The History of Film
The 1970s

The Last Golden Age of American Cinema (the American "New Wave") and the Advent of the Blockbuster Film

Part 1

Film History of the 1970s

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Film History by Decade

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The 1970s Decade

The New Decade for Film-Makers:

Although the 1970s opened with Hollywood experiencing a financial and artistic depression, the decade became a creative high point in the US film industry. Restrictions on language, adult content and sexuality, and violence had loosened up, and these elements became more widespread. The hippie movement, the civil rights movement, free love, the growth of rock and roll, changing gender roles and drug use certainly had an impact. And Hollywood was renewed and reborn with the earlier collapse of the studio system, and the works of many new and experimental film-makers (wrongly nicknamed "Movie Brats") during a Hollywood New Wave.

The counter-culture of the time had influenced Hollywood to be freer, to take more risks and to experiment with alternative, young film makers, as old Hollywood professionals and old-style moguls died out and a new generation of film makers arose. Many of the audiences and movie-makers of the late 60s had seen a glimpse of new possibilities, new story-telling techniques and more meaningful 'artistic' options, by the influences of various European "New Wave" movements (French and Italian) and the original works of other foreign-language film-makers, and by viewing these surprise hits in the previous decade:

Young viewers and directors, who refused to compromise with mediocre film offerings, supported stretching the boundaries and conventional standards of film even more in this decade. Although the 50s and 60s were noted for wide-screen epics on CinemaScopic silver screens (and lighter formulaic, squeaky-clean fare such as Pillow Talk (1959) or Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)), the 70s decade was noted for films with creative and memorable subject matter that reflected the questioning spirit and truth of the times.

Motion picture art seemed to flourish at the same time that the defeat in the Vietnam War, the Kent State Massacre, the Watergate scandal, President Nixon's fall, the Munich Olympics shoot-out, increasing drug use, and a growing energy crisis showed tremendous disillusion, a questioning politicized spirit among the public and a lack of faith in institutions - a comment upon the lunacy of war and the dark side of the American Dream (documented, for instance, in the bicentennial year's All the President's Men (1976)). Other films that were backed by the studios reflected the tumultuous times, the discontent toward the government, lack of US credibility, and hints of conspiracy paranoia, such as in Alan J. Pakula's post-Watergate film The Parallax View (1974) with Warren Beatty as a muckraking investigator of a Senator's death. The Strawberry Statement (1970), derived from James S. Kunen's journal and best-selling account of the 1968 student strike at Columbia and exploited for its countercultural message by MGM, echoed support of student campus protests. Even Spielberg's Jaws (1975) could be interpreted as an allegory for the Watergate conspiracy.

1960s social activism often turned into an inward narcissism, and yet this uncertain age gave rise to some of the finest, boldest, and most commercially-successful films ever made, such as the instant Oscar-winning blockbuster The Godfather (1972) by a virtually untested director, William Friedkin's horror classic The Exorcist (1973), Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Lucas' Star Wars (1977).

The decade also spawned equally memorable cult films, as diverse as Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and the quirky Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971). Jerry Schatzberg's and 20th Century Fox's raw, relentless and uncompromising The Panic in Needle Park (1971) (produced by Dominick Dunne) starkly portrayed heroin drug use among addicts in New York City, with Al Pacino in his first major acting role as a drug pusher and part of a heroin-doomed couple (opposite Kitty Winn). Czechoslovakian film-maker Milos Forman's first American film Taking Off (1971) insightfully satirized the adult middle-class and its supposed generation gap from the youth generation. There were also times when expected hits turned to disasters, however, such as the musical fantasy remake Lost Horizon (1973) and Martin Scorsese's darkly expressionistic period musical New York, New York (1977).

