As stated in the introduction to this series, if 1980’s Hollywood perfected anything, it was marketing: demographic research, adherence to the four-quadrant model (males under 25; females under 25; males over 25; females over 25), high concept movies, and chasing the ultimate, the “Blockbuster” movie, were the primary motivators of big-business, big-budget Hollywood. Gone were the days of “New Hollywood” where gritty, violent pictures filled with antiheroes, realism, and downer endings that the 70’s thrived on–the 80’s were going to be about the good guys, special effects, and happy endings.
The top grossing movies of the decade in the US are reflective of this spirit, both for their content and the notable directors that made them: 1980: The Empire Strikes Back; 1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark; 1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; 1983: Return of the Jedi; 1984: Beverly Hills Cop; 1985: Back to the Future; 1986: Top Gun; 1987: Three Men and a Baby; 1988: Rain Man; 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The first half of the decade was dominated by either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg (in Lucas’s case, both, since he was also heavily involved in the Indiana Jones franchise, having created the character and produced the films).
After “everyman” hero cop Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Robert Zemeckis appears in 1985 with the fantasy/action/comedy Back to the Future, followed by super pro-American Top Gun. 1987 and 1988 are the oddballs of the bunch (Three Men and a Baby? What the hell?) before Spielberg closes the decade again on top with the third Indiana Jones movie. Over the course of the decade, all but two are high-concept Blockbusters filled with special effects, action-adventure, and appealed to large swaths of the American movie-going audience.
And that’s just considering the films that were the #1 pictures of their year; runner-ups of these years include Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Big, Die Hard, and Batman–all high-concept, special effects-laden action adventure films mixed with comedy and fantasy. It was a decade where popular entertainment meant escapism–instead of being challenged with drama and realism, more than anything the US audience wanted to be entertained and transcend into fantastic worlds where snarky but likable heroes engaged in a quest of some sort, there were clear-cut bad guys to defeat, a little bit of everything–action, adventure, comedy, and even romance–for everybody was thrown into the mix, and a happy ending would always be found.
With the success of the Star Wars franchise, Hollywood took note and realized they could create a new money-making vehicle: the franchise. Rocky, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard all became franchise properties in the 1980’s, as Hollywood wised up to the notion that if the audience likes something, you should give them more of it. Even aborted franchises, like Ghostbusters and Gremlins, were given sequels (though to lesser success).
And this strategy was, to put it mildly, wildly successful: the Rocky franchise made nearly a half a billion dollars in the 1980s in America alone. Even ostensible crap like the Karate Kid franchise made a quarter billion domestically at the box office. The idea of the franchise worked like gangbusters in the 1980’s, to the point where now establishing a film franchise is the de facto goal of every major studio.
It also began a new trend in film that would eventually become one of the most prominent marketing strategies of Hollywood from that point on: building up already established properties. While franchise films were the first adaptation of this idea (The first movie was well-received? Let’s keep building that same world and character in successive movies!), but–as we’ll eventually see when we cover 80’s television in this series–what would prove even more lucrative was adapting pre-existing concepts and properties from other mediums, eventually leading to what Hollywood does now in the early 21st century: reboot established properties.
A Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell Goes to Tinseltown
As mentioned, the types of films that were being made in the previous decade–when “New Hollywood” took over the studios–were darker and edgier, filled with bleak subject matter, unlikable protagonists, and unpleasant endings. The 1980’s shook off this “artistic” striving for realism and almost universally decided that what people really wanted was to enjoy the film they were watching.
With this came the new heroes in Hollywood: funny, charming, smooth characters that could survive explosions, take down the horde of bad guys with guns, and save the girl at the end. It was Joseph Campbell’s hero myth re-emerging after a decade-long slumber.
The usual path (of our humble hero being unsure of himself > being given a great task to complete > meets his romantic interest > tries and fails/comes across an obstacle > finds a new source of power > tries again and succeeds > resolution with romantic interest, hero having learned something) was abridged slightly, where the new heroes are already at the top of their game: John McLane from Die Hard, Dutch from Predator, Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon, Indiana Jones, Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop, Maverick from Top Gun, Batman, and Rambo are all already excellent at what they do, so the “humble origins” element was deleted from Campbell’s hero myth structure. In place of this, they’re “fish out of water” characters–extreme individuals who succeed in spite of being out of their comfort zone and the obstacles placed in their way.
This is reflective of another predominant attitude during the 1980’s in America: “It’s not me, it’s you.” If an individual succeeds, it’s because they were simply better than you were at a particular skill: Riggs might be out of his mind, but his methods get results; John McLaine thwarts a skyscraper full of terrorists because he’s just that damn good; Axel Foley’s a great example of “fish out of water” mentality, since he slides into Beverly Hills as a streetwise Detroit detective and dances circles around his supposedly urban, urbane cops and villains, never once breaking his stride. Even Marty McFly from Back to the Future skips over the “humble” part, instead travelling back 30 years into the past and unintentionally schooling everyone he comes across–because he was from the 80’s, man!
