New Hollywood, sometimes referred to as the "American New Wave," usually refers to a movement in American film history from the mid-to-late 1960s (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider) to the early 1980s (Heaven's Gate, One from the Heart) when a new generation of young filmmakers came to prominence in the United States, influencing the types of films produced, their production and marketing, and the way major studios approached film-making. In New Hollywood films, the film director, rather than the studio, took on a key authorial role. The definition of New Hollywood varies, depending on the author, with some of them defining it as a movement and others as a period. The span of the period is also a subject of debate, as well as its integrity, as some authors, such as Thomas Schatz, argue that the New Hollywood consist of several different movements. The films made in this movement are stylistically characterized in that their narrative often strongly deviated from classical norms.
After the demise of the studio system and the rise of television, the commercial success of films was diminished. The "New Hollywood" period, spanning the mid-1960s and early 1980s, was a period of revival.
Following the Paramount Case (which ended block booking and ownership of theater chains by film studios) and the advent of television, both of which severely weakened the traditional studio system, Hollywood studios initially used spectacle to retain profitability. Technicolor developed a far more widespread use, while widescreen processes and technical improvements, such as CinemaScope, stereo sound and others, such as 3-D, were invented in order to retain the dwindling audience and compete with television. However, these were generally unsuccessful in increasing profits. By 1957 Life magazine called the 1950s "the horrible decade" for Hollywood.
The 1950s and early 1960s saw a Hollywood dominated by musicals, historical epics, and other films that benefited from the larger screens, wider framing and improved sound. Hence, as early as 1957, the era was dubbed a "New Hollywood". However, audience share continued to dwindle, and had reached alarmingly low levels by the mid-1960s. Several costly flops, including Tora! Tora! Tora!, and Hello, Dolly!, and failed attempts to replicate the success of The Sound of Music, put great strain on the studios.
By the time the baby boomer generation was coming of age in the 1960s, 'Old Hollywood' was rapidly losing money; the studios were unsure how to react to the much changed audience demographics. The change in market during the period went from a middle aged high school educated audience in the mid 1960s, to a younger, more affluent, college-educated demographic: by the mid 1970s, 76% of all movie-goers were under 30, 64% of whom had gone to college. European films, both arthouse and commercial (especially the Commedia all'italiana, the French New Wave, and the Spaghetti Western) and Japanese cinema were making a splash in United States — the huge market of disaffected youth seemed to find relevance and artistic meaning in movies like Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, with its oblique narrative structure and full-frontal female nudity.
The desperation felt by studios during this period of economic downturn, and after the losses from expensive movie flops, led to innovation and risk-taking, allowing greater control by younger directors and producers. Therefore, in an attempt to capture that audience which found a connection to the "art films" of Europe, the studios hired a host of young filmmakers (many of whom were mentored by Roger Corman) and allowed them to make their films with relatively little studio control. This, together with the breakdown of the Production Code in 1966 and the new ratings system in 1968 (reflecting growing market segmentation) set the scene for New Hollywood.
This new generation of Hollywood filmmaker was most importantly, from the point of view of the studios, young, therefore able to reach the youth audience they were losing. This group of young filmmakers—actors, writers and directors—dubbed the "New Hollywood" by the press, briefly changed the business from the producer-driven Hollywood system of the past.
Todd Berliner has written about the period's unusual narrative practices. The 1970s, Berliner says, marks Hollywood’s most significant formal transformation since the conversion to sound film and is the defining period separating the storytelling modes of the studio era and contemporary Hollywood. New Hollywood films deviate from classical narrative norms more than Hollywood films from any other era or movement. Their narrative and stylistic devices threaten to derail an otherwise straightforward narration. Berliner argues that five principles govern the narrative strategies characteristic of Hollywood films of the 1970s:
Thomas Schatz points to another difference with the Hollywood Golden Age, which deals with the relationship of characters and plot. He argues that plot in classical Hollywood films (and some of the earlier New Hollywood films like The Godfather) "tended to emerge more organically as a function of the drives, desires, motivations, and goals of the central characters". However, beginning with mid-1970s, he points to a trend that "characters became plot functions".
During the height of the studio system, films were made almost exclusively on set in isolated studios. The content of films was limited by the Motion Picture Production Code, and though golden-age film-makers found loopholes in its rules, the discussion of more taboo content through film was effectively prevented. The shift towards a "new realism" was made possible when the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system was introduced and location shooting was becoming more viable.
Because of breakthroughs in film technology (e.g. the Panavision Panaflex camera, introduced in 1972), the New Hollywood filmmakers could shoot 35mm camera film in exteriors with relative ease. Since location shooting was cheaper (no sets need to be built) New Hollywood filmmakers rapidly developed the taste for location shooting, resulting in more naturalistic approach to filmmaking, especially when compared to the mostly stylized approach of classical Hollywood musicals and spectacles made to compete with television during the 1950s and early 1960s.
