Compared to other art forms such as literature and traditional art, film is still a fairly new medium that has only just begun to grow. The medium itself combines story, visuals, and sound to create something unique—and since the turn of the century it’s grown even more. Some of the first films that were screened used a wide variety of techniques to tell their stories without color nor sound. Later, technology evolved and film began incorporating sound, color, and a multitude of editing techniques as well as new approaches to staging and lighting that distinguished the medium from the stage and literature. The 20th century saw film hit its stride and change the world, inspiring generation after generation of actors, filmmakers, and storytellers. The 21st century on the other hand has quickly distinguished itself from the previous generation by embracing new technology and stories. If this trend continues, the rest of the 21st century will be characterized by big-budget glamorized productions and the smaller-budget films that disrupt this status quo in complex ways.
The Trends from the 20th Century
Many of the trends that have come to define the 21st century began in the latter half of the 20th century, things like: increasing film budgets, heavy use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), and a reliance on established intellectual property (IP). These elements are what bring viewers into movie theater seats, constituting the majority of the highest-grossing films of all time. The major dimension at play here is that all of these films are not wholly original; the bulk of them are part of an already established series or story world. Different studios are relying on this model, and others are following suit. This trend is not stopping any time soon. Coinciding with this trend is the rise of streaming and the extensive back catalogs that are coming forward in addition to new and innovative titles. A viewer in today’s world is presented with two options for finding new films.
They can either go to the movie theater and see the new highly produced character spectacle, or they can look on streaming services—in addition to more niche movie theaters—and find older films or films not part of an established IP. Streaming also provides access to documentaries and worldwide cinema that would never come to traditional American theaters, films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) or The Edge of Democracy (2019). This combination of big-budget IP and the accessibility of film outside the traditional theater is defining film so far into the 21st century.
The early 20th century had widely popular films such as Frankenstein (1931) and Gone with the Wind (1939), but these films were not part of any larger group of films. Even if there were sequels like in the case of Frankenstein, they were mostly separate and did not require viewing the other Frankenstein films. The sequels were connected with the character of Frankenstein, but viewership did not come as a result. There were connected films that did bring in audiences though. These were the films that, instead of them being the same character or story, were connected by the reputation of their director like Alfred Hitchcock or Cecil B. DeMille, or production companies like Disney with films like Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), and Peter Pan (1953).
The only thing connecting these films was the people that made them, but that was enough to bring viewers back to the theater. This would slowly start to shift in the 60s and 70s with some bigger films where fans wanted to come back and see continuations of the story. The James Bond films starting in 1962 with Dr. No (1962) consistently reached the top of the box office, and a little over a decade later we saw films like The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), Indiana Jones (1981), and Jurassic Park (1993). These stories, whether they presented themselves as being singular or part of a bigger story, were capturing fans and teasing them with the hints of future expansions of the story and the characters. This is the period where film became bigger than ever before, economically and culturally, breaking box office records and coming into the home with both TV and home-video. This is why many of these properties are seeing resurgences in the 21st century in the form of: spin-offs, sequels, prequels, remakes, etc.
Trends of the 21st Century
The 21st century has been about superheroes and big cinematic universes. The beginning of the century went off with a bang as both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter’s large-scale fantasy projects created exciting and engaging worlds for fans of all ages. These fans were lined up to see the next film opening night, and the properties additionally had immense staying power in viewer’s minds. Instead of going home and forgetting about the film, fans could fill their homes with the books that the stories were adapted from as well as video games, toys, posters, and collectibles. The property was a mainstay in the home as well as the media news cycle. Both series reached their respective conclusions, but in the years since there have been multiple spin-off series and there are still more to come. These spin-offs have not been topping the box office though. Instead, what took over the public’s conscious after the end of Harry Potter—which completed after Lord of the Rings—was superhero movies.
Superhero films were not something new, but they had been reinvented and quickly turned viewers into fans. These caped figures have been gracing the big screen since 1978 with the first Superman which was widely liked by the public and critics alike. There were also numerous entries into the superhero canon from figures like Batman and Spider-Man as well as Superman sequels, but the interpretation of superheroes that we are familiar with today began in 2008. The number one film this year was DC Comic’s Batman film The Dark Knight, and this incarnation of the character was grittier, and so were the villains he faced. This version resonated with the public that was becoming desensitized to the onslaught of terror and violence that the news was covering, and it became a hit. This version was from director Christopher Nolan, an auteur director who was not interested in continuing the story past one more sequel, much to the dismay of fans and the production studios. Alternatively, the competing superhero property Marvel was just beginning their cinematic universe in 2008 with Iron Man. The film was widely successful, and even though it was not viewed as favorably as The Dark Knight was, it was the start of something bigger and better. Iron Man led to The Avengers (2012) which brought forward Avengers: Endgame (2019), and there are no signs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe slowing down anytime soon. If anything, other properties like Star Wars and DC Comics have now been modeling themselves off of Marvel and releasing more than just one film at a time, resulting in a market saturated with “cinematic universes.” This is what it appears the 21st century will look like for film, but there are gaps that this model leaves, gaps that are made increasingly more apparent by viewers finding other ways to watch different kinds of film.