The First Satellite-Delivered National Cable TV Network, 1972-75

The growth of cable TV was regarded as a serious threat to advertiser-supported broadcast television networks, independent stations, and movie theaters. These older institutions were protected by Federal Communications Commission rulings that restricted cable systems from importing distant television signals. After cable deregulation in the early '70s, one of the earliest subscription-based cable networks was The Green Channel. After Time Inc. backed it in 1972, the name changed to HBO (Home Box Office), and the channel began using microwave transmission when the Service Electric Company offered the programming over a small Wilkes-Barre, PA CATV system.

Its debut included a hockey game and the first commercial-free airing of Sometimes a Great Notion (1970). The three-year-old company, basing its revenues on subscribers, bet HBO's future on satellite programming distribution and signed a six-year, $7.5 million contract to allow access to RCA's recently-launched communications satellite Satcom I in 1975. HBO inaugurated its satellite-delivered cable service nationwide with the live transmission of the Ali vs. Frazier boxing match ("Thrilla in Manila") in October 1975. The move made HBO the first successful, satellite-delivered pay cable service in the U.S.

The Search for a Blockbuster and Blockbuster TV Marketing

Jaws - 1975 The "so-called" Renaissance of Hollywood was built upon perfecting some of the traditional film genres of Hollywood's successful past - with bigger, block-buster dimensions. Oftentimes, studios would invest heavily in only a handful of bankrolled films, hoping that one or two would succeed profitably. In the 70s, the once-powerful MGM Studios sold off many of its assets, abandoned the film-making business, and diversified into other areas (mostly hotels and casinos).

Much of the focus was on box-office receipts and the production of action- and youth-oriented, blockbuster films with dazzling special effects. But it was becoming increasingly more difficult to predict what would sell or become a hit. Hollywood's economic crises in the 1950s and 1960s, especially during the war against the lure of television, were somewhat eased with the emergence in the 70s of summer "blockbuster" movies or "event films" marketed to mass audiences, especially following the awesome success of two influential films:

Movie TicketAlthough the budget for Jaws grew from $4 million to $9 million during production, it became the highest grossing film in history - until Star Wars. Both Jaws and Star Wars were the first films to earn more than $100 million in rentals. [The average ticket price for a film in 1971 was $1.65, and by 1978 cost about two and a half dollars in first-run theatres. Second-run film theatres could charge less and often dropped their admission price to $1.00. The average film budget by 1978 was about $5 million - increasing dramatically to $11 million by 1980 due to inflation and rising costs. Therefore, production of Hollywood films decreased precipitously in the late 70s, e.g., down to 354 releases in 1978 compared to the previous year's total of 560.]

New Markets for Hollywood's Products:

The emergence of ancillary markets for Hollywood's products emerged during this decade:

  • cable television - the first pay/premium television channel, Home Box Office (HBO), was founded in 1972; in 1975, HBO demonstrated the popularity of its programming and became the first in the television industry to use satellites for regular transmission of programming, with its "Thrilla in Manila" boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
  • the success of HBO in the mid-’70s spurred the growth of cable TV. Soon after, new satellite-delivered basic and premium cable TV networks were successfully competing against the major TV networks in the late ’70s and early ’80s, including movie channels such as Viacom’s Showtime (1976, with satellite broadcast in 1978), Warner Amex’s The Movie Channel (1979), Time/HBO’s Cinemax (1980), the Disney Channel (1983) and AMC (1984).
  • to maximize profits from weekend audiences, the industry decided to move major film openings from mid-week to Fridays, in 1973
  • pay cable television was able to allow profanity and sex beyond what could be offered on commercial network television - outrageous comedian George Carlin's first comedy special was aired on HBO as On Location: George Carlin at USC (1977) with cautionary disclaimers about the use of strong language; it was the first of many HBO comedy concert broadcasts
  • multi-plex theaters - the proliferation of multi-screen chain theaters in suburban areas, replacing big movie palaces, meant that more movies could be shown to smaller audiences; the world's largest cineplex (with 18 theaters) opened in Toronto in 1979
  • publicity/celebrity magazines - after Life Magazine discontinued its weekly publications in 1972, People Magazine - first published as a weekly magazine in March of 1974 (with Mia Farrow on its first cover), took over the role of celebrity watching and film promotion for the industry
  • Hollywood realized that it could increase its profits by advertising its new releases on television - first shown to be successful with the massive TV marketing campaign (of $700,000 for three nights of nationwide prime-time TV ads on all the networks) for Jaws (1975). Universal called it "the biggest national TV spot campaign in industry history." The film was also booked into almost 500 theatres for its opening weekend - a record!
  • Gone with the Wind (1939) first aired on network TV in 1976 and drew a huge audience over two nights - about 34 million people - the largest ever film audience to watch a feature film on television

