The Rise & Fall of Hollywood’s Avant-Garde Cinema

In the past, it was the filmmakers who were in control of Avant-Garde Cinema in Hollywood.

Feb 27, 2024By Alec Badalian, BA Film History and Production
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As cinema skyrocketed in popularity in the early 1900s, businessmen immediately saw its opportunity as a lucrative commerce. This has forced filmmakers to defend their craft from executives who only seek to profit and do not have the arts in their best interest. If it were not for history’s avant-garde filmmakers, cinema may not have become as diverse as it is today. The era of Avant-Garde Cinema elevated the film world to new heights.


Avant-Garde Cinema: To Rebuild, One Must Destroy

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Amid Ruins of An Empire, headline in Life Magazine. Source: Life


Like many of its inhabitants, Hollywood woke up with a bad hangover in the 1950s after having an impressive decade of film during the 1940s. Theatergoing was no longer as profitable under the studio system after it was weakened by the United States vs. Paramount Pictures case and the advent of television. But the biggest blow to the industry came from within. Hollywood became obsessed with the spectacle of big-budget musicals and historical epics. In 1957, Life Magazine called the 1950s a horrible decade for Hollywood. Instead of learning from this criticism, the town stubbornly decided to stay on its course.


The Queen Calls for an End

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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Source: TCM


The 1963 Cleopatra impacted the studio system in ways greater than any Supreme Court case or counterprogramming could. 20th Century Fox was desperate to recreate the grandeur of epics like Ben-Hur and Spartacus but was misguided by their cost-driven approach. Production began in 1960 with director Rouben Mamoulian and immediately crashed to a halt when the leading lady Elizabeth Taylor was diagnosed with meningitis.


While she was ill, writer Nunnally Johnson was hired to rewrite the script. His work was met with dismay by Mamoulian and Taylor who felt the tone copied prior adaptations of the character. Between its ailing star, script issues, and a bloated $7 million budget that only produced ten minutes of usable film, Mamoulian resigned and was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

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The final budget for Cleopatra was $44 million. Needless to say, it was the most expensive movie ever up to that point. Therefore, it faced an uphill battle to return a profit after its theatrical run ended with $26 million in grosses. Fox finally broke even in 1966 when they took the film overseas and sold the television rights to NBC for $5 million. This model of spending big and hoping for a hit was not feasible for the studios, especially with theater attendance still in decline. Something had to change and the studio executives had no clue, leaving it to their filmmakers to figure it out.


Let’s See Who’s Really in Charge

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Fox rebranded Hollywood’s famous Pantages Theater for the huge release of Cleopatra. Source: Martin Turnbull


In the summer of 1967, Warner Bros. CEO Jack Warner watched a rough cut of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and hated it. He did not give the film a wide release as he was bracing for criticism against its realistically graphic violence, but the controversy did not have the aftermath that anyone expected. Bonnie and Clyde was a massive hit due to its influences from the French New Wave which presented audiences with a startlingly new type of film. This breakthrough led to the popularization of foreign cinema in Hollywood, particularly the 1966 erotic thriller Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni which shocked Warner Bros. with its high audience demand in 1967.


Thus, the New Hollywood movement was born. Peter Biskind perfectly describes the phenomenon in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the greatest collection of film history ever written. Studio executives went from shaking their heads in incomprehension to nodding their heads in incomprehension as they knew the key to the treasure chest was the filmmaker and their work.


Exploring the Best of the Best

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David Hemmings and Veruschka von Lehndorff in Blow-Up. Source: Film Forum


Similarly to the Pictures Generation, The New Hollywood filmmakers took over the world in the 1970s as the industry was producing its most diverse and remarkable works. To name them all would be tedious given that there were around 6000 films released in the era. The key directors of the movement were Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian de Palma, George Lucas, William Friedkin, Terrence Malick, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, and Robert Altman would be atop this list. Their artistic authority was too powerful for studio heads to deny, so these directors gained complete creative control of their work.


