History of Hollywood in the 1980s-1990s: Everything You Need to Know

Most Hollywood trends are short-lived but they can always come back around. Learn more about the artsy films of the 1990s.

Mar 4, 2024By Alec Badalian, BA Film History and Production
history hollywood 1980s 1990s


Between the mid-1960s and early 1980s, filmmakers were seen as the stars of a film production. Studios offered input during the creative process but they would rarely override the decisions of a director. Hollywood’s cyclical nature brought back the dictatorship of the studio heads and auteurs had to take an independent route. Of course, this led to fresh and exciting works with distinct perspectives that connected with audiences. Studios took notice of this and wanted a piece of the action, which paved the way for a cultural rebirth.


What Was The New Hollywood Movement?

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Paul Thomas Anderson with Fiona Apple; next to Quentin Tarantino, circa 1997. Source: Esquire


The New Hollywood movement was on an impressive run that happened from the 1960s through the 1970s until its legs were sawed off because of one film. It was Michael Cimino’s infamous 1980 western Heaven’s Gate that was in the theaters for only two weeks. It ended up being an utter disaster, both financially and critically. It nearly sent United Artists—which has since folded into MGM—to its grave. Because of this, other studios panicked and decided to strip most of the creative freedom from filmmakers. This is not to say that there were no artistically innovative films released in the 1980s but rather that the filmmaker was becoming oppressed as an artist.


Auteurs Power Through the 1980s

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One of many breathtaking sequences in Scorsese’s Raging Bull.


Two of the last films from the 1970s wave were released in 1980: Stanley Kubrick’s horror icon The Shining and Martin Scorsese’s sports epic Raging Bull, which was released by UA the same weekend as Heaven’s Gate. Also released that year was The Empire Strikes Back, a box-office phenomenon that did not outperform Star Wars but led studios to become obsessed with franchise-building.


Sometimes it was the auteurs themselves in charge of these franchises, like in the case of the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg. Still, there were plenty of unique independent productions that year including the chilling neo-noir Blow Out by Brian De Palma and the neorealist crime drama Thief by the underrated Michael Mann. These filmmakers would not allow any studio executive to feel more important than the film that was being made. Through their work, they revitalized the counterculture in Hollywood.

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James Caan’s Frank pulls off a complicated heist in Thief.


The best example of Hollywood’s cinematic diversity came in 1982 when Universal Pictures released Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic E.T. just a couple of weeks before John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece The Thing came out. Both movies feature stories about aliens coming to Earth yet each approaches the story from a totally different perspective. One is an optimistic family adventure while the other is a grim thriller. Scorsese experimented that year making The King of Comedy which turned out to be his biggest flop at the time.


It was clear to Hollywood that audiences (and their wallets) preferred convention over counterculture. E.T. was a box-office hit while The Thing was both critically and financially unsuccessful. It has since, rightfully, been recognized as one of the best horror films ever. This is not to say that E.T. is not great in its own right, but it turned out to be an overused template for the types of films studios became obsessed with.


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Kurt Russell’s MacReady faces a shapeshifting alien in The Thing.


The rest of the decade was dominated by family-friendly franchises like Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters. There was also a boom in the horror movies section with Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Auteur-driven cinema was seen as a niche market and even the most high-profile filmmakers were on short leashes when working with studios. For example, Scorsese’s 1985 cult comedy After Hours was only made because the director planned an efficient shooting schedule which reduced the budget. If a film was not a spectacle that had franchise potential, then the chances were it wasn’t going to receive much attention from a studio. As the new decade approached, Hollywood was about to realize that the true power lay not in the industry itself, but in the filmmakers and their audience.


New Hollywood Becomes Newer

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Griffin Dunne’s Paul Hackett has a long night ahead of him in After Hours. Source: Criterion Collection


The Sundance Film Festival has been shining light on independent and foreign auteurs for nearly 50 years. Some of today’s best filmmakers debuted at the festival. In 1992, a young video store employee turned filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino changed everything with the premiere of his first film Reservoir Dogs. Jami Bernard of the New York Daily Times likened the screening to the Lumieres’ debut of The Arrival of the Train, saying that the audience had no idea what to expect. Critics complained about the non-linear editing of the narrative, the profane dialogue between the characters, and the strong violence. The movie became one of the most important independent films of all time.


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The colorful gangsters of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Source: The New Yorker


Reservoir Dogs was not a box-office hit but its notoriety gave Tarantino access to bigger stars and bigger budgets. There were also bigger expectations. His next film was the iconic 1994 Pulp Fiction. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and became a great success. The film retains its indie sensibilities and the singular voice of its filmmaker is not overshadowed by Miramax which was its primary financier. Unlike its predecessor, Pulp Fiction was one of the highest-grossing films of the year and critics embraced its unique style. Its massive popularity made Reservoir Dogs a home media sensation as viewers built the Tarantino cult, which would exponentially grow in the coming years.


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John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. Source: Time Magazine


It’s interesting to look at Tarantino’s early work and see how he handles his characters. They are not archetypal protagonists or antagonists but fully formed people who deal with internal and external conflicts the way anyone would. Within just a couple of years, Tarantino’s influence was felt in the world of cinema. Some films were noble adaptations of his ideas, while others were cheap knockoffs. The best work in post-Tarantino Hollywood came from California’s San Fernando Valley with the works of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like Reservoir Dogs, Anderson’s 1996 character drama Hard Eight premiered to rave reviews at Sundance. However, it underperformed in theaters. But like Tarantino, Anderson was now on Hollywood’s radar.


Time to Get Groovy

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Phillip Baker Hall’s Sydney is a father looking for a son in Hard Eight.


In 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson made Boogie Nights. The film opens with a magical three-minute tracking shot that glides through a nightclub as the characters are gracefully introduced. There is a similar shot around the halfway point at a New Year’s Eve party that has a completely different effect, perfectly encapsulating the duality of the film and its characters. Anderson wanted the audience to feel the totality of each of his characters. Despite its large ensemble cast featuring Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, and Don Cheadle, everyone’s story is equally developed. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert said that Hard Eight reminded him of what original, compelling characters movies can sometimes give us and Boogie Nights does the same on an even more impressive scale.


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Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner directs an intimate scene in Boogie Nights.


Spanning from the 1970s to the 1980s, the film is about the evolving counterculture of the San Fernando Valley. It particularly focuses on the adult entertainment industry. Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams is a high school dropout who becomes a porn actor. He is discovered by Burt Reynolds’ accomplished porn filmmaker Jack Horner. Eager to prove himself, Eddie reinvents himself with a new identity which gives him confidence. His new life also leads to problems with addiction. The movie is full of sexual liberation, drugs, and tomfoolery.


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John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild imposes on Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams in Boogie Nights. Source: Lincoln Center


Other 1990s movie hits include David Fincher’s 1995 crime mystery Se7en, Danny Boyle’s 1996 drug drama Trainspotting, and Wes Anderson’s 1996 quirky comedy Bottle Rocket. Not only did each of these filmmakers go against the grain of the industry like their predecessors from the 1970s but their films also paid homage to the era. While Boogie Nights is the only one of these films that is actually set in the past, all of the listed movies feel timeless. This is why they became such classics. As the modern film industry continues to value quantity over quality, these foregone eras might be just what keeps the world of artistic cinema alive.

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By Alec BadalianBA Film History and ProductionAlec is an assistant writer in the film/TV and industry who has worked on various projects at big studios and independent companies alike. He holds a BA in Film History and Production from Woodbury University in Los Angeles, CA. His role at The Collector is just beginning but he hopes to expand the cinematic content on the site. In his spare time, he watches films, discusses films, reads about films and writes about films.