How the year 1999 changed cinema forever

From Star Wars and Austin Powers to Magnolia and Being John Malkovich, 1999 was a turning point in mainstream cinema. Here's why...

It’s not an entirely perfect science, as you’re going to discover, to determine one year as a turning point in modern cinema. And yet for those of us who lived at the multiplex and assorted smaller screening houses in 1999, and looking back at it now, it all feels like quite a surreal, sudden changing of the guard took place.

The ramifications of what happened at the movies in 1999 still continue to be felt today too, across blockbuster cinema and smaller productions. Furthermore, and this is one we’ve not discussed, 1999 was arguably the last stand for mid-budget studio pictures.

And it was also the year where this lot happened…

1999 changed the way films were marketed

We talked recently, when we looked at how unusual films got through the studio system, about Warner Bros’ conundrum with 1999’s The Matrix. It had a revolutionary action movie, but it could only sell it in the tried and tested way: big promos, a big junket, and lots of bluster. The battering ram approach, if you will. It worked, although word of mouth and ecstatic reviews helped. But the sea change would begin with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

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It would be fair to say that even big blockbusters now owe a degree of their marketing to the way Artisan originally sold Blair Witch. It wasn’t the first film to sell heavily off the back of an online campaign – the Showgirls website was a notorious hit many years earlier, although it didn’t translate to (clothed) bums on seats – but it was the first to make such a staggering success of it.

It’s easy to overlook just how clever and groundbreaking the Blair Witch campaign was. Seeding mysteries online, and with a website that only added to the air of the unknown about the movie, the film almost felt like a component part of something bigger by the time most got to see it, rather than the central attraction. Now, we’re in a world where Sony will drop a new picture or exclusive clip of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on a near-daily basis, and where using social media, trying to get a heavy web presence, and trying to get online chatter started is no longer innovative, it’s expected. Blair Witch did that.

Few have recaptured quite what made Blair Witch the groundbreaker it was (Cloverfield got close), but the vast bulk of big films since have given it a go come the marketing campaign.

1999 changed the way action cinema was made

If memory serves, it was Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalo that was the first to include an outright pastiche of The Matrix in one scene. But even if it wasn’t the forerunner, it was one of an abundance of movies that would follow in The Matrix‘s wake. The idea of making a traditional buddy action movie was all but gone – perhaps outside of Rush Hour – in a matter of years. Traditional action directors moved away from the genre, whilst techniques such as wire-fu, bullet time, slow motion and parkour instead began to take hold.

There were two things about The Matrix that arguably caused changes (for it was heavily influenced in its own way by Eastern cinema anyway). Firstly, it wrapped up things not seen in a Hollywood action movie in the midst of a Hollywood action movie. Secondly, people wildly, wildly reacted to it. In a way they hadn’t wildly reacted to Lethal Weapon 4. That it came out of the most traditional of all movie studios at the time – Warner Bros – was all the more surprising. But its success brought in a new wave of action talent, was influential in marking the end of the action movie superstar (Bruce Willis’ turn in The Sixth Sense later in 1999 would help there too) and remains mimicked to this day.

1999 changed the star system

1997’s top five films at the US box office featured Will Smith, Leonard DiCaprio (admittedly in his breakthrough role), Jim Carrey and Harrison Ford. 1998’s top five featured Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Cameron Diaz (admittedly in her second breakthrough role) and Adam Sandler.

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1999? Bruce Willis was still there, but the first Star Wars prequel was hardly sold off the back of its stars. Mike Myers headlined an Austin Powers sequel, and Keanu Reeves broke through in The Matrix. Tom Hanks’ name was above the title of Toy Story 2, but his star lustre wasn’t really the reason people paid their money. In short, big genre blockbusters were out-trumping big movie stars. The trend would continue.

In fact, 1999 would mark the biggest hit to date of Bruce Willis’ career, and whilst it would see some stars still bringing home the proverbial bacon – Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, John Travolta – it was nearly the last time they would. Even Will Smith struggled, hardly aided by the final cut of Wild Wild West.

In the years that would follow, the $15-20m salary that routinely went to the Schwarzeneggers, Travoltas and Cruises of this world would gradually be replaced by lower salaries with more profit shares. There were exceptions, and often having points on a project proved more lucrative (recent example: Sandra Bullock reportedly making around $70m out of Gravity). But whereas once upon a time Disney would add Bruce Willis to Armageddon to give it a bit of star name insurance, by the time Prince Of Persia or Pearl Harbor came round, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ben Affleck were seen as cheaper, just as dependable bets.

Only Tom Cruise – and he’s had his occasional blips – has arguably consistently managed to deliver box office. An apparent failure such as Knight And Day turns out to have made $261m worldwide. Valkyrie, meanwhile, broke $200m. Even Tom Cruise’s ‘flops’ are blockbusters still, just not so much in the US.

But then Cruise adapted, and arguably was ahead of the game with the Mission: Impossible franchise. He was developing material to produce in the 1990s, and continues to do so. Now, it’s far more commonplace.

