Let's Make Movies Like It's 1999 Again


For me, there was no better year in movies than 1999. Top to bottom, from January to December, it was a rare time when Hollywood release dates were something like a ballet, with studios choreographing their movies’ premier with that of others’ to (consistently) provide specific demographics a movie that would appeal to them and, gasp!, only them while still being respectful of their sensibilities.

Let's look at it from another perspective, through the lens of baseball: 2013, by and large, has been a bunch of heavy-hitters doing their best impression of Babe Ruth and swinging for the fences. Equipped with gigantic, $250 million budgets and a marketing campaign that can begin months in advance, their sole intention is to hit everything out of the park. The 1999 Moneyball approach, however, wasn’t focused on swinging for the fences but getting people on base, i.e. attempting to cater to different demographics, different tastes, at different times.

The entire internet has written about this year’s summer blockbusters (myself included), but aside from screenwriters avoiding the Save the Cat! beat sheet what can be said? International audiences are affecting our summer blockbusters, sure, but what about the rest of the year? The problem isn’t just the assembly line of apocalypses Hollywood is trotting out in the summer, but the fact that the rest of the year shows similar blandness as well.

Unless you want another Torque, people hardly pay attention to movies after the end-of-year Oscar rush. February has your Nicholas Sparks fix, and then March practically jump-starts the summer movie season now. It’s all so streamlined, but in 1999 this wasn’t the case.

Varsity Blues was released on January 15. An R-rated drama about high-school football took itself only seriously enough, and worked. Soon after came She’s All That, which sucked, yes, but it was followed by Mel Gibson’s TNT fixture Payback (February 5) then Blast from the Past (February 12), Office Space and Jawbreaker (February 19) with 8mm rounding out February. For the two months that comprise the dumping grounds for Hollywood’s studios that little string of movies shows, to me, an earnest effort. It shows studios still tingling with creativity, not necessarily expert film-making, and bringing interesting ideas to the table that don’t conspire to be everything to everyone. And this is in January and February.

March 1999 shows the same: Cruel Intentions (March 5), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (March 5), Forces of Nature (March 12), The Mod Squad (March 26), The Matrix (March 31), and Ten Things I Hate About You (March 31). I’m not saying these are all great movies, or even good ones, but they show versatility. They show, compared to March 2013, originality with blockbuster-lite films like Jack the Giant Slayer (March 1), Oz the Great and Powerful (March 8), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (March 15), Olympus Has Fallen (March 22), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (March 28), The Host (March 29), and The Place Beyond the Pines (March 29) being Hollywood’s offerings now.

For one final point, let’s just look at what Hollywood has slated for release until the end of August of this year and then see what 1999 was going with (for the record, I’m only including wide releases that anyone, anywhere could see):

2013: The Wolverine (July 26), The Smurfs 2 (July 31), 2 Guns (August 2), Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (August 7), Elysium (August 9), We’re the Millers (August 9), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (August 16), Paranoia (August 16), Kick-Ass 2 (August 16), The World’s End (August 23), The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (August 23), Getaway (August 30), One Direction: This Is Us (August 30). … I’d pay to see less than 50% of those movies.

1999: Deep Blue Sea (July 28), Runaway Bride (July 30), Dick (August 4), The Iron Giant (August 4), Mystery Men (August 6), The Sixth Sense (August 6), The Thomas Crown Affair (August 6), Bowfinger (August 13), Brokedown Palace (August 13), Mickey Blue Eyes (August 20), The 13th Warrior (August 27), and The Astronaut’s Wife (August 27). … I’d pay to see less than 50% of those movies as well, honestly, but that’s not the point. The point is Hollywood once gave us the option to see a shark horror movie, or a romantic comedy, or an animated movie (!), or an adult thriller, or a mindless action movie if you hadn’t already gotten your fill by August. Now? Two more superhero movies, three sequels, and a book adaptation going for Twilight status. It’s just not the same.

I’ll spare you commentary about the fall since that’s devoted to interesting movies now and forever, but 1999 stands out to me because the idea of blockbuster fatigue wasn’t even an idea back then. Yes, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 but it was a genuine event that, believe it or not, wasn’t followed up by another sci-fi epic or superhero adaptation but by Notting Hill and The Thirteenth Floor. That’s right, a romantic comedy and adult drama.

Maybe the flexibility Hollywood demonstrated in 1999 is indicative of where we were as a country. The economy was reaching its apex with the dot-com bubble producing a new millionaire every 60 seconds in Silicon Valley, and I wonder if that same entrepreneurial spirit didn’t seep into Hollywood. If pets.com could work, why not a horror movie told only with a handheld camera? There was a recklessness at that time and, at this point, I prefer that creative abandon over what we have now.