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The Hollywood Genre Cycle: Commercial cinema fads and how they arise


As a child of the 1990s, my main memories of going to the cinema are of seeing Tommy Lee Jones save the world in Volcano, Pierce Brosnan save the world in Dante’s Peak, Helen Hunt save the world in Twister, Bruce Willis save the world in Armageddon… Essentially a lot of stars were saving the world from natural (or perhaps not so natural if you ask a scientist) disasters. 

In the 1980s, your memories of movies would most likely be of the variety you might like to refer to as Haribo movies, the sort that kids and grown-ups love alike. Crafted in this nostalgia-soaked sugar-coated mould were films like The GooniesGhostbusters, The Breakfast Club, Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story and a slew of other tales of adolescent adventure with enough self-aware charm and sideways glances to still captivate adult audiences to this day.

Even ten years ago you had a shedload of apocalyptical movies including 2012The Day After TomorrowPoseidonWar of the Worlds, and about a million others depending on how wide you want to cast the net of ‘apocalyptic’ all coming within five years of each other. In short, there have been more than enough incidents in cinema history where a concurrent mass of similar movies has arrived in Hollywood in such a short time scale that a fad is self-evident.

Naturally, these fads only make up a fraction of the cinematic output from each era, and you’d be right to point out converse outbreaks of indie films and other emergent genres even within the mainstream. However, when you look back, these pockets of blockbusters, who clearly drink at the same bar, prove more era-defining than most

While on the surface their occurrence might seem self-evident; if a film proves a Hollywood box office hit then it is in the best interest of studios to try and emulate the success. Since Hollywood’s rapid commercialisation when fish became a tasty box office dish with Jaws in 1975, profits and generating them sustainably rose to the forefront. 

This coincided with films like Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now where runaway auteurs nearly cost the entire studios to fall into ruin. In fact, six days into the filming of Heaven’s Gate, director Michael Cimino was already somehow five days behind schedule. By the second week United Artists had calculated that at the current rate, the film would cost them a million per minute of usable footage.

(Credit: Zoetrope)

As the movie’s joint lead, Kris Kristofferson, the country star so good they named him twice and a bit, states in the making-of documentary concerning Cimino’s monomaniacal dedication, “I bet Michelangelo cared. I bet Picasso cared. I probably didn’t care that much, but I was glad to be working with someone who did!” The only issue was that the aforementioned ‘carers’ were artists in the original sense of the word, individuals without industry. Picasso and co weren’t really playing with the banker’s money, and when it comes to moviemaking Cimino proved conclusively that it’s possible to care too much.

Kristofferson later began to see the first signs of the scale of the catastrophe at Cannes when a chance elevator encounter with UA president Norbert Auerbach resulted in the tycoon quietly remarking: “The money has to be taken from the creative people.” To which Kristofferson retorted: “Who you gonna give it to? The un-creative people?”

His question was valid and will forever remain valid. In fact, it is so valid that it has underpinned the entirety of the movie industry ever since. If outlaw auteurs interviewing 300 horses for a role were to be stopped in their squandering ways, then films had to be designed by committee. The problem is, brainstorming almost never works. They might have hit lucky in the ’80s, but the returns have been diminishing ever since with each step further towards commoditization.

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Since brainstorming was first branded by an advertising agency head named Alex Osborn in 1939, every single study conducted on it proves that ultimately it doesn’t work. As researcher Ben Taylor writes in Why Most Brainstorms Don’t Work: “Three big problems jump out from the research. First, people have a bias toward agreement and conformity. A promising idea early in a brainstorm tends to shape the rest of the session as people gradually fall in line.”

He continues: “Second, participants tend to lose their train of thought as other people speak aloud or share in front of the group. Called ‘production blocking’ this phenomenon actually stymies the generation of new ideas.”

Lastly, he concludes: “Brainstorm attendees have a bias toward practicality. Despite Osborn’s emphasis on wild ideas, groups tend to favour “reasonable” solutions that sound achievable on paper. In front of so many peers, there’s too much social pressure to risk a wild idea that might fail.”

Thus, with that final point still fresh, it is often the case that modern Hollywood movies, more often than not cooked up in a boardroom as opposed to a dogeared notebook of a hopeful who has cogitated on a dream for years, ignore a wild idea that might fail and champion a plan that has already succeeded. ‘How’s about we do Tornado, but in space! People love space! And people love Bruce Willis…’ all of a sudden Tornado becomes Armageddon and so on and so on…

While this ‘designed by committee’ ethos might explain how the fads come about—the question remains what determines what the fad will be? Why in the eighties was it all fun and games with adventure movies and cool soundtracks, then a decade later you have endless folks succumbing to lava while some ‘Adagio for Strings’ rip-off score creates the gaudy popcorn thrills. 

Well, the ideas that the cinema industry perpetuates in their board meetings still need to be started by the first kernel. These first innovative kernels usually come from an individual and they’re usually very good. As the old saying goes, “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” At the start of the 1980s came a galloping stallion in the form of the childhood adventure romp E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

By this point, Spielberg had already proven himself to reliable engine of income, thus, he was given a great deal of creative control. Like any individual, Spielberg was inspired by the world around him during this period. As it happened, when E.T. was released in 1982, a five-year boom was underway in America whereby 13 million new jobs were created. In short, all seemed rosy in the world.

The film itself might look out to the stars but in actual fact, it is an inward look at Spielberg’s childhood struggles to come to terms with his parent’s divorce and his escapist imagination. As Gary Arnold of the Washington Post opined upon release: “[It] is essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

In the American financial windfall of the era, a lot of movies followed suit and became light-hearted adventure romps. Ten years later, people were more cognizant of climate change and the decade get off to a troubled start as Tehran suffered catastrophic casualties and damage after one of the largest earthquakes on record struck. The following year, the Bangladesh Cyclone in 1991 devastated the country’s coastline, causing $1.7 billion in damage and killing close to 139,000 people. 

These disasters were at the forefront of people’s thinking when moving into the new decade. Thus, although Hollywood may have been uber commercialised by now, most of the people within the committees making movies were still creative people. Thus, seeded within otherwise gaudy films like Twister were serious messages about climate change and disaster management. And now when it seems like we need a hero to save us from this mess we are increasingly seeing Superheroes battling dystopian societies where even the villains seem to have a point, much like the blurred lines of the murky modern world.