The Home Video Revolution:

  • earlier in the previous decade, Ampex in 1963 offered the first consumer version of a videotape recorder at an exorbitant price of $30,000; other iterations would follow, such as Sony's introduction of the videocassette recorder (VCR) in 1969, and the introduction of the U-Matic in 1972
  • Sony Betamaxin 1972, the AVCO CartriVision system was the first videocassette recorder to have pre-recorded tapes of popular movies (from Columbia Pictures) for sale and rental -- three years before Sony's Betamax system emerged into the market. However, the company went out of business a year later
  • the appearance of Sony's Betamax (the first home VCR or videocassette recorder) in 1975 offered a cheaper sales price of $2,000 and recording time up to one hour; this led to a boom in sales - it was a technically-superior format when compared to the VHS system that was marketed by JVC and Matsushita beginning in 1976
  • Consumers had a choice of two playing/recording formats in the late ’70s: VHS (Video Home System) or Sony’s Betamax.
  • in 1976, Paramount became the first to authorize the release of its film library onto Betamax videocassettes. In 1977, 20th Century Fox would follow suit, and begin releasing its films on videotape
  • in 1977, RCA introduced the first VCRs in the United States based on JVC's system, capable of recording up to four hours on 1/2" videotape
  • by the late 70s, Sony's market share in sales of Betamax VCRs was below that of sales of VHS machines; consumers chose the VHS' longer tape time and larger tape size, over Sony's smaller and shorter tape time (of 1 hour)
  • video sales - the first films on videotape were released by the Magnetic Video Corporation (a company founded in 1968 by Andre Blay in Detroit, Michigan, the first video distribution company) - it licensed fifty films for release from 20th Century Fox for $300,000 in October, 1977; it began to license, market and distribute half-inch videotape cassettes (both Betamax and VHS) to consumers; it was the first company to sell pre-recorded videos; M*A*S*H (1970) was Magnetic's most popular title
  • video rentals - in 1977, George Atkinson of Los Angeles began to advertise the rental of 50 Magnetic Video titles of his own collection in the Los Angeles Times, and launched the first video rental store, Video Station, on Wilshire Boulevard, renting videos for $10/day; within 5 years, he franchised more than 400 Video Station stores across the country
  • in 1978, Philips introduced the video laser disc (aka laserdisc and LD) -- the first optical disc storage media for the consumer market; Pioneer began selling home LaserDisc players in 1980; eventually, the laserdisc systems would be replaced by the DVD ("digital versatile disc") format in the late 1990s

Initially considered a threat to movies because consumers could tape off-the-air, the technology was re-evaluated once studios discovered lucrative sales and rentals from taped versions of their commercially-released movies. VHS video players, laser disc players and the release of films on videocassette tapes and discs multiplied as prices plummeted, creating a new industry and adding substantial revenue and profits for the movie studios. All of the major Hollywood studios had their own video divisions (e.g., Warner Bros. formed Warner Home Video in the late ’70s), and by the late ’80s in the U.S., income from video rentals was double that of the theatrical box office.

One film-related industry that side-benefited from the development of the VCR was the pornography industry - no longer would adult-movie viewers have to visit seedy X-rated film theatres to view porn films, and this resulted in sky-rocketing profits from the sales and rentals of X-rated VCR videotapes. Another side result was that independent film-makers and producers could now market their films more effectively by distributing tapes and discs for viewing.

