What Is New Hollywood? The History + Influence of Film’s Most Daring Era

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When your dive into cinema history brings you to the American films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, you’ll come across the term “New Hollywood,” which might be confusing. Isn’t every era of the industry a “new” Hollywood? Wouldn’t a period from more than 50 years ago be “old”? But New Hollywood is less about a time frame than it is about a paradigm shift in the way movies were made, when outdated sensibilities gave way to something more daring.   

Here, we’ll dive into the history, impact, and major players of New Hollywood, as well as the ways its influence is still felt today.

The rise of New Hollywood

New Hollywood was, first and foremost, a time of transition when exciting, fresh visions could make their way to the screen because the glitzy-but-ultra-conservative Old Hollywood was no more. Several events spurred this change, starting with the 1948 landmark ruling of United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. This Supreme Court decision put an end to the days of studios owning movie theaters, thus mandating their films be shown exclusively. This opened up the door for more indie theaters, as well as an opportunity for foreign films to reach the United States. 

In the wake of the ruling, studio heads also had to contend with the rise of television during the 1950s. By the time Hollywood hit the ’60s, it was desperately competing for the eyes of a younger audience that didn’t want to watch the stars of their parents’ generation. Anti-war and pro–civil rights sentiments made for a tumultuous cultural atmosphere. Movies could face these challenging subjects head-on after the 1968 dissolution of the Motion Picture Production Code—also known as the Hays Code—a censorious set of guidelines that had regulated what was and wasn’t allowed onscreen since 1930.

Several films that hit at that moment signaled the shift away from the Old Hollywood mentality—like 1968 best picture nominees “Bonnie and Clyde” from director Arthur Penn and “The Graduate” from director Mike Nichols. But the watershed film of the era was 1969’s “Easy Rider.” Dennis Hopper’s counterculture movie follows two bikers, played by Hopper and Peter Fonda, on a road trip funded by a cocaine deal. “Easy Rider” earned $60 million on a mere $375,000 budget, and garnered Academy Award nominations for its screenplay and Jack Nicholson’s supporting performance. The movie’s success demonstrated to Hollywood that audiences were hungry for edgier, more experimental filmmaking that pushed the boundaries of cinematic narrative and form. 

Combined with the influence of European New Wave cinema, American creators now had the inspiration and freedom within Hollywood to create films unlike anything the industry had tackled before.

New Hollywood movies

New Hollywood films weren’t simply different from the previous generation for the sake of it. The industry actively pursued difficult, artistically daring material because there was a serious audience demand among the coveted demographic of young Americans who wanted to see the realities of their chaotic, post-Vietnam present reflected back onscreen. 

This led to groundbreaking films like: 

  • William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971) 
  • Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1973) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974)
  • Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970) and “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972)
  • Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Taxi Driver” (1976)
  • George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973)
  • Brian De Palma’s “Sisters” (1972) and “Obsessions” (1974)
  • Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974)
  • Steven Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express” (1974)
  • John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974)
  • Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)
  • John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976) and “Halloween” (1978)

While the industry remained heavily dominated by men, some female voices were able to break through as well, such as Barbara Loden with “Wanda” (1970) and Elaine May with “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972). 

Old Hollywood typically had to adhere to particular styles and find unique ways to explore darker material without running afoul of the Production Code. New Hollywood movies could be far more direct in showing nudity and violence while tackling issues like adultery and drug use without unambiguous moralizing. “Taxi Driver,” for example, follows (and even sympathizes with) the violent loner Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) without holding the audience’s hand or stating plainly that Bickle’s actions are wrong. 

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This allowance for grittier material led to mainstream success for entries like “Midnight Cowboy,” John Schlesinger’s story of a male prostitute (Jon Voight) and a con man (Dustin Hoffman) surviving in New York, which is still the only X-rated movie to win a best picture Oscar.

The era’s directors also had the freedom to be more visually inventive, experimenting with composition and chronology. These were filmmakers raised on Old Hollywood; a movie like Polanski’s “Chinatown” is still in conversation with the noirs of the 1930s and ’40s, but the story is infused with the bitterness and bite present in 1960s and ’70s culture.

Similarly, while a film like “The Godfather” is set in the 1940s and ’50s, its attitudes are firmly set in the cynical malaise of the early 1970s. When Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) tells her rising mafia boss boyfriend Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) that senators and presidents don’t have people killed, he responds by calling her naïve. It’s a sentiment that wouldn’t be lost on a young audience seeing their friends shipped off to fight in Vietnam only to be sent home in body bags.

The end of New Hollywood and its lasting influence

So why did New Hollywood come to an end? Part of the blame is on the shift from the restlessness of the 1970s to the “Morning in America” optimism of Ronald Reagan’s regime in the 1980s. This sunny view of the future coincided perfectly with studios’ newfound mission to emulate the groundbreaking success of movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) and George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope” (1977). It’s not that either Spielberg or Lucas set out to end New Hollywood—and both men were close friends with filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese—but they created the kinds of blockbusters that set the template for decades to come. Big, special effects–driven features with aggressive marketing campaigns had arrived to shatter records. Fresh-faced filmmakers with free reign to make challenging, morally ambiguous features didn’t quite fit into that plan. 

But although its light had dimmed, the essence and influence of New Hollywood never quite disappeared completely. In a few cases, that’s literal. Some of the era’s biggest names like Scorsese are still working today; his 2023 true-story crime epic, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” notched nine nominations at this year’s 96th Academy Awards. Elsewhere, Coppola is keeping New Hollywood’s makeshift mentality alive by largely self-financing his large-scale passion project, “Megalopolis,” due to debut in 2024.

But New Hollywood also birthed a new crop of creators influenced and inspired by its scrappy, DIY ethos, especially as the cost of filmmaking tools became cheaper and more widely available. While mega-blockbusters like Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” (1993) and Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day” (1996) ruled the box office, films like Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” (1994) and Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” (1990) found success with low budgets, shaggy plots, and characters that looked and talked like the bored and aimless youth of the ’90s. Just over the border in Mexico, Robert Rodriguez made waves by creating blockbuster-worthy bombast in “El Mariachi” with a comparatively minuscule budget of $7,000—most of which he raised by participating in drug-testing studies.

Like the generation before them, these were filmmakers unafraid to wear their influences on their sleeves. Just as Peter Bogdanavich updated the screwball energy of 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby” for his 1972 film “What’s Up, Doc?”, Quentin Tarantino blended 1970s martial arts movies with New Hollywood visual inventiveness to create the “Kill Bill” films. Tarantino notes in his book “Cinema Speculation” that pieces of his two-part action epic were inspired, particularly, by New Hollywood director Brian De Palma (who was, in turn, heavily influenced by Old Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock). 

“When Daryl Hannah walks down the hall of the hospital in ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 1,’ whistling Bernard Herrmann, then it slides into a split-screen, it’s almost as if Brian De Palma has seized control of the movie for a moment,” Tarantino writes. 

It might be easy to say that New Hollywood was the industry at its finest until blockbusters came along and ruined everything. But such a reading misses both the historical nuance of why New Hollywood thrived despite its limited lifespan and how the era fundamentally pushed movie-making in exciting directions. Today, when an ultra-low budget experiment like Kyle Edward Ball’s “Skinamarink” (2022) makes waves, Ari Aster gets a blank check to make his three-hour existential crisis film “Beau Is Afraid” (2023), or Boots Riley turns modern societal strife into satire for “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), you can trace a line back to New Hollywood.