Box Office Trends: The 1990s

Continuing my look at Box Office Trends over the past four decades, we’ve arrived at our third destination on our tour, the 1990s. As with the last two decades, I’ve looked at the Five Highest Grossing Movies for each year in the decade and noted down their Rotten Tomatoes score, as well as their genre. From these I have produced some lovely graphs. The full table of results is at the end of the post.

We have seen the 1970s was a gritty, grown-up time for the box office as the medium unshackled itself from the chains of censorship and tried to reflect people’s frustration with those in authority at time.

The 1980s saw a much more relaxed and confident time for film with Indiana Jones and Marty McFly representing a brashness in-keeping with a nation as the last remaining super power.

What of the 1990s? It was the time between the end of the Cold War and the events of September 11th 2001. As such the themes in popular American cinema are less clear. Let’s see if the numbers can shed any more light on events.

1990s in Graphs:



One telling statistic within these two graphs is the one for ‘Animation’. In the 1990s, it accounted for 9 out of the 50 films researched. This is all the more remarkable when we consider in the 1980s and 1990s there was not a single fully animated film featured. Ironically the closest was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a playful homage to the almost forgotten genre.

While that statistic is remarkable in and of itself, the other thing we notice when we look at the full list of films is how important CGI was so many of the most popular films of the decade. It would be fairly uncontroversial to say that the most iconic images from this decade of film were those produced on a computer. Whether that is Buzz Lightyear attempting to go “to infinity and beyond” in Toy Story, the transformation of T1000 between human and robot form in Terminator 2, the dilating of T-Rex’s pupil in Jurassic Park, or the explosion of the White House in Independence Day, what they all share is their reliance on spectacular computer-generated effects to surprise and amaze audiences across the globe.

Another interesting thing to note is that with the collapse of the USSR, America was left with no clear enemy. This was reflected with the large number of non -human antagonists in the movies of the 1990s. Instead they were aliens in Men in Black, and Independence Day, robots in Terminator 2 and The Matrix, monsters in Godzilla and Jurassic Park, and nature in Twister, Armageddon and Titanic.

This use of technology and popularity of animation continues to be important to the most successful films of today. However, it’s also interesting to note the things which are not yet significant. Not one superhero movie features in our 1990s statistics, and sequels are actually less prominent in the 1990s than in the decade before, making up just 20% of the films featured compared to 34% of films in the 1980s. The movies of the 1990s may have been reliant on technology, but at least they were attempting to show us something new.

Finally, the quality of movies in the 1990s (as defined by the critics) is slightly lower than the 1980s, but not as high as the 1970s. In the 1990s, the average for the whole decade is 70%, compared with 73% and 81% for the 1980s and 1970s respectively. Showing us if there has been a decline in the intelligence and creativity of popular movies it is hardly something new or sudden.

What then, will be the story of the 2000s? Will there be a sudden rise in quality as directors like Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson emerge on the blockbuster scene? Or will it be the emergence of endless sequels, remakes and reboots that dominates the box office in the next decade?

BoxOfficeStats - 1990s Table

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