But all of these changes had a down-side too: theater attendance would begin to drastically decline in the next decade due to the home video invasion.

Changes from Traditional Hollywood Movie Studios:

The established Hollywood movie studios (except for Universal and Walt Disney's Buena Vista) no longer directly controlled production. Although studios still dominated film distribution, other areas including production, filming and financing (in whole or part) were increasingly in the hands of independent studios, producers, and/or agents. A new generation of movie stars, including Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman - were more skilled as "character actors," who could adapt and mold their screen images to play a number of diverse roles.

In 1975, the Creative Artists Agency was founded by Michael Ovitz and colleagues (from the William Morris Agency) to become a 'packager' of talent for film projects - resulting in the creation of competition among agents. And conglomerate investment corporations were buying up many of the studios' properties as part of their leisure entertainment divisions, with decisive power over decisions about the number of films and which hopefully-profitable projects to choose. All the elements of a film were brought together and packaged - the 'properties' of original screenplay, novel, or stage play were combined with proven box office stars, directors, and marketing strategies.

The cheaper cost of on-location filming (using Cinemobiles or film studios on wheels) encouraged more location shoots, or filming in rented production facilities. Faster film stock, lightweight cinematographic equipment, and the influence of the cinema vérité movement brought less formal styles to American productions. The functions of film makers were beginning to merge - there were actor-producers, director-producers, writer-producers, actor-writers, and more.

Rocky - 1976For example, the decade's popular independent hit and Best Picture winner, director John Avildsen's sports film Rocky (1976) was the first (and best) in a long series of self-parody sequels that featured rags-to-riches actor and unknown scriptwriter Sylvester Stallone as underdog, inarticulate, Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa (inspired by boxer Chuck Wepner) in a "Cinderella" story. [As an up-and-coming star, Stallone had earlier co-scripted and starred as leather-jacketed Stanley Rosiello, opposite Henry Winkler as Butchey Weinstein, in the coming-of-age gang drama The Lords of Flatbush (1974).] The film's hero actually lost his bout after taking a brutal beating from Apollo Creed (inspired by Muhammad Ali), but he 'went the distance' and won girlfriend Adrian! The low-budget boxing film was one of the first major feature films to utilize the revolutionary "Steadicam" developed by inventor Garrett Brown - Bound for Glory (1976) marked its first use. It was a hand-held camera that produced fluid, unjerky motion shots - during the choreographed bouts and the scene in which the boxer jogged up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

American International Pictures (AIP) (1956) and Roger Corman:

American International Pictures - AIPThis low-budget, exploitative, and successful film company, founded in the mid-50s (and first named American Releasing Corporation), was largely responsible for the wave of independently-produced films of varying qualities that lasted into the decade of the 70s. The studio's executive producers were James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, while its most notable and successful film producer was Roger Corman. He was one of the most influential film-makers of the 50s and 60s (he was dubbed the "King of the Drive-In and B-Movie") for his production of a crop of low-budget exploitation films at the time.

The studio released their first successful "beach party" films (mostly to drive-in theatres) - beginning with the musical comedy Beach Party (1963) starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon - to appeal to the lucrative teen market. Teenagers were also Corman's dominant target audience in exploitative films such as Teenage Doll (1957) (aka The Young Rebels) - about juvenile delinquency, and Sorority Girl (1957). As was the case with most AIP films, they were aggressively marketed with publicity campaigns and lurid posters.

Corman's own B-movie horror films included a series of adapted Edgar Allan Poe literary tales featuring Vincent Price (i.e., House of Usher (1960) and The Raven (1963)), and science-fiction horror films such as X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) with Ray Milland. Corman's counter-cultural biker film The Wild Angels (1966) with a star-making role for Peter Fonda pre-dated the popular Easy Rider (1969) by three years, and his The Trip (1967) was the first major studio film to chronicle the effects of LSD. AIP also distributed a number of Godzilla (and Gamera) films in the 60s and 70s, while Corman specialized in other exploitative science-fiction/horror films and dramas, such as It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), Naked Paradise (1957), The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), Teenage Caveman (1958), the satirical black comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Wasp Woman (1960), The Last Woman on Earth (1960), and Creature From the Haunted Sea (1961).

