Feature

What the Hollywood of 1985 can teach us about Hollywood today

To find the roots of 2015's cinematic landscape, take a trip 30 years into the past

1985 was a big year for Hollywood. Harrison Ford pivoted from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, establishing himself as a versatile leading man in Witness. Sylvester Stallone's heroic pecs glistened as he expanded his franchise empire with Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. Influential cult classics like The Goonies, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and The Breakfast Club were released. And, of course, Michael J. Fox — between filming episodes as a lovable young Republican on Family Ties — launched his film career by starring in Back to the Future one month and Teen Wolf the next.

For all the noteworthy films that emerged, 1985 was also a watershed year for Hollywood in a broader sense — old trends started to fade away, and some new trends started to emerge. A deeper look into the year's biggest releases casts the current state of Hollywood in a new light.

1. Star power was at its peak

Released in late 1985, Rocky IV was yet another of Stallone's successful attempts to cash in on his popular Rocky Balboa character (and, perhaps, to end the Cold War, via soul-stirring training montages and incredibly fake boxing). It worked; Rocky IV was wildly successful — and mostly because of Stallone. The fourth Rocky was the third-highest grossing movie of the year, and it would have been second if it hadn't fallen behind another Stallone sequel: Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For a brief moment, audiences simply could not get enough of Sly. But he never reached those heights again. In the years that followed, Cobra, Over the Top, and even Rambo III and Rocky V failed to equal his earlier hits.

What happened? Hollywood still loves its big names, but it no longer depends on them. With movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: Episode VII bound for release in 2015, there's virtually no chance that the same actor will star in two of the same year's top-grossing movies. Instead, studios have learned to focus on a genre; today, superheroes and reboots are in vogue. There's a reason it's impossible to identify a single person as Hollywood's hottest actor or actress. In recent years, even one-time A-listers like Tom Cruise and Will Smith have seen their power fade.

2. The international box office was becoming king

Stars have become less important because Hollywood has morphed into a risk-averse, global business, and blockbusters are the genre that translates best abroad. Transformers: Age of Extinction was panned by critics here, but it still earned over $1 billion, and that was mostly thanks to its international success. The film made $250 million in the United States and $850 million overseas, with international audiences accounting for 77 percent of its gross box office total.

A glance at the yearly box office charts proves that this homogenizing effect grows every year — but the roots of the international boom can be traced back to 1985, when sequels and soon-to-be-franchises were just beginning to make a serious chunk of their money abroad. Blockbuster and sequel-starter Back to the Future earned 45 percent of its massive gross from overseas sales. Rambo: First Blood Part II earned 50 percent. And Rocky IV earned a full 57 percent of its gross total from non-American sales.

3. The gulf between popular movies and acclaimed movies was much narrower

Thirty years ago, the separation between "successful movie" and "critically acclaimed movie" was virtually non-existent. Out of Africa, an almost three-hour romantic drama starring Meryl Streep, ranked fifth in box-office dollars with $87 million. It was also widely praised by critics, and did well on the awards show circuit, winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director.

Out of Africa's success came at a time when the tastes of audiences and awards show voters were more or less in sync, but there's now a huge gap between popular films and critically-acclaimed award winners. Birdman, the latest Best Picture winner, ranked 79th among the top grossing movies of 2014. Previous Best Picture winners12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King's Speech, and The Hurt Locker — ranked 62nd, 22nd, 71st, 12th and 116th, respectively. Over the past 30 years, the gulf between the mainstream and the awards show darlings grew so wide that the Academy expanded its Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of 10 just to ensure that some popular favorites — like this year's American Sniper — made it into the mix.

4. Hollywood didn't think long-term

In 1985, studios started to realize the money-making power that came with rehashing what audiences had already embraced. Back to The Future became a massive, multi-platform franchise, but the original was never intended to have a sequel; the second and third installments were planned, filmed, and released back-to-back on the strength of the original's performance. And for all the cash the Rocky and Rambo franchises had raked in by the end of 1985, they only became franchises by accident. The originals told complete stories, and further entries were only mapped out later.

Thirty years later, Hollywood's growing recognition of the power of franchises has reached its logical conclusion: prepackaged franchises, whose success is treated as a foregone conclusion, mapped out in five-year plans. That's right: studios have so little faith that the consumer will want something different that there are already superhero movies planned through 2020.

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