In honour of our latest print issue being released, and in view of its theme of time, us here at Entertainment decided to take a look at how certain aspects of cinema have evolved. So hold on to your Flux Capacitors and take a stroll with us through film-time…
The Rise and Fall (and Rise…?) of the Studio System
With Disney preparing to acquire 21st Century Fox for at least $70 billion, this could signify the final nail in the coffin of the Studio System.
Perhaps the hallmark of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Studio System encompassed the “Big Five”: Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., RKO Pictures, Loew’s Incorporated (owner of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) and the then-named 20th Century Fox. Screen legends like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire made their names by contracting their careers away to the big leagues, and movie musicals infiltrated the popular culture in a way that musicals have struggled to since.
However, the landmark 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde – with themes of rebelling youth and depictions of taboo topics – announced the arrival of New Hollywood. Young auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese pushed the confines of cinema, shocking audiences with thrilling violence and darker protagonists. This, combined with the fact that film was becoming a more attainable artform – something that anyone could make, so long as they had the funds and equipment – meant that there were fewer “tentpole” films for mass audiences to watch in a collective experience.
“The recent trend of shared universes does show that there are at least some remnants of the system.”
Of course, this has continued into the 21st century. Now, not only does cinema have this peak TV era to compete with, it also has to fend off content produced by a whole plethora of platforms: Apple, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon and Netflix. Gone are the days when audiences would discuss the same cultural highlights – when films like Titanic could stay in theatres for ten months. Or have they?
Although the impending acquisition of Fox by Disney does mean the old Studio System is well and truly over, the recent trend of shared universes does show that there are at least some remnants of the system. For example, stars like Robert Downey Jr and Chadwick Boseman for Marvel, or Gal Gadot and Margot Robbie for DC Comics have contracts that ensure they appear in an agreed number of movies from that studio – much like the previous system. However, unlike then, they are able to appear in other companies’ projects they may wish to join without having to be “loaned out” by their studio head. By doing so, they might even introduce wider audiences to films they might not have seen otherwise, like I, Tonya or Marshall.
So if you yearn for those halcyon days of superstar-led studio movies, just imagine Captain America and Bucky Barns tapdancing to a Broadway melody in 1940 – maybe not much has changed after all.
A New Type of Cinematography
The extent to which cinematography has improved since sound movies came into existence is especially obvious when one compares movies with identical plots but produced decades apart, such as King Kong (1933) and its 21st-century reboot, King Kong (2005).
It is natural that in comparison to the 2005 version, the original film’s special effects seem somewhat inadequate, such as Kong being created through building of physical models of varying sizes to fit different scenes while the 2005 movie uses CGI. However, the models and special effects used in the original movie were extremely difficult to achieve and revolutionary at the time, and set precedent for future horror movies and cinematography in general.
“Overall, neither movie should be judged in isolation, but rather with the understanding of the technology available at the time”
The main difference between the portrayal of Kong in the original movie as opposed to the 2005 version is that in 1933, any scene with Kong or any other prehistoric creatures featured in the movie would have to be created via stop-motion animation, rather than via CGI effects. To someone watching it in the 21st century that makes the movements of Kong seem unnatural, but to the contemporary audience, unaccustomed to anything else, it felt real.
Both versions of the movie are attuned to the social attitudes of the time when they were filmed, with the 2005 version portraying a lot less sexism, and the character of Ann Darrow actually getting a personality and action besides the constant screaming at the top of her lungs while being carried around by Kong, as Fay Wray did in the original movie.
Overall, neither movie should be judged in isolation, but rather with the understanding of the technology available at the time, because then one would seem completely inadequate, despite being a huge hit and what is often considered a masterpiece of the time.
Homogeneity in Mainstream Cinema
While this may be the subtlest difference film has gone through in recent years, I do think it is worth discussing. But before I do, a small caveat. I am in no way suggesting the number of options for films we have at the moment is in any way smaller than it’s ever been. We have access to so many different movies and more ways to watch them than ever before. The problem is not with the industry as a whole, but with the increasing homogeneity in genre, structure, and story-telling we see in mainstream movie media.
We all know cinema has phases where a particular genre or type of content is overtly popular and saturates the market. Westerns did in the 50s and nowadays it is the superhero genre. But what the superhero genre has done – which I believe is unlike any other trend we’ve ever experienced – is seep elements of it into all major pictures. You CANNOT sit down nowadays and watch a big-budget film that has not been clearly and evidently been constructed with a superhero structure in place. Long are the days where films like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia could coexist with The Good the Bad and the Ugly and both still be immense successes.
“We should not conform with just consuming a homogeneous subset of cinema, because the moment we are, is the moment that it stops being a trend.”
Star Wars, once an original hero’s plight set in a rather fresh galaxy, now seems much more content with adapting its old formula for modern audiences with superheroitis. From attempting to create a shared universe with standalone movies and other media, to sacrificing characterisation in favour of witty and flashy punchlines (the Joss Whedon effect) and intense action pieces, it’s sad to see just how much Star Wars blends into the landscape of modern blockbusters with relative ease.
As a second example, take Fantastic Beasts. The vibrant world of Harry Potter which once captured all our hearts (in part simply because of the vibrant source material), has now been watered down to a cast of unrecognisable characters with unidentifiable traits, and a plot that at best has a lot of pacing issues and, at worst, is just plain boring.
As a final note, I don’t want to come off too critical about these the homogeneity in major film narratives. As I said, this is still a trend and will blow over, just like it has in cinema before. And at the end of the day entertainment is meant to be just that, entertaining, and clearly, there is a large market audience for these types of movies (myself included).
My intention with this piece is simply to caution other moviegoers to not be blinded by mainstream cinema, and believe this is all we have. As I said, cinema as a whole is perhaps more diverse now than it has ever been, and we certainly have more ways to access it than ever before. So, we should go out of our way to see that smaller film that the cinema is showing, to stream that movie that came out only on streaming platforms, to seek out smaller, and independent creations that are bold enough to tell new stories in different ways.
We should not conform with just consuming a homogeneous subset of cinema, because the moment we are, is the moment that it stops being a trend.