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Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. Source: StudioBinder


These were not just films that were well-received by critics and audiences but the majority of them were also box-office hits for the studios. The Godfather by Coppola, The Exorcist by Friedkin, Jaws by Spielberg, and Star Wars by Lucas were all the highest-grossing films of their years. Even the less accessible films like Klute by Pakula, Dog Day Afternoon by Lumet, and Taxi Driver by Scorsese were as lucrative as they were impressive. Finances aside, the cultural impact left by these filmmakers was huge. Much in the way that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation influenced the techniques of cinematic storytelling, these filmmakers taught subsequent generations how to implement their voices.


Hear the Battle Cry of Cinema

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Theatergoing was on a meteoric rise in the early 1970s thanks to New Hollywood. Source: Palm Beach Post


Of the aforementioned filmmakers, the three who were most important to the movement would have to be Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese. After The Godfather, Coppola agreed to make The Godfather Part II only if he could also make his passion project that same year called The Conversation. Then he made the arduous war epic Apocalypse Now and its tumultuous production was documented by his wife Eleanor in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.


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Francis Ford Coppola directing an action sequence on the set of Apocalypse Now. Source: The Film Stage


Over the span of about eight years, Coppola made two of the most famous films of all time and two other masterpieces that highlighted the struggle of getting a film made. He was the hottest director in all of Hollywood in a sea of cohorts and competitors that were waiting to take their bite.


A Shark Explosion at the Box Office

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Steven Spielberg and his crew traversing the waters during the making of Jaws. Source: People magazine


In the middle of Coppola’s unparalleled success, a young Steven Spielberg was trying to adapt Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws for Universal Pictures. Much like Apocalypse Now, the production was disastrous as it was the first major motion picture to be shot on the ocean, leading to over-expenditures and technical issues. Despite its adversity, Jaws quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time with a theatrical run of $476.5 million, which is almost $3 billion today. Spielberg redefined the blockbuster film with his expertly made thriller and quickly did the same for science-fiction in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released shortly after Star Wars. His cinematic skillset aligned perfectly with the type of film studios desperately wanted while those with more outcast voices had to fight for their art.


Life is Not Easy on the Streets

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Martin Scorsese directs Robert De Niro on the set of Taxi Driver. Source: Aphelis


The blockbuster never particularly interested Martin Scorsese for he was always more interested in making smaller, personal films about faith and fear. The 1973 Mean Streets is not Scorsese’s best film but it may be the most emblematic of his style and a prominent breakthrough in New Hollywood. It feels like a film made by its characters, so truthful and immersive that it feels as if the viewer is actually walking alongside them. Yet as incredible as the film is, Scorsese immediately topped himself and his peers with his masterpiece Taxi Driver.


Taxi Driver embodied the counterculture of New Hollywood unlike any other film in the movement. Its protagonist, the loner Travis Bickle, is unable to be a functional member of society despite his youthful look and energy. It is up to the viewer to decide whether he has done the right thing in choosing his own path or if he should have just followed another one. In the case of New Hollywood, audiences resoundingly chose the former as filmmaker-driven cinema had put the old studio system to bed.


The Downfall of Avant-Garde Cinema

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Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle cruises the New York City streets in Taxi Driver. Source: TCM


A rude awakening occurred when Michael Cimino’s 1980 flop Heaven’s Gate single-handedly forced its studio, United Artists, into bankruptcy. Despite the abundance of goodwill from the decade before, filmmakers were once again at the mercy of studios after this catastrophic event. This led to an emphasis on producing more high-concept spectacles like Jaws or Star Wars as well as an overreliance on sequels. It is rare to see a studio film nowadays that is not beholden to some pre-existing property, whether it be other films/shows, comics, or video games. To find original cinema, one must look to independent companies like A24 or Neon or look at foreign industries where studio interference is minimal. Hopefully, the cyclical nature of Hollywood will bring back a time of true artistry.

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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.