1999 changed sequels, and the expectations for them

When the first Austin Powers movie came alone, it did decent business at the box office, but hardly went too much further than that. It made $67m worldwide in cinemas, and by most measures, that’d be that.

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And then video and DVD gave it one hell of a second life. What’s interesting about Austin Powers wasn’t just that it was such a huge video hit, but such a quick one. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption took time to find a big audience on video and disc formats; Austin Powers didn’t. As such, the sequel followed just two years later.

The general rule of sequels at this time was that a follow-up would do around 65 percent of the business of the first (Batman Returns is a good example). Austin Powers was a major contributor to that presumption being changed. The sequel took nearly five times more money than the original, and the innovative marketing campaign certainly helped. Even so, it proved that a sequel could be an event movie, even if the first film didn’t strike too much gold (The Bourne Identity being a later example).

Furthermore, Toy Story 2 took $485m globally, against Toy Story‘s $361m (Toy Story 3 would become the first animated film to break $1bn in cinemas). In the years that followed, the commercial stigma previously attached to a sequel would be eradicated, seemingly for all time.

1999 was when trailers became a big attraction

Actually, that’s not technically true. Trailers became a major attraction for 1999 movies perhaps, but some of the them were playing back in 1998. This had been done before, of course. Last Action Hero had a special teaser trailer filmed and released well ahead of the movie’s release. Likewise Godzilla. Heck, even Hook.

But trailers evolved in two ways for 1999 releases. Firstly, the release of just the first Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace trailer in itself proved to be something of an ‘event’. Fans queued up to see a movie called The Siege (a decent Bruce Willis flick), watched the trailer on the big screen, and then promptly walked out. The Star Wars trailer was demanded en masse. And whilst the trailer to that point was hardly taken lightly, it was cemented in 1999 that it was the centrepoint of any major movie marketing campaign. Now, we get at least three of them for each major blockbuster, as well as dreaded (and banned at this site) trailers for trailers.

But also, 1999 was when the teaser trailer really came into its own. The first trailer for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was a work of genius. Specially shot, with little footage that appeared in the final movie, it played heavily on Star Wars anticipation, and put Austin Powers 2 high on many people’s radar. Here’s the trailer in question – it remains lateral and quite brilliant.

1999 wasn’t the only defining year in the development of the movie trailer. But it feels like an important one.

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1999 was pivotal in kickstarting the process of belated reboots of franchises

The Phantom Menace was the epitome of a fan demand project. The realisation of a long promise of a fresh Star Wars trilogy, it arrived on the big screen over 15 years after the previous Star Wars movie. As such, it came back to the big screen off the back of a clamour of fan demand. Appreciating Star Wars is a special case, and people tended to queue for Star Wars movies anyway, it was an eye-opener in the sense that a belated sequel – positioned with enough for new fans and old – could have massive crossover potential between adults and children. Furthermore, as much as The Phantom Menace tends to be disliked, it opened up many to Star Wars on the big screen, many of whom – at the behest of parents who assured them that there were much better Star Wars films – would seek out the earlier trilogy.

This wasn’t, to be fair, a lesson quickly heeded by Hollywood, but it wasn’t ignored. George Lucas for one would see the (commercial) advantage of following a not dissimilar path with Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull in 2008 (which we looked at here). The following decade would see Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles, Exorcist: The Beginning, Rocky Balboa, Rambo and Superman Returns, to varying degrees of success. Furthermore, reboots also followed, 1999 saw the hugely successful Mummy reboot for a start (now being rebooted again for 2016), and at the very least a dotted line could be traced back to here as the reboot explosion would begin to take hold.

See also: belated franchise revivals, the new Hollywood trend?

1999 confirmed the return of the gross-out comedy

Two films hit big in the late 90s, that meant that many studios would spend the next decade or so churning out increasingly tired R-rated comedies, more and more straight to DVD. The reason? Because of two low budget films, that went on to be hugely, hugely profitable.

The first was There’s Something About Mary, which would kickstart Cameron Diaz’s leading actress career (years after her breakthrough role in The Mask). But the second was 1999’s American Pie, a film that harked back a little to the spirit of Porky’s, and was less concerned with a star attraction. Instead, American Pie gave limited fame to its ensemble, and had studios scrambling to come up with imitations of their own. All of a sudden, projects such as Todd Phillips’ breakthrough Road Trip found themselves positioned in American Pie‘s slipstream. Tom Green would even be allowed to direct a movie, and American Pie is partly responsible for that.

This came at a time when the high school movie in particular felt like it was going through hugely interesting times – Clueless and 1999’s wonderful Election, for instance – but American Pie seemed to take things off in a different direction. American Pie sequels are still being made to this day.

