Growing up as a kid through the 80’s, for every blockbuster movie like Star Wars or Indiana Jones there were 50 non blockbuster(B movies) that completely captured those generations of film fans.
Movies like The Breakfast Club weren’t necessarily huge box office blockbuster movies, but they are beloved by their fans.
Why are there so few of these types of movies today and where have the storytelling filmmakers gone?
A look back
Many will credit Steven Spielberg as one of the godfathers of the blockbuster film genre. It’s hard to argue otherwise.
Starting with Jaws and moving into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, coupled with George Lucas dropping the Star Wars bomb in 1977, the concept of a high budget, highly promoted film was born.
Not only did they show that films could be promoted and advertised in such a way to make them into a true event for film goers, they showed the potential for spin-offs, sequels, and merchandising that had been mostly lacking until then.
Interestingly, the films that ushered in the Blockbuster era were in genres that were previously in the B-Movie category of Hollywood. Films with little to no budgets, no big advertising push, and minimal box office return.
Along with The Godfather, the films mentioned above were some of the first to have a wide release as well, which was another giant shift in the film going experience.
Prior to that, most movies were released in major city markets first. Places like New York and LA would get the films first and from there, depending on how well it did, the films would be brought to the rest of the country.
This era also saw the birth of the Comic Book movie in Superman, blockbuster family/children's films with The Muppet Movie, and Sci-Fi was brought mainstream with not only Star Wars, but Star Trek: The Motion Picture being brought to the big screen.
The late 70’s and early 80’s saw a huge transformation in the film industry.
I used The Breakfast Club as an example earlier. Some of you may not feel like this was indeed a B-Movie. I can understand that completely. What I mean is that it WASN’T one of those massive blockbuster films like Star Wars or Indiana Jones.
Growing up this class of movie was what I absolutely THRIVED on. From movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles to Weird Science, Iron Eagle, Bloodsport, and even cult classics like The Toxic Avenger and Killer Clowns From Outer Space.
These were the films that my friends and I spent all of our time talking about. Of course we loved the big ones, like Rocky and The Goonies, but we’d watch all of those other films so much more often because the big blockbusters happened just a couple times a year.
One of the biggest blockbuster movies of my childhood was the 1989 release of Batman. As an 11 year old kid, I remember seeing Batman ads and merchandise EVERYWHERE that entire summer into the early fall. From the collector cups at fast food chains, to our local county fair, Batman was everywhere.
In contrast, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off came out 3 years earlier and I can not recall seeing even a single commercial for it. I’m sure they were out there, but the level of promotion was a stark contrast to Batman.
The difference today
Contrast the mix of films then to what we see now. On almost any given weekend you can find some sort of blockbuster style event movie.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE seeing my favorite comic book heroes on the big screen or seeing favorites such as IT being brought back. But it just seems like even the “filler” movies on theater screens these days are of the big budget variety.
In most markets across the US, it’s actually pretty hard to find today’s version of a Weird Science on the big screen. Typically those films will be released at festivals and in specialized “Indie” theaters that show the more “Art Film” style of films.
Meanwhile your local multiplex theater of 8–10 screens will be showing a few screens of the latest Marvel or Disney film. Just for the sake of curiosity, here’s what my local theater is showing as I write this.
- Ad Astra
- IT : Chapter 2 (showing on 2 screens)
- Rambo : Last Blood
- Downton Abbey
- The Lion King
Out of those films, Hustlers is a borderline blockbuster that has a big budget high profile cast for an adult comedy and Downton Abbey is a bit of a niche market film. The rest are all in the big budget blockbuster category.
So where have the B-Movies gone?
The easy and obvious answer would be they have left the big screen behind and opted for streaming.
With the popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even the upcoming Disney +, it’s easy to say these films have decided to forgo the cinema experience and go directly to audiences in the comfort of their own homes.
There was a point in time where a film being “direct to video” or “home release” only was a pretty good indicator that the film was pretty bad.
Now, services like Netflix have raised the bar for original content being brought directly to viewers. Not only for films, but television series as well.
We are seeing big name filmmakers, such as the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese and even Adam Sandler, bring their films directly to streaming services.
It’s not just up and coming, no name directors that are populating the ranks of home streaming entertainment.
While there are a good number of what could be considered B-Movies today that are released on streaming services, I think to say that the B-Movie has just moved to streaming is a bit of a cop out answer.
There’s more at play than a theatrical release vs streaming release
If you look closely at the original content being released on streaming providers, you’ll find them bringing in big name casts and enjoying some fairly large budgets to get their films made.
Not always, of course.
But a film such as The Irishman is a great example. This is the streaming version of blockbusters starting to dominate streaming services as well.
The real problem boils down to economics and expectations.
There seem to be fewer and fewer filmmakers today that are truly satisfied by being able to express themselves creatively by telling all the amazing stories in their minds.
The culture of YouTube and Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, have conditioned (and even re-conditioned) so many creatives to think about nothing but the popularity and instant success of their creations.
Filmmakers don’t want to put in all the work needed to make the films in their head if there isn’t the promise of the big payday that they just saw their friend get with THEIR last film.
Studios don’t want the hassle of promoting a film if it’s not going to net millions of dollars and line their pockets further.
Everyone wants home-runs and touchdowns, no one is happy with a stand up double or first down plays.
So studios and filmmakers work to make sure that their next project will be a hit like the last Avengers movie, or that it will be so artsy and technically perfect that it’s a shoe-in for some end of season hardware for the mantle. Story be damned, if it’s technically terrific and brings home the Oscar they are happy.
Surely that can’t be EVERYONE’S approach though, can it?
There is one more major shift that has happened to help kill off the B-Movie category.
The long form series
HBO did it with Game of Thrones.
Netflix with Stranger Things.
There’s American Horror Story, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and so on.
I personally feel that many filmmakers, especially those that have the desire to jump in and tell whatever unique stories they have floating around, are opting to ditch the constraints of a single film or even the hopes of a trilogy or film franchise.
Instead they are realizing that they can tell those stories much more effectively in a 10–13 episode season of cinema quality television. It’s written and filmed like a movie, with the cast spending months shooting the entire season.
When it launches, even though it’s episodic, the whole season is released at once. Viewers no longer have to wait week after week to see what will happen.
Filmmakers have realized they can effectively tell their stories in 13 hour long episodes, that when dropped all at once, have the impact of a 13 hour long movie.
And a good large majority of these series are what would make up the “B-Movie” category today. Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, crime stories, quirky comedies, dark humor, even animated series and sequels to classic movies like the Dark Crystal.
The landscape for the B-Movie has changed, shifted, and completely morphed into something new.
The real question is has the B-Movie, the non blockbuster film, been lost forever? Is it now simply a footnote category in the history books of film?
Or is there hope for the B-Movie to someday thrive once again?
David (Usually Dave) Szweduik is a photographer, podcaster, and all around geek from the great state of Minnesota and can be found weekly on his podcast Adventures in Creativity. There you’ll find him having conversations fueled by curiosity around the amazing world of all things creativity.