat through all 172 minutes of The Great Escape  twice on a Saturday, then twice again on Sunday!). My point is, me and my friends from the block went to the movies a lot. We saw everything: all the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies, all the AIP Edgar Allan Poe’s, mellers like Love Had Many Faces (1965) and Fate Is the Hunter (1964), Jerry Lewis slapsticks, war actioners like The Secret Invasion (1964), every damned Japanese monster whoever kicked the hell out of a toy Tokyo, and the occasional biggie like The Great Escape.
Because of that tiered release pattern, movies were not preceded by the massive national publicity blitzes we have now. When we trotted down to the ol’ Elwood Theater, we rarely knew what was going to be playing. Every trip down those few blocks was something of an adventure in that respect.
And, as well as an adventure, something of an event. Ok, it may be strange to think of ninety-odd minutes watching Frankie chasing Annette around the beach as an event flick, but I mean it in this sense; that once that movie left the theater, whether it was a Roger Corman cheapie or some grand scale historical piece like, say The Vikings (1958), there was a chance – and, depending on the movie, a good chance – you’d never see it again.
Remember: the forest of aftermarkets we have today – cable channels, streaming services, DVDs – didn’t exist. If you missed a movie in theaters or wanted to see it again after it was off the theatrical circuit, your only chance was a TV buy.
In the 1960s the Big Three broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC – began buying broadcast rights to theatrical films. By 1970, six nights a week featured a prime time movie slot, often a major feature that was just a few years old. But…
While the license for those titles ran for several years, as was the case with indies and their libraries of oldies, a network might air a given title only once a year, possibly a second time during the summer re-run season.
And then there were movies considered so, um…I guess the word is “special”…that studios wouldn’t sell them to TV. They were considered crown jewels in a studio’s library, trundled out every so many years for a re-release. We’re talking the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – movies that had such a hold on the collective movie-goer consciousness that the re-releases were almost as big a deal as their original openings.
If that rarity could make even something as disposable/dismissable as the latest summer installment in the will they/won’t they romantic dance between Frankie and Annette leave an impression on a young, undiscriminating mind, a sea change was happening in American cinema over the 1960s/1970s which produced movies that burrowed and burned deeply into the collective psyche of the Boomer audience.
To the Boomers, movies had become cool! Peter Biskind, in his wonderful cinema history of the period, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-and-Drugs-and-Rock-’n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, talks about the pop culture ascension of cinema among that generation of moviegoers. They knew the classics from growing up with them on TV, they knew the new generation of rule-breaking filmmakers the way today’s young might know the hippest YouTubers and TikTokers (wow, am I showing my age here?). Cinema programs were blossoming on campuses across the country.
Biskind describes a – to use an overused phrase – perfect storm of circumstances. Movie attendance was at an all-time low, and a new generation of young studios executives was desperate to get the asses of that cinema-literate young audience dominating the shrinking box office back into theater seats. At the execs’ disposal was an influx of new filmmaking talent, often not much older than those young ticket-buyers, and who typically shared the same film heritage; a shared celluloid language.
The “movie brats” that started climbing into directors’ chairs in the 1960s and 1970s had grown up in homes watching the same old movies on TV that we did: Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, DePalma, Lucas… — an army of filmmakers with a mental cinema data bank perfectly in tune with their audience. This gave them a powerful tool to take the genres and tropes we were all familiar with, and expand them, distort them, sometimes deconstruct them. In this they were aided and abetted by an influx of directors from places overseas – Boorman, Polanski, Roeg et al – American rogues who had been far out on Hollywood’s radar, but now saw an opportunity to move to its heart –Aldrich, Siegel et al – and graduates from TV – Frankenheimer, Peckinpah, Friedkin, Lumet, Schaffner et al.
They experimented with form and content, challenged the young audience, tackled subject matter ranging from the controversially topical to the provocatively existential and all of it real-world relevant in what film historians generally consider one of the most creative periods in American commercial cinema. It was the time of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), The Godfather Parts I and II (1972; 1974), The Manchurian Candidate(1962), Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Badlands (1973), In Cold Blood (1967), Marathon Man (1976), Planet of the Apes (1968), All the President’s Men (1976), Network (1976), Klute (1971), Chinatown, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Point Blank (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Hombre (1967), Fritz the Cat (1972), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Little Big Man (1970), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Bullitt (1968), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Straw Dogs (1971), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Deliverance (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1972)… The list goes on. And on. And on.
