Breaking news: Hollywood is out of ideas!
At least, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you’ve paid attention to all the sequels, reboots, and IP properties filling up theaters these days. But even before the era of superheroes and CG robots, people still thought Hollywood was out of ideas, what with all the westerns, musicals, and book adaptations being thrown their way.
So it seems as long as Hollywood has been around there have been cries of a creative well run dry and fans clamoring for more original films. But all hope isn’t lost, because despite the fact that, yes, Hollywood does often rehash the same ideas over and over until viewer fatigue eventually sets in, peppered throughout all of movie history have been original films that change the game so much that every movie that follows owes a bit of its DNA to said game changer.
Below we give you the 12 movies so original, so unexpected, and so breathtakingly successful at what they set out to do that they ended up changing Hollywood – and movie history – forever.
12 Avatar (2009)
For better or worse, James Cameron’s Avatar was the most technologically significant film of the 21st century. In the works for 15 years before it was released, Avatar and James Cameron had a mission to change cinema, and change cinema they did. Popularizing 3D and thus being almost solely responsible for nearly every cinema in North America converting from analog to digital projection, Avatar transported viewers into its fully CG world and by the time they came out everything was different.
Though Avatar lost out at the Academy Awards to The Hurt Locker – a film that no one remembers even now, let alone in a few years’ time – ultimately Avatar’s legacy will be that of a film that invented technology to tell a story that couldn’t be told any other way. So while that technology may now be used to unnecessarily add depth to any movie that wants to make more money at the box office, let’s all remember that the first time we saw it – during Avatar – it was something breathtaking, and something that would send all other films scrambling to repeat.
11 The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Another better or worse film, The Blair Witch Project came out of nowhere and shattered everyone’s expectations about everything. It practically invented found footage – and though it wouldn’t become commonplace (and exhausting so) until Paranormal Activity a decade later – it gave audiences something thrilling and unexpected, and it’s still the gold standard to this day.
Famously requiring signs to be posted in theaters warning viewers of motion sickness, The Blair Witch Project turned filming techniques on their head and smashed through the fourth wall, disorienting viewers with a whole new experience all at once. Perhaps even more instrumental in changing the films that came after was The Blair Witch Project's narrative structure and even its responsibility to its audience – whereby a disclaimer falsely alerted the audience that what they were seeing was indeed real footage – which changed the course of cinema and threw all the rules out the window and into the woods, where they ended up caught in a creepy witchcrafty stick symbol type deal.
10 The Breakfast Club (1985)
Let’s say you’re a coming-of-age film. You want to be unique, while twisting the genre on its head. You want familiar characters, but nonetheless those characters have to grow and break out of their boxes by the end of the film. You want a memorable scene or two set to a song of the times that hopefully will go on to become a classic. Basically, you want to be The Breakfast Club.
No John Hughes movie before or after The Breakfast Club so perfectly encapsulated the feelings of high-school and the awkward nostalgia of growing up. And that’s something that every movie that’s come after it knows, and that’s why you don’t have a coming-of-age film unless you reference The Breakfast Club in some capacity; because if you don’t, you’re just stealing.
If you’re the The Breakfast Club every movie wants to be you, and as a result, every movie since The Breakfast Club has The Breakfast Club deeply embedded into its DNA; and as a result, into the DNA of everyone who’s ever watched a movie past 1985. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
9 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is essentially a subtitled, foreign film starring apes, with a few English-speaking humans as side characters. Its ambition is out of this world, its risk-taking should be viewed as astounding in the current Hollywood climate, its storytelling is complex and layered, and yet it paid off in spades by being critically acclaimed and making enough money at the box office to build all the awesome monkey tree-houses anyone could ever want.