Roger Corman ("King of the B's"), and A New Generation of Maverick Directors: "Movie Brats"

Roger CormanWith more power now in the hands of producers, directors, and actors, new directors emerged, many of whom had been specifically and formally trained in film-making courses/departments at universities such as UCLA, USC, and NYU, or trained in television. Corman supported this new breed of youthful maverick directors, referred to by some as "Movie Brats" or "Geeks." The AIP studio (and Corman himself) was responsible for giving a start and apprenticeship experience to many upcoming filmmaking cineastes and actors, emphasizing low-budget film-making techniques and exploitative elements.

Corman hired the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Paul Bartel, and Robert Towne. He gave many of these novices their first career-breaking employment opportunities, as actors, producers, directors, writers, members of film crews, etc. He encouraged them to produce personally-relevant and creative works of art, and new genre interpretations. This support revived the notion of auteurism (the belief that the director was most influential and responsible for creating a film's ultimate form, meaning and content).

For instance, Peter Bogdanovich's directorial debut was for Targets (1968), made for AIP. And Francis Ford Coppola directed (and scripted) Corman's horror-thriller film Dementia 13 (1963), Coppola's first mainstream picture. Jack Nicholson appeared in a number of early Corman movies, including his screen debut in The Cry Baby Killer (1958) and later a small role in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), about a carnivorous pet plant. One of Martin Scorsese's earliest-directed films (and his first commercially-conventional film) was Corman's Boxcar Bertha (1972) with Barbara Hershey and David Carradine as two Depression-era outlaw folk heroes. Writer/director Jonathan Demme's directorial debut was for Corman's Caged Heat (1974) -- a memorable women-in-prison film with lots of sex, action and violence. And Monte Hellman's two westerns Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967) both starred Jack Nicholson (who also co-wrote and produced the first film).

Some of the Prominent Movie Brats (or Geeks) of the 70s
George Lucas (USC) Robert Altman
John Carpenter (USC) Francis Ford Coppola (UCLA)
Bob Rafelson William Friedkin
Alan Pakula Terrence Malick
Martin Scorsese (NYU) Michael Ritchie
Brian De Palma (NYU) Woody Allen
Peter Bogdanovich Paul Mazursky
Michael Cimino Hal Ashby
Steven Spielberg John Cassavetes
Paul Schrader (UCLA) John Milius (USC)
Dennis Hopper Mike Nichols
David Lynch George Romero
Wes Craven John Milius
James Cameron Jonathan Demme
Joe Dante Bruce Dern
Ron Howard Gale Anne Hurd
John Sayles Paul Bartel

Corman offered cinematic advice: use a fast-moving camera to provide speedy action, avoid cliches, add some minor social commentary, use visually-engaging screen compositions, sex (and nudity), tongue-in-cheek humor, and some sort of gimmick. Some of the new directors excelled with an audio-visual approach to filmmaking, where style, ear-splitting soundtracks, and action were sometimes more important in films than content.

The new American wave of film-makers were also influenced by unconventional works from the Italian Neo-realists, or the French New Wave artists, as stated earlier. Films made outside the traditional Hollywood mold, with great works of character development, were beginning to win critical praise and bring in tremendous revenues.

Alfred Hitchcock:

As a footnote to the decade, director Alfred Hitchcock (without ever winning a Best Director Oscar) returned to England after his disappointing films Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) to make his first British film in almost two decades - Frenzy (1972). His first Hollywood film had been Rebecca (1940), and his last film was in this decade - the lightweight thriller Family Plot (1976).

