In the summer of 1977 the world saw the release of one of the most culturally impactful films ever released, Star Wars Epsiode IV: A New Hope. Before that fateful day in May, people saw summer films as movies that were just supposed to be throw films that weren’t going to win awards or bring in the big bucks. Star Wars changed everything. From 1977 on the summer was the time for big, blockbusters to be released and for teens to go out in droves to theaters.
In my own curiosity, I wanted to see what release trends looked like for movies throughout history. The data scientist inside me was extremely excited for this project and I took to it quickly.
I decided to take the history of American movies and see how they were released throughout the years. I decided to focus on movies that came out after 1927 (the first year when movies were eligible for Oscars) and see what trends looked like.
Now before I show any of the analysis, I wanted to share what my hypothesis was for this endeavor. I thought I would see few movies in the early days (20s-40s) and then see a gradual rise in film releases until the late 90s and then they would drop off again. My theory was that films have gotten pretty expensive to make in the last couple of decades, so we would see fewer movies but the movies we did have would be big budget movies.
Let’s see what the first chart I got looked like:
This is not exactly what I was expecting to see. My hypothesis has already been blown out of the water and at the first site of this chart, I questioned my Python skills and I thought I had messed up.
In the chart above, it shows that there were, on average, almost 400 movies released a year until the 1950s! This is pretty much the opposite of my hypothesis and I wanted to know why. This got me to thinking what was going on in the time between 1945 to 1960? After a quick Google search I found that there was one product that caused the rapid decline in movies, the television. According to Mitchell Stevens in The History of Television, almost 50% of US households had a television by 1955. This had a huge impact on what happened in Hollywood from the 1950s to the culmination of what is considered “The New Hollywood” era of film.
Before Americans were able to see the quintessential Hollywood films of the 1960s that reinvigorated film attendance, Hollywood had to go through what Life Magazine called “the horrible decade” for Hollywood. As theater attendance was plummeting, there was a need to find a new way to get movie-goers back into their seats. The initial plan was to make the theater experience a “spectacle”. Films got bigger, we saw things like The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), North by Northwest (1959), Paths of Glory (1957), and Bridge over the River Kwai (1957). These movies came out as some of the most technically astounding films at the time. They took advantage of things like technicolor, surround sound, and film quality improvements to create cinema in a way that could not be touched by television. Though, as you can see, all of those films came out at the end of the decade. To start the decade off, we saw more of the dramatic films like Rear Window (1954), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Roman Holiday (1953). While the films of the early 1950s were incredible, they weren’t getting people in the seats.
We can see the impact of this trend by looking at this graph. This graph tracks the runtime of movies on average through the years. It is easy to see that Hollywood was making sure that movies were something to be experienced in a way that couldn’t be done at home. Hollywood tried to make that movie experience a full evening activity and something that could tell a more complex story.
One of the biggest impacts of how films were made came from the demographic of viewers, until the 1950s most movie-goers were over 30 years old and had a lower quality of education. However, there was a new demographic on the way that would change everything for Hollywood: Baby Boomers.
The 1960s-70s and The New Hollywood
Baby Boomers changed a lot of things in the United States and Hollywood was not an exception. As the youth of America were given bigger allowances and had more freedoms, they were able to use their time as they saw fit. One of the biggest pastimes for individuals under 30 by the late 60s was going to movies. Hollywood saw this trend and decided they needed to have more relatable films to the baby boomers and they decided to get some age appropriate directors into the mix and this opened the floodgates for some of the biggest names in movies we have today.
Now, when we talk about Hollywood of the 60s and 70s we can go on for many levels of textbooks and anecdotal evidence of how things changed, but I will just mention a few directors who came into their own during this time period. We saw: Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, George A. Romero, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg.
Whether you know this names or not, they completely changed film and how we see it today. There are many other influences as well but to list all of the men and women who helped make Hollywood the way we recognize it today will take a book.
These directors made some of the most impactful movies in Hollywood. Whether it was Stanley Kubrick forcing us to look at our world differently in 2001: A Space Odessy, George A. Romero giving us a new definition of horror with The Night of the Living Dead, Francis Ford Coppola showing us the horrors of war in Apocalypse Now, or Steven Spielberg making us fear the water again with JAWS. These directors helped revitalize Hollywood and bring Americans back to the movie theaters in the 1960s and 1970s.
As we discuss the films being released it would be remiss if we did not discuss the kinds of movies coming out at the time. If we look at this graph we can see how genre releases changed as well.