However, in editing New Hollywood filmmakers adhered to realism more liberally than most of their classical Hollywood predecessors, often using editing for artistic purposes rather than for continuity alone, a practice inspired by European art films and classical Hollywood directors such as D. W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock. Films with unorthodox editing included Easy Rider’s use of editing to foreshadow the climax of the movie, as well as subtler uses, such as editing to reflect the feeling of frustration in Bonnie and Clyde and the subjectivity of the protagonist in The Graduate.
The end of the production code enabled New Hollywood films to feature anti-establishment political themes, the use of rock music, and sexual freedom deemed "counter-cultural" by the studios. The youth movement of the 1960s turned anti-heroes like Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke into pop culture idols, and Life magazine called the characters in Easy Rider "part of the fundamental myth central to the counterculture of the late 1960s." Easy Rider also affected the way studios looked to reach the youth market. The success of Midnight Cowboy, in spite of its X rating, was evidence for the interest in controversial themes at the time and also showed the weakness of the rating system and segmentation of the audience.
A defining film of the New Hollywood generation was Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Produced by and starring Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn, its combination of graphic violence and humor, as well as its theme of glamorous disaffected youth, was a hit with audiences. The film won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and Best Cinematography.
When Jack L. Warner, then-CEO of Warner Bros., first saw a rough cut of Bonnie and Clyde in the summer of 1967, he hated it. Distribution executives at Warner Brothers agreed, giving the film a low-key premiere and limited release. Their strategy appeared justified when Bosley Crowther, middlebrow film critic at The New York Times, gave the movie a scathing review. "It is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy," he wrote, "that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie..." Other notices, including those from Time and Newsweek magazines, were equally dismissive.
Its portrayal of violence and ambiguity in regard to moral values, and its startling ending, divided critics. Following one of the negative reviews, Time magazine received letters from fans of the movie, and according to journalist Peter Biskind, the impact of critic Pauline Kael in her positive review of the film (October 1967, New Yorker) led other reviewers to follow her lead and re-evaluate the film (notably Newsweek and Time). Kael drew attention to the innocence of the characters in the film and the artist merit of the contrast of that with the violence in the film: "In a sense, it is the absence of sadism — it is the violence without sadism — that throws the audience off balance at Bonnie and Clyde. The brutality that comes out of this innocence is far more shocking than the calculated brutalities of mean killers." Kael also noted the reaction of audiences to the violent climax of the movie, and the potential to empathise with the gang of criminals in terms of their naiveté and innocence reflecting a change in expectations of American cinema.
The cover story in Time magazine in December 1967, celebrated the movie and innovation in American New Wave cinema. This influential article by Stefan Kanfer claimed that Bonnie and Clyde represented a "New Cinema" through its blurred genre lines, and disregard for honoured aspects of plot and motivation, and that "In both conception and execution, Bonnie and Clyde is a watershed picture, the kind that signals a new style, a new trend." Biskind states that this review and turnaround by some critics allowed the film to be re-released, thus proving its commercial success and reflecting the move to New Hollywood. The impact of this film is important in understanding the rest of the American New Wave, as well as the conditions that were necessary for it.
These initial successes paved the way for the studio to relinquish almost complete control to these innovative young filmmakers. In the mid-1970s, idiosyncratic, startling original films such as Paper Moon, Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver among others (see below), enjoyed enormous critical and commercial success. These successes by the members of New Hollywood led each of them in turn to make more and more extravagant demands, both on the studio and eventually on the audience.
For Peter Biskind, the new wave was foreshadowed by Bonnie and Clyde and began in earnest with Easy Rider. Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls argues that the New Hollywood movement marked a significant shift towards independently produced and innovative works by a new wave of directors, but that this shift began to reverse itself when the commercial success of Jaws and Star Wars led to the realization by studios of the importance of blockbusters, advertising and control over production.
Writing in 1968, critic Pauline Kael argued that the importance of The Graduate was in its social significance in relation to a new young audience, and the role of mass media, rather than any artistic aspects. Kael argued that college students identifying with The Graduate were not too different from audiences identifying with characters in dramas of the previous decade.
John Belton points to the changing demographic to even younger, more conservative audiences in the mid 1970s (50% aged 12–20) and the move to less politically subversive themes in mainstream cinema.
Geoff King sees the period as an interim movement in American cinema where a conjunction of forces lead to a measure of freedom in filmmaking.
Todd Berliner says that seventies cinema resists the efficiency and harmony that normally characterize classical Hollywood cinema and tests the limits of Hollywood's classical model.
The following is a chronological list of notable films that are generally considered to be "New Hollywood" productions.