The phrase “American Exceptionalism” has been bandied about a lot over the past 80 years since the concept’s formal invention in the 1930’s, but in the 1980’s this was the default attitude that cinema defined its characters by: our heroes always get the girl, save the day, and look pretty damn cool while doing it. Other, lesser characters may bluster and try to get in their way, but our heroes will just have to power through this static to get the job done. As an example, think about Ghostbusters having to deal with EPA stick-in-the-mud Walter Peck: while he may be technically right and there is no data or even real understanding of the potential environmental effects of their ghost containment unit, and after all they are running around with unregulated nuclear proton packs that discharge what looks like unbelievably unwieldy bursts of energy, you side with the Ghostbusters because–as the film makes sure to establish in the audience’s mind–they are right. In this case, it’s not the actual ghosts that are their biggest obstacle, but some pencil-pushing government employee that’s purposely giving them a hard time and whom eventually causes a major disaster that our heroes have to scramble to fix.
In fact, that’s one of the biggest, most consistent obstacles 80’s heroes had to face: bureaucrats, politicians, corporate knobs, and supervisors getting in their way. For a then-conservative nation, big government was viewed as a major interfering factor getting in the way of America’s success. Consequently, these were the boogie men and true enemies our 80’s heroes had to face–not the psycho running around killing people (that would be easy to solve, were it not for these damn laws that prevent our hero from just blowing the guy away), but the stodgy police captain who’s wasting his breath yelling in our hero’s faces about procedure and evidence instead of just doing what has to get done. Even in space, the bad guy ends up being a corporate stooge: after all, who was the real villain in Aliens? Not the xenomorph but the lackey for the Weyland Corporation that puts everyone in harm’s way.
Home Video: Where Everything’s (Eventually) A Success
If there was one consumer product that solidified Hollywood as a money factory in the 1980’s, it’s the VCR. While the technology was first introduced in the 1970’s (and there was a brief consumer war between the VHS and Beta formats), by the 1980’s the retail price of VCRs dropped low enough so that many households could finally afford one (the average price dropped from $1000 to $200 to $400).
This was revolutionary for a number of reasons: people could tape live TV to watch later, watch home movies they made if they had video cameras, and–most importantly–be able to watch uncut, uninterrupted feature-length films at home(1).
The advent of VCRs and the home video market had two great effects on the American cultural landscape: the first was the proliferation of both independent mom and pop video rental stores and larger, corporate ones (I’ve written an elegy for video stores elsewhere on this site) that began to spring up across the country, and the second was the effect that the video market had for the movie business in general: mainly that on a long enough timeline, almost all movies would eventually turn a profit.
The reason was simple: VHS tapes of feature films were insanely expensive to buy at the time. To buy a major studio film on VHS ran between $70 to $80, so unless you were quite wealthy, you would not own a lot of films on your own. This is where the brilliant secondary market of video stores came into play: studios would give rental shops a break on the price, lowering it to $50 to $60 per copy. In turn, rental shops would gain a healthy profit through rentals at $3 to $5 for a day or two per customer. After some years had passed from its initial release, a VHS copy of a film would drop significantly in retail price and people could then buy a VHS copy of their favorite film for $20 to $30.
So say you had a film budgeted at $12 million but it only made $6 million domestically. In any other time period, this would be considered a bust. But after selling, say, 20,000 copies of the film to the 15,000 rental shops that were across the country at $50 a piece, that added another million dollars to your gross; after a few years, the price drops in the retail market and now–having reached a substantial secondary audience that has viewed the film on the rental market–you sell another 100,000 copies at $20 apiece, that’s another two million to your gross. At this point, broadcasting rights would have been negotiated and could continue to be renegotiated for syndication markets. Within 5 years, your “bomb” is now in the black and would continue on that path until seemingly the end of time, with rebroadcast residuals continuing on for as long as the film airs on TV outlets (which were also multiplying, thanks to the explosion of cable TV–but that’s for another article). And that’s just for a film that didn’t make its money back in the theaters: for successful films, the sky was the limit for how much money would be made in the secondary markets.
Even more so, studios were set to make an insane amount of money from their back catalogs: up until the 1980’s, unless a theater was screening an old movie or it was airing on television, if you liked a specific film you would never be able to watch it again, and never be able to watch it “on-demand.” Suddenly, all of film history became widely available to the masses, who could just go to their local video store, scan the shelves, pick up a movie made in 1967 that they hadn’t seen since, and for $4 rent it for a few days to watch at their convenience.
This meant that older properties that the studios hadn’t bothered with for decades were now once again hot commercial commodities. As a result, film studios that owned the rights to these films simply began producing VHS editions of them, making new money for old rope. This generated a productive and healthy economy in itself: the studios were making money, video stores were making money, and the consumer was being provided a product it was eager to pay for and enjoy.
Big Stars & Typecasting
For the first time in decades, the Hollywood star system re-established itself, with “big-name” stars returning after nearly 15 years in the wilderness from the “New Hollywood” dismantling of this system. Hollywood studios in the 1980’s were looking for sure things when they put millions into their films, and they began to look for actors that could open a picture and potentially sustain a franchise run.