We can see drama and comedy films have been consistently the most released films throughout American film history. I will go further into genre based analysis in the future, but for now we can use this to gauge how certain movies have been released through the years.
Along with the style of films and the popularity among teenagers to go out and see movies, there was another invention in route that would change the film industry again. In 1977 the VCR was released and at home movie viewing became popularized.
The VCR and the 1980s-90s
It may be safe for me to assume that most of the readers of this article are most familiar with the movies released from the 1980s to today. As they include many of the quintessential Coming-of-Age films like Stand By Me, Dead Poets Society, and The Breakfast Club. Many people, myself included, have a strong nostalgia for the films made in the 80s and 90s. We got to see the pinnacle of people like Spielberg, John Hughes, Rob Reiner, and Robert Zemeckis. These directors gave us movies that are still quoted and mirrored in pop culture in many ways. Whether it is Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy or stand up comedy from John Mulaney, we see the ripple from the 80s and 90s pop culture alive and well.
The ability to take home, watch, and rewatch our favorite movies made it easy to quote and quickly recall parts of our favorite movies and turn it into our popular Zeitgeist. Many VHS tapes were worn out from watching The Sandlot or Goonies one too many times I am sure. The VCR made it so that people could buy their favorite movies and watch them at home, this made the culture of movies even more impactful than before. This is the era where you can see in the charts that movies started to come out in force again. Thanks to movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there were more adventures in the theater that were making people come back to theaters in a way that hadn’t been seen for two decades!
This was the perfect time for big Hollywood blockbusters that tried to capitalize on the new found market of merchandising with other products like toys, cereal, and flamethrowers. However, Hollywood began to fly a little too close to the sun and the late 90s represents the era of some of the biggest film flops of all time. According to Wikipedia’s list of Biggest Box Office Bombs roughly 20% of the biggest bombs came from 1995–2000. This era made Hollywood a lot more careful on which movies to release. In fairness, the late 90s is when we also saw the major films like The Matrix, Saving Private Ryan, and Fight Club. The success of these movies would directly reflect how the next two decades of films would be made.
The 2000s-Today and The Internet
This is the era when films and the film industry really has gone into a huge shake up. As you can see in the above release chart, you can see that the 2000s has been a pretty shaky time for how many movies are getting released every year. This can be caused by a few different pieces.
To start, we can look at the cost of the movies during this time period and if we look at another Wikipedia table showing the Most Expensive Films (adjusted for inflation), of the over 70 movies on this list, only six of them were made before 2000. This means that studios are putting more money into the hits they expect to make, but it also has another risk with potential flops. In the Biggest Box Office Bombs list mentioned earlier, while 20% came from the late 90s, 30% have come from 2015-today and that includes a whopping 14 box office flops in 2016 alone. Then also on the flip side, the 2010s have seen some of the Most Profitable Films (adjusted for inflation) in Avatar (2009), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
However, the main volatility in the film industry in the last 20 years has been the internet. Whether it is online piracy, streaming, or general leaks, the film industry took a long time to finally make a form of cease-fire with the internet. As places like Netflix and Redbox grew, the Blockbusters of the world were slowly dying. As the brick and mortar stores tried to adapt to this new online form of rentals, they were already too far behind and by 2010 Blockbuster had closed.
This made online film rentals the best way to access movies for the average consumer. This led to one of the biggest artist strikes in living memory with the 2007 writers strike. For those unfamiliar with this event, it was the culmination of film and TV writers demanding compensation for DVD material as well as online streaming. Many films were impacted by this but the strike deeply impacted TV. After this happened making movies became a little more expensive to make as contracts became more complicated and more features needed to have compensation to them. This can be seen in places like the Scrubs you watch on Netflix has different music from the original as they were not permitted to stream the songs in the original contracts.
In 2015 Netflix changed the game again and released the film Beast of No Nation and production studios around the world reared their angry heads. The goal of this movie was to get Netflix into the world of film production though many established production companies did not appreciate this and actively tried to keep Netflix out contention for awards. This has been the same for places like Amazon Studios and Hulu as well. Though I will dig deeper into awards for films in a later article.
From now on we will be watching a unique change in the film industry as Netflix and Amazon Studios put out big block busters right along the big producers as well as Best Picture winners like Roma from Netflix.
My name is Michael Dendinger.
I am a semi-self taught data scientist with a passion for all things data and I will be adding more analysis similar to this on a multitude of topics, but for now I will really be focusing on analytics for films. I hope you keep checking in!
This analysis was done with Python with the Pandas and Seaborn libraries. Film record data came from a mix of OMDB and IMDB.