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1999 convinced studios to take a chance on boutique films

This was arguably the huge change. 1999, as described in Sharon Waxman’s terrific book Rebels On The Backlot, was when a whole host of interesting, non-studio directors had almost studio-size hits with off radar movies. The big one was American Beauty, which both won Best Picture at the Oscars, and took over $350m worldwide (Wild Wild West, a big Warner Bros-backed blockbuster, took $222m). But the difference here was that lots of films and filmmakers broke through in one go. Thus, we got David O Russell’s Three Kings, David Fincher’s Fight Club (staggeringly, a studio movie), Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Doug Liman’s Go, and Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.

It’s hard to think of another year where so many talents came to so much prominence at once. Some had enjoyed success before, but in each case, they took a significant step forward, all within months of one another.

We’re now in a time when major tentpole blockbuster franchises are routinely handed over to interesting directors who have earned their stripes on the indie movie circuit in some way. And crucially, they’re actually given far more control. Hence, this summer alone, Marc Webb, Gareth Edwards, the Russo brothers, James Gunn, Matt Reeves and Patrick Hughes are calling the shots on major movies.

But more importantly, we’re now in an era where studios take a chance on smaller films (arguably at the expense of mid-budget ones, but that’s an article for another time). Pretty much every studio has some form of ’boutique’ division, backing art-ier, lower budget films in the hope of enjoying an American Beauty-esque breakout. With some success, too.

What’s more, those filmmakers who, at least in part, blazed through in 1999 are still actively working, still making their own films on mainly their own terms, and now influencing others to do the same. This time around though, Hollywood studios seem a little less scared of them.

1999 marked the beginning of the end for mainstream hand drawn animation

Three hand drawn Hollywood animated films got a mainstream release in 1999. Each had a different style, each tried different things, each had different fortunes. 1999 was – perhaps with the exception of 2002, when Lilo And Stitch arrived – the last year this didn’t feel like a novelty.

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Tarzan (co-directed by Frozen‘s Chris Buck) would be the last hand-drawn animated movie from Disney to go on to be a huge success, taking $448m worldwide. Lilo & Stitch would earn $273m. This was a very tangible peak. In fact, Tarzan also saw Disney experimenting with more computerised effects in its hand drawn movies (although that process went back to Basil The Great Mouse Detective), and saw the studio allow animator Glen Keane to work in Paris to capture the title character.

But Toy Story 2 would arrive later in 1999, and do huge box office. Pretty much every studio with a computer in it noticed, and the CG arms race followed.

The other hand drawn movies? South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut – which admittedly bends the definition of hand drawn – proved that animation with a harder certificate could find an audience, but nobody really followed the path set (although presumably, the fact that nobody else had a hit TV show that tapped into things in quite the same way helped), whilst The Iron Giant we talked about a lot here. It has been a whole day since we talked about that film and we were getting withdrawal symptoms.

There have been sporadic hand drawn successes – The Simpsons Movie, The Princess And The Frog – but only the Simpsons film has since outgrossed Tarzan. Since 1999, DreamWorks Animation has bailed out of hand drawn animation, seemingly forever (save for the odd sequence, such as at the start of The Croods). Disney still dabbles. But nowhere else in Hollywood is it even being attempted.

1999 might have felt like an embarrassment of hand drawn animated riches at the stage. As it’s turned out, that’s exactly what it was.

1999 was the year indie cinema became mainstream

We’ve touched on this already, but it’s worth exploring further. Because, for the first time ever, in 1999 the biggest grossing movie of the year was an independent film.

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Whilst 20th Century Fox took a distribution fee for George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the movie was fully funded by LucasFilm. The entire $100m+ budget came from outside the studio system. George Lucas paid for it, in effect, and George Lucas’ companies took the bulk of the profits too.

But that’s just part of the story. Going down the box office top 20 for 1999, and big hits came from smaller firms (or the deeper corridors of big studios). Austin Powers 2 was New Line (before it was swallowed up by Warner Bros), The Blair Witch Project was ultimately put out by Artisan (a name now long lost), whilst Toy Story 2 and The Matrix were developed and put out by major studios, but clearly against their usual way of doing things.

We’ve already talked about the boutique movies that broke through in 1999, but the second part of the indie movement was the smaller, commercial films that suddenly found a fuller audience. This wasn’t indie as arthouse cinema: these were smaller projects, such as the aforementioned The Blair Witch Project through to Kevin Smith’s Dogma and Artisan’s Stir Of Echoes that felt like they were outperforming expectations.

The immediate influence of this was seen in how 2000’s movies were sold. Sony hit hard with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, USA Films released Traffic and New Line’s The Cell and Final Destination both topped $50m in the US. All the while, Miramax was still doing what it did too.

It would still take a while for the status quo to fundamentally alter, and studios have now evolved to the point where they primarily do what indies can’t do: big franchises. There’s an element of win a little, lose a little there.

But then there are elements of that to much of what we’ve talked about. Not everything that happened in 1999 moved mainstream cinema forward. But it’s hard to think of too many years in recent memory that have had such a dramatic effect.

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