The history of American film can be divided into several eras. There was the silent age of the 1920’s, the dawn of sound in the ’30s, and the overarching studio system of the 40’s, 50’s, and to some extent, 60’s. The studio system was the reigning power over the film industry during these years, and under the studios (such as MGM, RKO Pictures,
many classic films were made. Such classics would include 1952’s Singin’ in
the Rain, numerous Disney animated features (though in distribution only),
and 1956’s The Ten Commandments. The sixties started to slip away from
the studio system, which would fall entirely by the 70’s, with the abolition of
the Hays Code in the middle of the decade,
which allowed for more daring films to come out, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and shaped what would
be the cinematic atmosphere of the 1970’s.
The 1970’s were an undeniably important decade for American society. The
years brought about great social change with the Vietnam War, the hippie
movement and the growing popularity of rock music. The ‘70s also brought about
great change in the world of cinema. Innovations were made, directors emerged,
and a whole slew of classic films were made. The 70’s allowed several directors
to rise in popularity, brought two of the greatest blockbusters and sequels of
all time, and brought about the end of the production code and beginning of the
MPAA rating system (also used to this day). It is for these reasons that the
1970’s were arguably the best years for film in terms of sheer quality, and
arguably the most influential, leading the film industry into the trends of the
The first reason why the 1970’s was the most important decade for film was because of the slew of new directors that entered the circulation of
These directors were dubbed the “New Hollywood Generation”. They rose in the
70’s as the old Hollywood professionals and
studio moguls died out.
were allowed more creative control over their works, which would end up
producing some of the most popular and well-liked films of all time (such as
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, George Lucas’ Star Wars, Francis Ford
Coppola’s Godfather films, and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall). In
fact, the notable directors to come out of that age, which would include Steven
Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, George Lucas and Woody Allen
amongst others, have 38 Oscar nominations (with 5 wins)
and 39 Golden Globe nominations (with 12 wins) between them in the categories
of Best Picture and Best Director alone. Part of this is due to the popular concept
known as the auteur theory. The auteur theory presents the idea that a film
represents a director’s vision
gained popularity in the 1970’s, allowing directors to make more creative and
financial decisions with regards to their films. Many more films about the
current events in politics (ex. All The President’s Men, Apocalypse Now) were
made during this era, each having something to say about its subject matter.
This trend would continue on into the 1980’s with films like Platoon. A notable
example would be Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which was filmed in an
actual war zone as opposed to a studio lot and drew much controversy over its
long and troubled production, which included tales of drug addiction, the
recall of borrowed Filipino military equipment, and star Martin Sheen’s heart
The film would not have been made in the old studio system, as it would have
been too expensive and too controversial, but it went on to gain eight Academy
Award nominations and gain a reputation as one of the greatest films of all
time. The 1970’s also brought some of the best-reviewed films of all time, such
as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Alien, and Taxi Driver (averaging 100%,
on Rotten Tomatoes respectively). Some of the best critical scores of all time
are only a few of the major accomplishments achieved by the directors of this
era. But unfortunately, this era came to an end with the disaster of Michael
Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, touted as one of the biggest flops of all time.
However, alongside the serious and groundbreaking dramas, the 70’s brought some
of the best in terms of genre films, such as 1978’s Superman (which started the
still-present tradition of bringing comic book superheroes to the big screen,
the still highest-grossing musical of all time Grease (which brought musicals
back in the public conscience after the disaster of Hello Dolly!, to be
resurrected fully in the early 2000’s with films like Moulin Rouge and
Chicago), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which remains as the film with the
longest theatrical release, running consistently in theatres with midnight
showings and developing a large cult following), and John Carpenter’s
Halloween, which is still lauded as one of the greatest horror films of all
time with a 93% average on Rotten
Another reason that the 70’s (especially the late 70’s) was the most important decade for film was the advent of the blockbuster and the sequel. The advent of sequels and the blockbuster is arguably the most important thing to come out of the 1970’s, as it helped
Hollywood regain its
financial footing and spawned some of Hollywood’s
most memorable film franchises, as well as popularized several techniques still
used to this day. The age of the
blockbuster was also important as it stretched into the present day. The two
films that started the blockbuster chain of the mid-70’s and beyond are Steven
Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’ Star Wars. To this day, the
directors’ names are associated with blockbusters and it started with these two
films, and to a lesser extent, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third
Kind. Jaws is inarguably the first official blockbuster, and it temporarily
became the highest grossing film of all time (until Star Wars would step in two
years later). Jaws popularized the concept of the summer blockbuster, a concept
that is still used to this day, and Star Wars followed this concept as well,
remaining the highest grossing film of all time for five years until E.T. came
out in 1982. Both films (as well as the later release of Die Hard specifically
pertaining to the action movie genre) also popularized the “high-concept”
movie, where the plot of a film can be pitched to a studio in a simple
sentence, such as “Jaws with an X”, “Die Hard on an X”, or simply “X meets Y”. Jaws and Star Wars were two of the greatest
commercial successes of all time, and before they came out, studios would only
invest in a handful of bankrolled films, hoping that one or two would fare well.
