Things Just Ain’t What They Used to Be: Movies Studios from the 90s to Now

Glengarry Glen Ross 2New Line Cinema

If it’s the middle of February, then it must once again be time for my quarterly rant about the state of the industry and how the studios’ single-minded pursuit of the tent pole dollar is leading us all to our ruin.

“Oh, look!” you say with demented glee upon reading that paragraph. “It’s Neil playing Chicken Little again. I love when he does this! You can almost see the spit flying from his mouth and the steam pouring from his ears as he shakes his fist and rants like he’s in a Dylan Thomas poem!”

But this one is a little different, because this time around, I’m not going to lose my cool and allow myself to get lost in another rage spiral about how the studios are running like lemmings toward the cliffs of ruin. This time, I’m going to take deep breaths, remain calm, and ask you to join me as we take a trip into the Way Back Machine to illustrate my complaints.

Er, I mean my points. Illustrate my points. Whatever. You know what I’m saying.

In any event, because I like Big Important Numbers, let’s take said Way Back Machine 25 years ago to 1992, which was, in fact, a pretty great year for movies. I won’t bother to give you a comprehensive list, but will mention just a few, to offer context: Unforgiven, Glengarry Glen Ross, A Few Good Men, Scent of a Woman, Howards End, The Last of the Mohicans, The Player, Aladdin, The Crying Game, A River Runs Through It, Malcolm X, Enchanted April, and Husbands and Wives, just to name a few, and that doesn’t even include Batman Returns, A League of Their Own, Sister Act, Wayne’s World, The Bodyguard, Basic Instinct, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, White Men Can’t Jump, Patriot Games, and Under Siege. And I could go on. In fact, I’m sure I left out a few favorites, but there are larger points to make.

But take a look at those movies I just listed. There are 23 of them, eight of which appear in the year’s top 10 grossing movies. There are exactly two sequels in there, one of which is a superhero movie. Another movie is a spinoff of a TV show, one a Disney cartoon based on an Arabian legend, two are based on plays, three on novels, and the rest? Original ideas that cover every genre. There are comedies, dramas, melodramas, thrillers, action movies, love stories, a horror flick, period films, even a western. And the best part?

With three specific exceptions, they are all studio movies.

White Men Can't Jump20th Century Fox

That’s right, not so long ago, the studios actually made original films that were not sequels, or superhero movies, or based on an IP (though, it behooves me to point out that the two movies that finished in the top 10 which I did not mention above were Home Alone 2 and Lethal Weapon 3, so it’s not like those movies weren’t being made), and the industry was actually doing just fine.

Doubt it? Okay, let’s do that thing where I throw some numbers at you, and then you tell me if I’m being crazy.

In 1992, the cumulative domestic box office gross was $4.871 billion. In 2016, it was $11.376 billion. Obviously, a huge difference, I know, but there are some important factors to consider. For one thing, a dollar in 1992 would be worth $1.75 today. There were 235 movies released to theaters in 1992, as opposed to 731 last year, which is an increase of 210 percent. Factor everything in and the grosses would be a lot closer, though 2016 would still have the lead.

However, I think it’s sort of paramount that you take into account this fact: there were 1.173 billion tickets sold in 1992, as opposed to 1.315 billion last year, an increase of 12 percent. It’s a sizable jump, sure, but let’s put it into a very specific context. In 1992, there were 25,214 screens in North America.

Last year, there were 40,759. That’s an increase of 62 percent.

Starting to see the picture here?

In 2016, the only three movies in the top 10 that were not sequels or based on an IP, were all animated films. Extend it to the top 20. You want to guess how many movies didn’t fall into one of those three categories?

Go ahead. Take a moment. I’ll wait here. It’s okay, I have laundry to fold. It’s fine.

What did you guess? You guessed one, right? Because of course that’s what the answer would be. One movie in the top 20 domestic grossers of 2016 was neither a sequel, an animated movie, nor based on an IP, and that was, in fact, number 20 on the list, Central Intelligence (which should really have an asterisk next to it, simply because it stars Dwayne Johnson, who has pretty much become an IP all on his own).

Grosses increase and profits fall. That’s the gist of the current studio business model. Records are set for the amount of billions a company grosses in a given calendar year, and yet revenues are middling, because of the enormous money spent to publicize and promote the movies in which said studios have already invested nine figures.

Central IntelligenceNew Line Cinema

There’s a line in the movie Dave (sadly, released in 1993, one year too late to fit perfectly here), spoken by Charles Grodin. He’s playing an accountant and is looking over the federal budget to help Kevin Kline’s title character, who is impersonating the president. I’m paraphrasing slightly, but essentially, Grodin’s Murray Blum says, “If I ran my business like this, I’d be out of business!”

It obviously still applies to the federal government — both in the movie and in real life — and it goes for the studios today. In 1992, these companies were not on the ropes and wondering how they were going to survive. They didn’t have respected directors questioning the reasoning behind their decisions, and they weren’t constantly searching for the next intellectual property to exploit to insure that they could draw more people to the theaters. They were still making romantic comedies then, as well as other movies that appealed to audiences that were not isolated to a certain demographic. That is, they were still making movies for women. And people over 40.

You know what else they were doing? They were making smart, interesting, engaging films that captured the imagination and made people think. Movies that stayed with us for longer than it took to get from the theater to the street. Movies that were varied and unique, that weren’t just more cookie cutter versions of the same thing, over and over and over again.

It was 25 years ago. Doesn’t seem so far back, does it? It might as well have been eons.


Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.

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One Response to Things Just Ain’t What They Used to Be: Movies Studios from the 90s to Now

  1. This is my analysis of your list.
    there is a lot more than three
    based on a novel:

    Based on a play
    ============
    Glengarry Glen Ross
    A Few Good Men

    Remake
    =======
    Scent of a Woman

    Based on a book
    ================
    Howards End
    The Last of the Mohicans
    The Player
    Aladdin (based on “One Thousand and One Nights”)
    A River Runs Through It
    Malcolm X (based on Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.)
    Enchanted April
    Patriot Games

    Based on a Comic
    =================
    Batman Returns

    Based on a TV show
    ==================
    Wayne’s World

    Original Movies
    ==========
    Unforgiven
    The Crying Game
    Husbands and Wives
    A League of Their Own
    Sister Act
    The Bodyguard
    Basic Instinct
    The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
    White Men Can’t Jump
    Under Siege

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