George Lucas

American Graffiti - 1973 THX 1138 - 1971USC graduate George Lucas added his name to the list of new directors. His first film, produced by American Zoetrope and executive-produced by Francis Coppola, was a full-length version of a student science-fiction film he had made earlier - the nightmarish vision of a dehumanized future in THX 1138 (1971). The numerical moniker would appear as an 'in-joke' in later Lucas works: as the license plate of John Milner's car in American Graffiti (1973), as the number of the cell block holding "Chewbacca" in Star Wars (1977), in other films of the Star Wars series (except for Jedi), and in numerous other films (i.e., Swingers (1996), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)).

His second film that he co-wrote and directed, the low-budget American Graffiti (1973) was a warm-hearted, rites-of-passage film about a number of California teenagers (unknowns who became future stars including Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, and Richard Dreyfuss, among others) in the early 60s who pointlessly cruised down the main strip of their small town [Modesto, CA] in hot-rods one long summer night - accompanied by a non-stop soundtrack of rock 'n' roll hits (opening with Bill Haley and the Comets). The film's tagline or slogan encouraged nostalgia: "Where were you in '62?" Teenage archetypes included the hot-rod loving delinquent (Paul Le Mat), the brainy student (Richard Dreyfuss), the stereotypical class president (Ron Howard), and the nerd (Charles Martin Smith).

In 1971, Lucas formed his own film company, Lucasfilm Ltd., in San Rafael, California that soon evolved into a number of specialized companies. Before his next major hit (Star Wars (1977)), Lucas organized Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a post-production facility in Marin County to advance the area of special effects, modeling, sound design, computer-generated effects, and other ground-breaking techniques.

John Carpenter

Halloween - 1978Little-known at first, John Carpenter directed the cult sci-fi film Dark Star (1974) - a feature length derivative of a student short made while he was studying film at USC. It was a parody of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Carpenter composed all of the musical scores for his films beginning with Dark Star.) He also directed the low-budget action thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (a modernized remake of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959)).

Carpenter became noticed, especially after his highly-successful, low-budget slasher film Halloween (1978) - it was his third feature film and the highest-grossing independent film made in the US up to that time. The hard-to-kill, masked, knife-wielding stalker Michael Myers suspensefully pursued a young, small-town babysitter Jamie Lee Curtis (later becoming the 'Queen of Horror') on Halloween night in a small mid-western town. In its wake, the profitable and stylishly-made film (often seen from the point of view of the killer), with its spooky recognizable soundtrack, spawned a mini-horror film boom, with many lesser 'psycho-slasher' or teen-scream films appearing into the 1980s.

Bob Rafelson

Five Easy Pieces - 1970Former writer, producer, and director in television (and noted for the Monkees television series), Bob Rafelson turned to movies in the late 60s. His feature debut was, predictably, the Monkees film Head (1968), co-written with Jack Nicholson. His second film (which brought Rafelson a Best Screenplay nomination) was one of the best of the 70s, Five Easy Pieces (1970), a fascinating, yet shattering 'road movie' story of an emotionally-alienated concert pianist (Jack Nicholson shortly after his work in Easy Rider) who returned to his upper-class family after years of exile as an oil-field worker. In the 70s, he also directed a follow-up film The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) with Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn, and the quirky Stay Hungry (1976) with Sally Field and Jeff Bridges (and a very early performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger). His next notable film was the sexy remake The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

Alan Pakula

All the President's Men - 1976Another former film producer Alan Pakula directed Liza Minnelli in her second film role in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) a poignant, oddball comedy/drama about a neurotic and eccentric college student named Pookie Adams.

Pakula's best films in the 70s were Klute (1971) - a superb detective thriller about the stalking of a tough New York hooker (Jane Fonda won an Academy Award for her performance), and the compelling political melodrama All the President's Men (1976) about two young, non-conformist, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post news reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) who bucked the system and investigated the 1972 Watergate break-in, burglary, and subsequent cover-up. Pakula also directed the believable and gripping political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974) - casting Warren Beatty as a journalist investigating a presidential candidate's assassination. Burt Reynolds starred with Jill Clayburgh in Alan Pakula's popular adult romantic comedy Starting Over (1979).

Film History of the 1970s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

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