Sure, Dawn is a tentpole film that was technically the 8th in the franchise, and one could say the brand-recognition alone allowed for director Matt Reeves to create something special without the studio worrying too much. But that wouldn’t be giving Dawn of the Planet of the Apes enough credit for its weirdness. Though the results of its success have yet to be fully felt in Hollywood – despite its proliferation of astounding motion-capture technology, performances, and practical stunts – Dawn changed Hollywood just by showing the competition that audiences can still be wowed in 2014, and it doesn’t necessarily take two hours of mindless robot explosions to do it.
8 The Graduate (1967)
Here’s what you didn’t know about The Graduate; adjusted for inflation, it’s the 21st highest grossing film of all time. That’s six spots above The Avengers, which means more people wanted to see Dustin Hoffman mope around and question his seduction than see Iron Man beat the crap out of Thor. And by the way, there’s a good chance that without The Graduate, The Avengers would never have happened.
Aside from kicking off the career of Dustin Hoffman – who has been a force in Hollywood for about five decades – The Graduate and director Mike Nichols brought with it the era of auteur-driven Hollywood, where each film would be more personal and more unique than the next (think: Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, etc.). Despite directors like Marc Webb and David O. Russell outright citing it as their reason for becoming a filmmaker, every modern director – and every modern film – owes everything to The Graduate. This is because, put modestly; it’s a film so simple and so iconic that its embedded in the minds of everyone working in every corner of the movie industry, and thus it’s rubbed off on everything.
But back to the logic of The Graduate = The Avengers. Without The Graduate, Jon Favreau’s career trajectory – one that started with the kind of indies that The Graduate made possible – would look a whole lot different. Without Jon Favreau, Iron Man doesn’t hit it big. Without Iron Man, there’s no Marvel Cinematic Universe. And boom, just like that, no Avengers. So next time you watch ANYTHING, thank Dustin Hoffman, Mike Nichols, and The Graduate.
7 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into a film based on a children’s book and set in a magical fantasy land – not to mention stretching the story over eight films – would have been crazier than whatever the rules of quidditch must be. And yet here we are in 2015, with young adult book adaptations being some of the most profitable movies around, and with every executive in Hollywood wishing that witchcraft would reveal where the next Harry Potter series is going to come from.
After Harry Potter, multi-part franchises became the rule, not the exception, and now it’s all but expected to split the final part of a franchise into two movies (think: Twilight, The Hunger Games) – whether the story necessitates it or not. While Harry Potter brought to life new worlds and created an empire that’s still raking in billions of dollars, none of it would have happened had audiences not embraced that first weird little film starring three weird little actors that grew up to be superstars, and spawned a worldwide phenomenon along the way.
6 Knocked Up (2007)
It could be argued that The 40 Year Old Virgin paved the way for Knocked Up, but when you watch the two films, The 40 Year Old Virgin seems like a cave painting with flashes of greatness, while Knocked Up is more like an Italian renaissance painting with all the elements of modern art that would come to define everything that came after it.
With Knocked Up, Judd Apatow solidified his place in American cinema and created a new breed of R-rated comedy box-office smashes. With Seth Rogen and all of his Apatowian regulars in tow, Knocked Up cemented everything we’ve come to expect from our comedies, and it did it all with a low-concept idea that showed the humor in everything – and nothing. From gross-out gags to an endless stream of insults, right down to the sentimentality and bursts of well-placed drama throughout its (exceptionally long for a comedy) running-time, Knocked Up lit up Hollywood and brought with it a new guard that’s poised to take over the town and make everything they don't touch look like a rotting pile of cinematic garbage.
5 Jaws (1975)
After Jaws, nothing would ever be the same. The original blockbuster, Jaws ushered in the era of monstrous hits that would dominate at the box office and send all other movies cowering to the sticky floors of the local art-house cinema. With Spielberg’s still-perfect mix of heartfelt sentiment, alluring characters, and suspense to end all suspense, Jaws’ winning formula made everything that came after it look dull in the salty mist of retrospect.
Sure, we owe all our modern blockbusters – from Avengers to Transformers – to Jaws, but in reality most blockbusters are pale imitations of the pacing and character work that made Jaws such a force to be reckoned with. Though Jaws will always be the movie that legitimately kept people out of the water, its greater legacy will be that it spawned a new type of movie, and has left Hollywood trying to catch up ever since.
