The quasi-outlier is ironically where it started. In 1967, the release of Bonnie and Clyde (among others it could be argued) ushered in a literal new wave of adult cinema, merging high art with gritty and real-world subject matter with mostly unprecedented realism in terms of form and content. In its wake we got a solid decade of major studio releases explicitly tailored to adults, films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Network that made up what any number of film scholars might refer to as 'the greatest generation.' Hell, if you want to count 1966's Blow Up as the film that took the French New Wave to a mass-audience level (it made $20 million in 1966), then the pattern holds even tighter. Either way, 1977 gave us Star Wars. Aside from being the highest-grossing film of all-time by a wide margin, it, along with Jaws in 1975, ushered in a decade of somewhat family-friendly or at least mass-audience pleasing popcorn entertainments (Jaws at least was a violent and character-driven adult potboiler). It also changed the way the studios treated genre fare, as the would-be "B" movie suddenly became an "A" picture. Come what may, the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, or Top Gun were, while technically original pictures.
But even that would somewhat change with the colossal release of Batman. Eleven years after Star Wars, Tim Burton's pop art film noir didn't so much make comic book movies into a hot commodity so much as expose the advantage of the pre-established property. In its wake we saw a spree of preordained blockbusters, films that were basically set-in-stone smash hits-to-be by virtue of marketing and hype, as well as quite often the benefit of being based on a known quantity. Films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Addams Family, The Fugitive, Mortal Kombat, and X-Men were massive hits alongside ever-more frequent sequels like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and the resurgent 007 franchise. I could list countless flops on this template as well (Judge Dredd, Super Mario Bros., Gremlins 2: The New Batch, etc.), but the pattern was still the crutch of the presold property. If it was already well-known, it was that much easier to market and to sell, no? Eleven years after Batman, at the tail-end of 2001, we saw two massive smash hits that changed the game once again.
I've written elsewhere about the mammoth effect of the twin dynamos of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Even with the explosion in "A-level B-movies" brought about by Star Wars and the presold adaptations brought about by Batman, most of the would-be blockbusters were at least somewhat real-world plausible. Lethal Weapon 3 was still a buddy cop adventure while Mission: Impossible 2 was still about watching Tom Cruise ride a motorcycle and shoot bad guys. The changes brought about by 'the boy who lived' and 'the keeper of the ring' was in scope and scale. For the last eleven years, the blockbusters have been mega-budget fantasy spectacles. Be they based on comic books, theme park rides, or fantasy literature, the new big films were mega-budget B-movie adventures featuring unparalleled scale and once-impossible production values and special effects. I've also argued that another 2001 release, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, basically invented the reboot, but that's a slight digression. The last decade has seen the near extinction of not only the mid-level big studio adult movie outside of Oscar season, but the near extinction of the old-school genre film in favor of stories beyond your proverbial imagination.
And now it's 2013, time for another changing of the guard. What would-be smash hit will bring on the next league of blockbusters and, most importantly, what kind of films will those new tentpoles be? This is all speculation, but I actually think this time, like in 1977, that the change happened a year early. With studios outside of perhaps Disney trying to reduce costs and fewer massively popular preexisting properties left to adapt, I believe that the next wave of blockbusters will be less like Harry Potter and more like The Hunger Games. They will be less like Pirates of the Caribbean and more like Skyfall. Two of the biggest films of last year, along with the sneak-attack of Fast Five and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol in 2011, will arguably show the way for the return of the earthbound genre film. Instead of spending $200 million on CGI and green-screens, studios will spend $150 million on the biggest most outrageous action set pieces they can muster, all crafted in a fashion that will hopefully allow us to believe our eyes once again. These mega-scale real-world action pictures will go hand-in-hand with the comparatively cheaper and more youth-centric fantasy lit adaptations. After a decade going higher and higher on the fantasy scale, Hollywood really has no place left to go except down to Earth.
What are your thoughts on all of this? What kind of blockbusters do you think we'll be seeing over the next decade or so? What kind would you want to see if you ran the industry? Please share below.