And because none of this rolled into theaters nationally on a tidal wave of hype and star interviews and behind-the-scenes promo bits, we bought our tickets not quite knowing what we were in for, regularly being surprised, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disturbingly, sometimes along the lines of what-were-they-thinking. But, good and bad, it was often new and unfamiliar.
Every time we bought a movie ticket, it was with the possibility of experiencing a unique adventure; something we’d never seen before…and possibly would never see again.
Ok, I grant that not everyone in my generation as a kid lived within walking distance of a movie house, and certainly there were many parts of the country not treated to as much TV as we were. Still, in broad terms, these were the factors shaping the basic movie sensibilities of the Boomers: growing up on a steady diet of Hollywood oldies, coming of age at a time when mainstream commercial cinema was going through a period of both great creative experimentation as well as social relevance, and where being plugged into moviedom was culturally hip.
I attended college in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia was a college town, hosting several higher education institutions. Being a rather small DMA with only three TV stations, and with little to do except drink beer and go to the movies, Columbia supported a fair number of movie theaters, four on its main drag alone all within walking distance of my campus (five if you count a porn theater…which we won’t).
I got my first taste of differences in regional sensibilities there. There were a number of low-budget actioners aimed squarely at the rural “bubba” market that never made it to the major urban DMAs, and that even on their home ground played for only a week or two. The original Walking Tall (1973) was different; a huge breakout hit. It played at one Columbia downtown theater for an incredible 21 weeks! Then moved to a suburban screen for another 6 weeks. But when I went back to Jersey on vacation and asked friends if they’d heard of it, there was a vague recollection of it playing for just a few weeks and then disappearing.
I had something of a reverse experience when one of Columbia’s downtown theaters ran Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, The Producers (1967) as a midnight show. Me and a friend from Philadelphia, seeing Brooks’ Hitlerian farce for the first time, laughed ourselves hoarse. The rest of the audience, presumably locals? Mute silence.
Like I said before: where can matter as much as when.
And as far as uniquely individual shaping experiences go, that’s when I began seriously studying film, taking basic film appreciation classes as well as classes specializing in French film and sci fi. Some of these movies I’d seen growing up on TV, but now I learned a new way to look at them, to understand what made them work. I was gaining this cinematic “x-ray vision” at the very same time the New Hollywood was giving us new forms and new stories to see with that vision.
Eyes opened wider than they’d ever been before, grounded in decades of classic American cinema, a steady flow of rule-breaking, provocative big screen entertainment… It was a great time to be a young movie geek. Problem is, when the dynamic changed, you found you were ruined for life. Or, as some of us think of it, as having been spoiled.
How the changing media terrain was re-shaping viewing sensibilities was evident over three decades ago.
Award-winning TV writer/producer/director Bill Persky:
“There are so many elements at work today: the countless outlets, the relaxation on sexual matter, the ability to record something on at 9 o’clock because you want to do something else and watch it later. We are literally able to control time.
“I think the element of time is one of the major factors affecting us: the pace of shows, with rapid cutting… I recently watched a television special I did in 1970, one I loved, (but now) the pace bored me, it was tedious, not then but now as my brain has been conditioned to a faster pattern, impatience, and the need for immediate satisfaction is another influence.”
Cable television, as we know it, began in 1972 with the launch of HBO, but the industry exploded in the latter part of the decade when HBO and other channels began telecasting nationally by satellite. By the end of the 1980s, on any given night, more people were watching the ever-expanding spectrum of cable channels than the major broadcast networks.
I was working at HBO then, and we were researching a phenomenon we called “cruising.” Our programmers found that some cable viewers – often young – would bounce endlessly through the channels. We did research trying to figure out what it was they were looking for hoping we could somehow exploit this to funnel them toward our service. What we found was they weren’t looking for anything; this was how they watched TV. They would watch a channel until they grew bored with it and start flicking through channels until something caught their eye, stayed with it until they were bored again, then resumed cruising. It was an entirely new way of watching TV, not based on hooking into narratives or characters, but short-term sensory appeasement.
Keep in mind this was also the decade when MTV launched. Rolled out in 1981, MTV quickly popularized short-form, non-narrative, visually-driven entertainment in the form of music videos. It was such a popular style it was quickly aped by some filmmakers (I still remember reviewers tagging Top Gun  – directed by one-time commercial director Tony Scott – as a 110-minute music video!). Channel cruising reflected that same eyeball-tickling sensibility.
The 1980s also saw the VCR explosion. If cable told people they no longer had to go to theaters to see movies, the VCR went one-step further by destroying the idea of “appointment viewing” – that the viewer was a slave to a programmer’s schedule. The VCR allowed the home viewer to be his/her own programmer.