4 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy won Academy Awards. Let that sink in; specifically the fact that the final installment, The Return of the King won 11 Academy Awards, tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most wins ever for a film. This trilogy about orcs and hobbits and rings and Sean Astin won Academy Awards. That’s crazy. That’s unheard of. And that’s why it changed Hollywood, forever altering everyone’s perception of fantasy films and what makes a mainstream hit.
When work on the trilogy began, director Peter Jackson undertook one of the most ambitious film shoots of all time, with work on the series spanning eight years and all three movies filmed simultaneously. There’s no reason to think that anything about The Lord of the Rings should have come together – it’s based on a series of fantasy books from the 50s that are, once again, about a bunch of little guys with big hairy feet and a ring; not to mention that back in 2001 the technology they had to pull this story off was basically just a CRT monitor and a scientific calculator – and yet it did come together. It came together, blew minds, made a figure close to like-all-the-money-in-the-world, and oh, nothing in fantasy, trilogies, or uh, MOVIES was ever the same again.
3 Spider-Man (2002)
Every generation has its favorite version of Spider-Man; whether its 1967 poorly drawn cartoon Spider-Man, 1994 scarily muscular cartoon Spider-Man, or 2008 weirdly too-anime but nonetheless brilliant Spectacular Spider-Man. But despite what generation you came from and which cartoon Spider-Man you call your own, one thing’s for sure; we all got together, put our differences aside, and enjoyed the hell out of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and thus we started a revolution.
Like a spider laying hundreds of eggs, Hollywood caught the superhero bug and started hatching everything it could as fast as audiences could handle. In the years that followed Spider-Man many films went bust – Daredevil, The Hulk, Cat-Woman – but even more caught on and turned into franchises that live on to this day.
Take a look at the highest grossing films of any year – or of all time – and what you’ll find is superhero film after superhero film. While others came before it, nothing took the world by storm and swung the movie business into a frenzy that the world still hasn’t recovered from quite like Spider-Man.
2 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day didn’t just revolutionize the naming conventions of sequels by adding a colon and useless subtitle after the number 2. It’s much bigger achievement rests in the fact that it brought CGI into movies in a huge way, thus paving the way for every single mind-numbing explosion and city-crumbling scene that we see in movies today. Though the famous liquid metal T-1000 scene may get all the glory, ILM actually spent ten months on all the effects, which cost a total of $5 million and took 35 people to complete.
Also notable is T2’s proving that sequels to hit films aren’t just a cash grab, but rather an incredibly lucrative cash grab that sometimes pays off in a movie that’s better regarded than its predecessor. So next time you see a sequel packed from beginning to end with glossy CGI and a weirdly confusing subtitle—Wait, that’s every movie. Well, thanks a lot Terminator 2!
1 Toy Story (1995)
Toy Story was the first CG animated film. In the past 20 years, its release led to a paradigm shift in Hollywood that toppled institutions and turned genres on their heads. Not only did Toy Story lead to the demise of hand-drawn animated movies – which themselves practically started the movie business – but it ended the tradition of musicals, princess-stories, and oh, without it, PIXAR WOULD BE SELLING COMPUTERS!
From the minute that Pixar was able to make viewers fall in love with Woody, a mean-spirited anti-hero, and Buzz, an ignorant ass, it started a revolution and churned out one modern classic after the next. Over the course of two more Toy Story films, Pixar learned how to extract tears from the eyes of every living man, woman, and child on the planet, and it took everyone’s money in the process, and now has 3 films in the top 50 highest grossing films of all time.
After Toy Story everyone took note, and everything you see – from those little yellow Minions that are taking over the world to every last Ice Age sequel and spinoff – you can thank Toy Story for directly inspiring.
Think we missed anything? What movie gets your vote for being so innovative, original, or just plain cool that it changed everything that came after? Let us know in the comments!