Box Office Trends: The 1980s

The second in my series looking at Box Office Trends sees us arriving at the 1980s. The 1970s saw the ‘Golden Era” of Hollywood, with critics and audiences largely agreeing about what made the best films. However, two films, Jaws and Star Wars, saw a shift in the industry back towards films that were family friendly and fun to watch. As we will see the 1980s was a decade where films aimed to be bigger, bolder and funnier than ever before.

As with my look at the 1970s, I have analysed the top five movies at the box office from each year and noted their score on Rotten Tomatoes. This has given me the first line graph. I have also looked at the genre of each these top five films and produced the second pie chart. The table of all these results is at the bottom of the post for those who are interested.

1980s in graphs:



In the 1970s, Watergate and Vietnam had left America much more unsure of itself and its own morality. This was reflected in the nature of its protagonists, which tended to be either anti-heroes, or everyday flawed characters (e.g. Godfather, Rocky, Dog Day Afternoon, Saturday Night Fever).

The 1980s saw America move towards “victory” in the decades long Cold War, an America much more at ease and confident with itself. The fact comedy is by far and away the most popular genre this decade reflects this. In the 1980s Action and Drama were just as popular in the 1970s, however Crime basically disappeared off the radar to be replaced with much more light-hearted films.

Not only was the genre of comedy more popular, but so were more comedic protagonists. Reflecting the American psyche of the age, they came across as bolder, braver and more wise-cracking than their foes. Indiana Jones is as good a representation as any of this kind of character but it can also be seen in films like Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Copand Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Perhaps the difference between the two is best illustrated by Jack Nicholson’s turn as R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), who is to start with, a very “80s” protagonist, using humour to get the better of the controlling and overbearing Nurse Ratched. However, this being the 1970s, McMurphy struggles to win the day, with the establishment ultimately getting the better of him.

One can easily imagine the 80s version of the film ending with the wise-cracking McMurphy getting the final victory over the villainous Nurse Ratched. Or perhaps McMurphy would have been the villain (as he was in Batman in 1989)? After all, the establishment seemed to get things right in the 1980s, seeing off the threat of communism, and producing a much more prosperous America than had ever been seen before…

The best rated films of the decade were Airplane!, E.T., Aliens, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, all with 98%. Meanwhile the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Staying Alive scored an impressive 0% with critics. However, Crocodile Dundee II, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Golden Child did not get off lightly either.

Finally, the trend of the decade was that critics and audiences were largely in agreement at the beginning, but as people gradually got an appetite for low quality sequels (such as Rocky IV and A View to a Kill), and low-quality comedy star vehicles (such as Twins and The Golden Child) there was evidently more of a gulf than had existed in the previous decade.

Looking the 1970s , the average RT score for the whole ten years was an impressive 81%. The 1980s meanwhile could only manage 73%. Were the 1980s a blip? Would things improve over the next ten years? Or would the confident, brash films they produced continue to be emulated as we move into the 1990s?

BoxOfficeStats - 1980s Table


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