The late 1990s saw another escalation in hyper-active visual content with advances in videogames. As long ago as the early 2000s, research showed not only a voracious appetite among the young for action-driven interactive videogames, but that games of that type appealed to the same young moviegoing demographic which had become the cornerstone of the movie economy.
The century turned and brought us the internet: an endless sea of content, and for the interested, an equally endless stream of amateur short form video content, from YouTube to TikTok to whatever: hours and hours of minutes-long videos of talking dogs, mischievous cats, goofy pranks, brawls, boobs, babies… Visual cacophony, eye candy without narrative or substance and just as addictive as candy.
“Fast forward is the mindset: stream it, a year of work consumed in an afternoon – NEXT!
“Another factor is the countless ways to watch. No need to be home. It is no longer television, a family or group experience. It’s electronic media and it is everywhere: your computer, phone, pretty soon your toaster – short entertainment until your bagel pops up….To be still or silent is no longer an option.”
Stephen Whitty puts another element into the pot:
“Add to that an audience who, over the last 20 years, have become less literate and more visual, and an industry scared of innovation…”
As a point of comparison, Whitty offers Top Tens 50 years apart:
Fiddler on the Roof
The French Connection
Summer of ’42
Diamonds Are Forever
A Clockwork Orange
The Last Picture Show
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Golden Rings
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
F9: The Fast Saga
No Time to Die
A Quiet Place Part II
“Well, at least Bond is still around. But that first list had a musical, an indie action picture, two smart crime movies, a horror film, and critically-acclaimed serious new work from Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, and Peter Bogdanovich (which would go on to become Oscar contenders).
“The new list? One action picture and eight superhero/sci fi movies.”
At the same time, affordable big screen TVs – for some, enormous screen TVs – offered what was considered a one-for-one alternative to dragging one’s self out to the movie house. If, during the first years of cable and the VCR, theaters still had the advantage of a huge screen, the new generation of big home screens trumped it…but it also changed the movie-viewing experience.
For my generation, moviegoing was a subjugating experience; you left your home – your familiar surroundings – to go to a big dark place with a bunch of other people, then you all (mostly) sat quietly and gave yourself over to the massive images on the screen. Home entertainment centers don’t provide the same enwrapping experience. The movie at home can be stopped for pee breaks, pizza deliveries, fresh beers, dog walks. You’re not in a theater, you’re at home with all the distractions of home, so you don’t feel any obligation not to talk over the movie as you and your buddies catch up on Sunday’s football scores, or your significant other goes over the family plans for the next day. The movie no longer dominates the room the way it completely dominates the theater auditorium.
Together, these two factors more or less explain the popularity of the big-budget, big-action movie. Look at the action thrillers of yesteryear – or rather, movies that were considered actioners – like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Bullitt et al and time the amount of action in them. You’d be surprised how little of the running time is given over to action, and that action – outside of, say, James Bond flicks – tends to be life-sized (as are the characters).
But clock out how much of the average Marvel or DC or Universal “Monsterverse” title is given over to action – monumentally spectacular action at that – and you’ll find that surprisingly little of the movie is given over to plot and character; it’s not needed.
That’s one of the keys to the popularity of these kinds of movies. Comic book-based characters are already pre-sold – everybody knows who they are before a foot of film is shot. It allows for compressed character development and, with the focus on action, complicated plots aren’t required or desired. In fact, there’s an old screenwriting rule of thumb that the faster a movie plays, the less time there is for complex plotting or character building. Here’s the hero, here’s the villain, they duke it out through a couple of rounds over 2-3 hours. It’s the kind of storytelling which easily tolerates distraction and interruption.
What’s also changed is that reservoir of classics which fed the movie appetite and sensibility of the Boomers; the oldies that our local channels gave to us on those afternoons when we stayed home from school pretending to be sick, at night when baseball season ended and they needed to fill airtime, in the wee late hours of the weekend when we craved a scare.
Most of the indie stations have disappeared, absorbed by the Fox and CW networks. There are fewer and fewer homes for the oldies, just a few cable channels like TCM and Movies! and some PBS stations. Research also shows that the last few young generations – Xers, Yers, Zers – generally have little interest in content predating their own generation. Bernie Dunlap once described the mindset as “…a Zen-like insistence on the here and now.” He saw the change beginning decades ago in some of his classes: “…even in the 1970s, some younger viewers were saying they couldn’t watch a film in black-and-white or with subtitles – even in film courses!”
In an interview I had with director John Dahl (The Last Seduction ; Rounders ), he told me of his experiences guest-lecturing to filmmaking students:
“These young people have never seen Double Indemnity (1944) or Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). They probably think they’re just dusty old pictures.”