Afterwards, the economic crisis that Hollywood was facing (with the rise of
films airing on television and the home video craze) was over, and they focused
on action-oriented summer blockbusters or “event films” to market towards
Both of those films were followed by sequels, another popular concept that
arose out of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Jaws spawned three sequels and Star
Wars spawned two (1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi,
plus a prequel trilogy in the 2000’s), and though the Jaws sequels were
released to critical and commercial failure, the Star Wars sequels were
phenomenally successful. Out of the popularity of Star Wars came the search for
another franchise for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and one was found in
the Indiana Jones franchise, which started with 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark
and (presumably) ended with 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
All four films were commercial successes, furthering Lucas and Spielberg’s
popularity and catapulting star Harrison Ford (also famed for the Star Wars
franchise) into superstardom. The idea of making sequels to a popular film
is one that is still used to this day, as is the idea of tentpole films (making
a film hoping that it will spawn a franchise). Several popular films of the
70’s received this treatment: Superman spawned three sequels (plus a 2006
re-boot), Die Hard spawned three sequels, Rocky spawned five, and the aforementioned
Alien and Halloween spawned three and seven respectively.
Furthermore, the last reason that the 1970’s were influential for film was that the decade brought about the end of the production code, also known as the Hays Code, which was used since the invention of sound in the 1920’s, and the dawn of the MPAA ratings system. The end of the production code, which passed a series of moral rules on films released from the 1920’s until the 1970’s, allowed directors in the 70’s to portray more controversial material in film. Instead of being approved by the code for release, directors were instead free to put whatever they chose to in a film and submit it for a rating. This allowed for more portrayal of outwardly immoral characters, violence, sexual content, profanity, nudity, and blurred lines between good and evil in film. In the age of the production code, there were no letter ratings, and films were made to appeal to all audiences even if they were targeted to adults. Vague quotas for said categories were used to give letter ratings (G, PG, R, and NC-17 with the additions of PG-13 and 14A to address confusion and controversy) which would inform a potential viewer with what to expect from the film. This ratings system is still used to this day. The year 1971 brought many controversial films that would not have been approved for filming by the production code. These films would include William Friedkin’s The French Connection (which won 5 Academy Awards), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (which was nominated for 4 Academy Awards), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The films all sparked controversy at time of their release with regards to violence, disturbing content, explicit sexual content, and themes that would be considered taboo at the time of their release. All of these films received R ratings at the time of their release, and they grew to become some of the most popular films of their decade and most well-known cult classics of all time. Controversy was also found over the disturbing imagery in 1973’s The Exorcist, the sexual themes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the graphic violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the violent themes on display in the aforementioned four films that came out in 1971. In the age of the Hays Code, these films could easily be turned down for distribution and even if they managed to slip through, they would likely be pulled due to public outcry. However, with the MPAA ratings system and the appropriate R-ratings, the films can be watched and enjoyed in the public conscience.
In short, the slew of acclaimed dramas that came with the dawn of the auteur, the invention of many new blockbusters and sequels, and the creation of the MPAA ratings system were the main things to come out of the 70’s. It is for these reasons, as well as the home video craze, the introduction of films airing on television, and the introduction and refinement of several genres such as horror, musical, and science fiction (as well as the inception of the superhero film genre) that the 1970’s were the most important and influential years for films. The directors of this era have also inspired several young filmmakers to this day, such as David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Neill Blomkamp, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith, amongst many others. These directors would go on to bring more classic films whether through Hollywood or through their own independent production companies and continue to spread their second-hand magic throughout Hollywood. The 1970s introduced several revolutionary concepts as well, each used in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s afterwards, and if those years had not happened, the world of Hollywood would be vastly different. Although things seem to be regressing in recent years with rising ticket prices and lackluster summer/winter seasons (mostly in 2010), hopefully Hollywood can get back on its feet and start supplying viewers with better films and solid entertainment in the future.
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