The superhero films and other extended universes trying to capture those same audiences may be topping the box office, but this does not mean that film alternatives do not exist. If anything, there are more unique films and stories than ever before, they are just not attaining the same market saturation. Films at award shows previously received more recognition from the public—not every film but a sizable portion of Best Picture winners drew high box office numbers—but in the last decade this has become less of the case. Even if the films recognized are not traditional arthouse flicks, they are viewed as such by the mainstream public. The last Best Picture winner to gross over $100 million was Argo in 2013, and this is because award shows and the films they support have been perceived as insular to the broader public. Over time, award shows and the films given awards have been further disconnected from the public. The public’s wallets are more oriented toward the big-budget films and whatever new thing the streaming service algorithm puts in front of them, evidenced by some of Netflix’s top films reaching over 74 million people. There is a large number of titles on these services that do not see the same viewership numbers, but there are also the gems that can be found if you look hard enough or learn about them from friends and social media. These films are less so masterpieces that no one has ever heard of but rather production studios’ back catalogs of successful films and those with limited theatrical runs. Examples of these films that streaming services are full of are The Game (1997), Magnolia (1999), and Good Time (2017). These are not unknown films, but instead they are some mix of successes and failures. They maybe were critical successes that received little to no public attention, or were films that were reappraised later in their life and their actual value was discovered. Some were very successful, but as time has gone by if they were to be compared to something like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), then you would say they are far from mainstream in the perspective of today. Some filmmakers have turned to streaming services to have full creative freedom and financing for their films, as distributors recognize they will fail when inevitably going against the next big Marvel film at the box office. Martin Scorsese chose Netflix for The Irishman (2019) because they gave him the creative freedom to create his 210-minute film. Similarly, Bong Joon Ho with Okja (2017), Alfonso Cuarón with Roma (2018), Noah Baumbach with Marriage Story (2019), and Charlie Kaufman with I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). These platforms have also made foreign films readily available. Films are no longer only competing against other films that come out at the same time. They are also competing against international fare, streaming libraries, and TV series as well.
What Will the Future Trends Look Like?
Looking beyond film, streaming platforms have increased the availability and demand for new long and short-form series. Television itself has changed so much in that it has achieved a new cinematic quality. This can be seen in works like True Detective (2014) and the new Squid Game (2021). Film in the 21st century is impossible to discuss without including many of these new TV series that push both storytelling modes closer together. Streaming itself has been increasingly democratized and is the space for experimentation and innovation. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) tested a new interactive film and Bo Burnham’s Inside (2021) pushed what a stand-up special was previously capable of. These developments also put film financing into question. Certain filmmakers are seeing critical and commercial success, moving between the mainstream and also working on their smaller passion projects. Filmmakers like Chloe Zhao, Denis Villeneuve, Taika Waititi, Rian Johnson, and James Wan could all be perceived as having their distinctive style while simultaneously contributing to the big-budget productions. These filmmakers all had critically successful works before working on the big IP films, and there are multiple reasons as to why they would want to step out of their smaller-scale features and work on something with so many eyes on it. Zhao, director of the upcoming Eternals film, approached Marvel as a fan, stating that she wanted to expand the scope of the universe while simultaneously pushing for intimacy. In Zhao’s case, she wanted to use the resources to create something special, while it seems as if other filmmakers like James Wan directed a film like Aquaman (2018) so that they may secure funding for more personal projects, like his recent film Malignant (2021).
Film is complicated in the 21st century and it is becoming increasingly so as viewers have access to more films than ever before. This is where film is going to distinguish itself from the previous generation; it is not going to be a battle between big superhero film and smaller films in domestic settings. It is not going to be a battle between Star Wars and political dramas. It is going to be something that we do not understand. From the beginning of the century it has already changed so much, and since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, consumer behavior is increasingly hard to understand. Marvel and Star Wars have both released numerous spin-off TV series to stream that have done well, but simultaneously, original series like Squid Game without name recognition have broken into the public conscious. Behind-the-scenes will also always be an unknown for the general public, and financing films will always be a brutal and bloody game as evidenced in the 2013 documentary Seduced and Abandoned. However, based on the trends from the last year, it seems as if the rest of the 21st century, viewers will be: going to see the next big film from the next big franchise, seeing the next big film from the old big franchise, clamoring over a film that was released many years prior, and hyping up a new film from a director who is also work on a big IP-driven project. The 21st century is going to be defined by endless content, big or small, good or not. More people are working on film than ever before, and the biggest films have more people working on them than ever before. Film is a place to see your experiences brought to life and it is also a place to vicariously live other lives, and in the world today with constant threats of economic and environmental collapse, more people want to know they are not alone as well as escape into fantasy than ever before. This is the generation of people who grew up on film and simultaneously need it more than ever before. The 21st century of film, of media, is going to be whatever you make it, because whatever your niche interest is, if you want to be seen or if you want to escape, you can find something to fall into and enjoy. That is what the 21st century of film is going to be.