The surprise success of Star Wars, which was never expected to achieve anything like it did at the box office, showed that a big shift in audience tastes was coming. The huge historic epics had worn thin. Westerns were out of fashion and that decade of pessimism was starting to wear on audiences. Spielberg had already found success with a movie about a killer shark. Tides were changing. By the early 80’s, the blockbuster was a substantial entity. Spielberg, Lucas, Ridley Scott et al were relishing fantasy and science fiction and these were the big budget studio films. Of course your classic dramas and Oscar bait films were still being made, but more and more, money was being piled into attracting audiences with the fantastic. More Star Wars films. Indiana Jones. Time travelling DeLoreans. The kind of films which were historically B films were slowly consuming cinema. Into the 90’s. Dinosaurs return. The revolutionising of computer technology was opening more avenues to film-makers. To this point now the growth in the tech and reliance upon it has grown exponentially. Now we find ourselves in a time where almost anything can be imagined on screen to epic scales and relentless levels of carnage.
Who rules the cinemas now? Disney, an all encompassing, all consuming force now oversees its own blockbusters as well as having Pixar and Marvel under its wing. Films are costing several hundred million dollars for production (before the mass marketing push costs are even taken into account) and the ones being greenlit at this scale are all what would classically have been described as B movies. Whether it’s Avengers (which made in the 60’s would probably only have been made by someone like Corman, perhaps with some help by Harryhausen) or Batman, or whoever. B movies still have their perennial underground placings too and their cult audiences, but it has become more tiered than ever, and the ability to shoot and distribute genre films from a couple of thousand bucks spent, to half a billion has opened the B movie across so many levels. Now we have further classifications like Z movie, or C grade, to further distinguish these levels.
Hitchcock had already done it, but a decade ago, film-makers, lead by Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman, were starting to take B movies seriously. Something like The Dark Knight given the intensity and seriousness, and grounding of an Oscar film. Suddenly the predominant remit for these B movies wasn’t just about fun. Of course, film-making craft was always given importance in the rise of the blockbuster, in no small part because someone like Spielberg takes his job seriously and won’t sell himself short. It’s not like the old days of ham fisted actors and silly dialogue (you still get that in many of course). Still, Nolan approached his film like he was David Lean making something worldly, deadly serious and Oscar worthy. But of course we now do not think of these mega budget films as B movies even if the material and genre would have historically been categorised as that.
As with anything, tastes change and the dark gritty blockbuster is falling out of fashion again, with audiences increasingly attracted to escapist fun and thrills. For one, many have followed in the wake of someone like Nolan with a lot less skill, but further, the MCU has managed to find a perfect balance of fun, frolics, humour and drama. The formula, for now, is the one which most arouses audiences. Still, we’re far removed from the tastes and attitudes of the 60’s and before. What used to be looked on with a degree of scorn and dismissive derision is now the predominant force keeping the big screen industry alive. You still get cinephiles who dismiss the B picture as inherently, and inescapably silly. Even someone like Ethan Hawke last year took flak for comments about Logan which boiled down to (paraphrasing) ‘it was good for a comic book film, but it’s not Bergman.’ Whilst he’s correct to a point, he is in fact the minority. The largest audience demographics are opting for escapism over intense human character deconstruction.
Students of film may point to the rise of the B movie as the predominant force behind something of a decline in great drama in the 21st century. I myself, looking at a cinematic point of view, particularly if focusing on American cinema, would call the 70’s the golden era for powerful, ground-breaking, gritty and intense drama. Are ‘straight’ films dropping in number? Are studios becoming less inclined to fund these when audiences are clearly shifting toward fun? Probably. Even looking down the budget scale, indie film-makers, even at a point where it’s cheaper and more efficient than ever to shoot films, are struggling to get dramatic pieces made and funded (beyond focusing on timely matter or demographic pushes). Yet, the micro-budget horror market is booming. It’s easier to get 10 grand to make a horror and far easier to sell it, than to make a heartfelt drama. Times have definitely changed.
In the next instalment, we will look at the mavericks of B cinema. The trailblazers who opened up horizons for film-makers from big to small scale.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/