He told me about his encounter with one young aspiring filmmaker who –
“…had decided the audience only had a long enough attention span to see an image for four seconds, then it had to change. I asked him, ‘How’d you come up with that?’ He said, ‘Watch a classic movie like The Rock (1996). (Director) Michael Bay figured out you had to cut all the time’.”
Detached from American cinema’s past, growing up immersed in multiple media platforms and eventually conditioned to a rapid-paced flow of visual excitement – the change and contrast in sensibilities become both clear and understandable.
And where Boomers lived in a world of rarity, more recent media generations exist in a world of ubiquity. When I first started working at HBO in 1982, films were not released to cable until a year after their theatrical release. For some titles, there was a suspenseful wondering if they’d ever be released to pay-TV. There was still a sense that some movies were too special for the small screen, and so it was a major industry event when George Lucas finally sold Star Wars (1977) to pay-TV six years after its theatrical premiere.
But the appetite of programmers, shortening theatrical viability, and the demand of viewers has eaten away at that breathing space: it went from a year to 6 months, than 3 months. Today, most films are released on home video platforms within days of their theatrical release, or even on the same day. Some films skip theatrical altogether and go straight to streaming services like Netflix.
That element of “specialness” is gone, too. When we saw a grand scale epic – Spartacus (1960), The Longest Day (1962), Lawrence of Arabia, and other movies of that scope – we knew we were watching something extraordinary, a Hollywood maximum effort, something requiring so much time, money, and effort only a few of these extravaganzas made it to the screen in a year.
But today, thanks to CGI, that kind of spectacle is routine. Any summer is filled May-to-August with the wholesale destruction of cities (and sometimes worlds), duels between fantastic characters possessed of superhuman strength, screen-filling space battles. The spectacular has become the norm. But, when everything is “special,” nothing is.
There’s still another element of change more difficult to explain.
If you go back and look at the movies I mentioned from the 1960s-70s, what nearly all of them have in common is that, to some degree or another, in one fashion or another, they reflected and/or connected to the world the Boomer audience lived in. Even the best-remembered sci fiers from the time – like Planet of the Apes – plugged into the fear of nuclear self-destruction heavy in the zeitgeist of the time.
Oh, we had our escapist flicks, John Wayne was still making formula Westerns while Sam Peckinpah was deconstructing them, we introduced James Bond, we had our FX showcases like Fantastic Voyage (1966), and God knows plenty of junk was produced, but the movies we remember, that we canonized then and sanctify now, had a streak of resonant reality to them.
Contrast that with today when we are bathed, immersed, and deluged in escapist fantasy, and we’ve been wallowing in that bath for quite some time. Writing for New York back in 2004, Peter Rainer was already choking on the glut of flyweight and fantastic cinema: “Escapism is fine, but where are the films that capture, if only indirectly, the frights we are escaping from?” Psychologist David Greenfield, reacting to a 2005 Associated Press/Ipsos poll showing that even then Americans’ had a growing “addiction” to high-tech living, worried, “Our culture is about distraction, numbing oneself… There is no self-reflection, not sitting still.”
Don’t get me wrong: there’s movies out there the equal or better than what came out of that flush period of the 1960s-1970s: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Narc (2002), No Country for Old Men (2007), Spotlight (2005), Nomadland (2020)… One can put together an impressive and impressively long list. But they are generally small-scale films released by indie outfits or the specialty arms of the majors. What was once major studio mainstream entertainment has become art house fodder, and what was usually fuel for summertime kiddie junk food (in my day, summer was a dumping ground for low-budget schlock instead of Hollywood’s biggest payday of the year) now rules the box office.
No Country for Old Men, for example, grossed $71 million domestic against a budget of $25 million: a solid indie success. But it only finished #59 for the year. The top three spots for 2007 were Spider-Man 3 ($337 million domestic), Shrek the Third ($323 million), and Transformers ($319 million)
Look, I’m not trying to be a cinema snob here. I’m not necessarily knocking superhero flicks, or young wizard sagas, or the umpteenth sequel/spin-off from Star Wars or Star Trek or Star Whatever. I’m just saying that after I sit through the first 20-30 of them, with most of them following more or less the same plot template, they starts to wear a bit thin on me, and I’m hard put to understand the attraction of seeing what is, more or less, with a tweak here and there, essentially the same thing over and over. Or as Stephen Whitty puts it:
“I understand the appeal. People like comic book movies. Great. I like double bacon cheeseburgers. But I don’t eat them every day at every meal.”