Harrison Ford, obviously, became one of the biggest stars of the 1980s thanks to his involvement in both the Star Wars franchise and as Indiana Jones. But image-based stars–who were immediately identifiable based on their distinct characteristics rather than their acting ability (or ability to speak clearly) also emerged in the forms of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone–with their near-inhuman physiques and stoic performances, they were the perfect action hero figures for the 1980’s.
Types began to get established so that the audience would know what to expect from the films these actors appeared in: Stallone and Schwarzenegger are obvious, but then there was Tom Cruise, who established himself as an above-average All-American type; Tom Hanks, whose boyish, goofy persona on-screen was best exemplified in his breakthrough hit Big; Michael J. Fox was forever enshrined as skateboarding smart-aleck Marty McFly, and otherwise played both comedy and drama as a young, eager, yuppie type; Michael Douglas played the wry middle-aged type; Eddie Murphy was obviously the wisecracking, too-cool type; and the list goes on.
Stereotyping in Hyperreality
This was a decade where the hyperreality that was always just beneath the surface of film became explicit: where characters became caricatures and the worlds they inhabited were exaggerated reflections of aspects of our own. As a result, stock characters–gangsters, businessmen, blue-collar workers, housewives, bratty kids, and average Joes–became nearly cartoonish in their representation on-screen, while our protagonists turned into superhumans. It wouldn’t be enough that there was a car chase–there had to be a car chase that involved 20 cars, gunfire, explosions, some comic relief, exposition, and a grand finale. Your hero wasn’t just a cop: he was a super-cop that breaks all the rules and can take down 20 guys single-handed. Your bad guy wasn’t a bad guy, he was looking to take over the world. It’s like the characterization of James Bond: Super-Spy was grafted onto every other story, making every protagonist, villain, and supporting character overblown representations of their type.
Across the spectrum of genres in 1980’s films, there was a concerted effort by writers, producers, and directors to codify stereotypical representations: nerds were always physically weak, bookishly smart, interested in technology and science, and socially inept (this last particular attribute now comes across as rather cruel, considering the now well-known condition of Asperger’s). In contrast, “jocks” were handsome, athletic, affluent, popular, and sexually appealing, as were preppies, who were wealthy, socially well-connected, and immaculately stylish. Girls were portrayed as either confused, nervous, socially awkward (the “girl next door” type) or promiscuous, shallow bitches–and all of them were always pining for the jock or preppy character to like them. If you weren’t a supercop, you were a shiftless, possibly crooked, and mostly disinterested member of the police force; blue-collar worker portrayals showed uneducated, ineloquent, rough around the edges working stiffs who wanted beer and football; housewives were either shrewish or Ms. Homemaker; if you were from New York City or New Jersey, you were a rude asshole; if you were from the South, you were a brain-dead hick; if you worked in business and finance, you were a callous money-obsessed jerk; and if you were a non-conformist you were a loser; if you were black, you spoke jive, were hip, and often a criminal; forget it if you were a foreigner–according to 80’s films, you were basically retarded, .
While this works for the sake of entertainment, it also has the dangerous effect of informing people’s understanding of the larger society they live in–especially if they never actually meet anybody from these social strata, lines of work, or geographical areas. Before the internet, there was no way to meet, talk to in real time, and see much of the world as it happened, especially instantaneously–as a result, media portrayals had a lot of power in shaping the populace’s perception of large sections of society and pockets of American culture they would never experience first-hand.
This is probably why a lot of American films from the 1980’s tend to catch a lot of flack in the 21st century. After all, there are a lot of ways to portray various people, social groups, and types in fiction, and in the 1980’s it was largely derogatory unless you were the type the culture wanted promoted as its ideal: white, straight, wealthy men and women that followed traditional American values–not those nerds with their books and thoughts, or those losers that didn’t fit in, or all of those other people that don’t speak with perfect mid-Atlantic accents or blend in with shiny present-day trends. Praising the 1980’s is all well and good, but to pretend a lot of its portrayals of people isn’t problematic is to willfully blind one’s self.
But, in step with the Blockbuster mentality, the attempt to appeal to everyone demands a certain level of sinking to the lowest common denominator; and outside of the uniform galvanizing of the straight, white, and middle-class, everyone else got a taste of the mean end of the portrayal stick, so 1980’s films were–at the very least–equal-opportunity offenders.
Of course, this also led to another new market: bootleg tapes. As a personal anecdote, most of the films I owned up until the mid-90’s were dubbed-off copies my father had made because he owned two VCRs. But this also meant that I was the first generation to grow up being able to pop in my favorite movies–say, Back to the Future or Ghostbusters–and watch them as much as I pleased. There must have been some phenomenological effect on my generation of this sort of technology: before that moment in time, nobody was able to have any of this at their fingertips, and suddenly there it was.Taping off of television was another brand-new trend: my family would tape our favorite shows and watch them at our convenience; I would tape Saturday morning cartoon shows so I could watch them over and over later. It was, in a very limited sense, the earliest version of YouTube–of being able to recall videos that were instantly available on a secondary device (in this case, the VCR to the television, as opposed to the more insular and seamless software of an internet browser on an operating system).