“Twenty five years. Makes a girl think.” So said Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot, and she was rarely wrong about anything, except maybe her taste in husbands. Cinematically, an awful lot can happen in 25 years and Hollywood as we know it today, emerged from seismic developments that took place a quarter of a century ago. 1989 was a game-changer; an absolutely pivotal year in the evolution of 21st century Hollywood. Chances are, whatever you watch at the multiplex this weekend will be genetically traceable to that dark, iPad-less, internetless, Jedwardless time. For those of us who are not going gentle into the dark night of their forties, the specific date of this Big Bang was August 11th 1989. That was the day that Batman finally opened in the UK.
I had never seen a line of people actually queuing around the block, except in vintage documentaries about Star Wars, but at 11.30pm on the 10th of August, I was one of hundreds of eager young things snaking around the Palladium cinema in Llandudno forgoing sleep for a chance to watch Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson duke it out at a midnight screening. I couldn’t have countenanced wasting five minutes of August the 11th without watching this film. Duly, the curtains drew back at exactly 12.01am to excited cheers and sportingly suppressed yawns as Danny Elfman’s template-setting score drew us around the stone contours of the Bat-logo. By this point, many of our party had passed out in excitement.
This swagger was part of Batman’s great appeal to the 14 year-olds of 1989, but more that that…it was box-fresh new. Indiana Jones’s final adventure was highly anticipated but there was already something safe and reliable about his 30s-set capers. Anton Furst’s German Expressionist-based Gotham sets may have harked back to a similar period, but the cars, the gadgets, the “wonderful toys,” these were, as Prince would put it, The Future. Here, sculpted from the pages of a fifty year-old comic, was the first 21st century blockbuster.
The arrival of the new kid in town is never a joyous occasion for the old guard, and many seasoned veterans were knocked to the kerb by Keaton’s Batmobile. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier aka. ‘Let Shatner Have A Go’ was predicted to place fourth in the summer box office race, but limped in at number 10 with a series-worst $50m take. The then 26 year-old James Bond series suffered a mid-life crisis when the terrible performance of Licence To Kill (prediction: 9 / Result: 14) derailed the entire franchise which was put on ice for six years. Even the seemingly youthful Karate Kid failed to connect with his third movie, but by then word had got out that Ralph Macchio was actually in his early twenties.
Given the disappointment of so many sequels in the summer of 1989, Hollywood might have reverted back to its standard position: that sequels were an ignoble way of squeezing ever-dwindling amounts of revenue from a rapidly diminishing fan base by offering an increasingly cheaper, poor quality product (cf. The Planet of The Apes or Superman films). Lethal Weapon 2 bucked the trend by taking $147m, more than double the $65m take of the hard-hitting 1987 original and becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.
Warners had expanded the target audience by upping the comedy element – enter Joe Pesci – and toning down the gritty violence of the original. Martin Riggs’s suicidal tendencies were gone, replaced by a conveniently dodgy shoulder. This format of widening the base by diluting and sugar-coating the original product took a firm foothold in the years to come – witness Robocop’s sorry journey from the beloved 1987 classic, which required nearly10 minutes of cuts to get an 18 certificate, through to the 15-rated Robocop 3, via a kids’ TV show until this year’s unloved, bloodless 12 certificate remake.
I was not alone in being overwhelmed by Batmania in 1989. Director Edgar Wright told Empire Magazine this year, ‘I had the T shirt, the Elfman score and (yes!) the Prince album on cassette…I had to see it opening weekend.’ Given such a rabid, insatiable public appetite for all things Batman, it is baffling to imagine that few people saw it coming, but they didn’t. In Premiere Magazine’s Summer Preview for 1989, an august body of seasoned movie experts placed Batman at number 3, behind Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II at number 1. ‘If the early reviews aren’t good, this one may never make it out of the Batcave,’ they suggested. Even Tim Burton was sceptical. ‘Who knows what’s gonna happen? I mean, it could be, by the time it comes out, so sickening – they’ve gotten all the bubble-gum cards, so they don’t know if they should bother to see the movie.’
There is logic to this extraordinarily wide-of-the-mark estimation. The last superhero movie of note released before Batman was 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace; the worst sequel ever made and a box office disaster to boot. Huge budgets were essential in order to bring a superhero to life and as a genre, supermovies had not yet proved that they could draw in the immense audiences needed to turn a profit. The drooping box office fatigue that greeted the release of each Superman sequel was a sign that comic-books were better adapted cheaply for the television, like Lou Ferrigno’s The Incredible Hulk or Nicholas Hammond’s Spider-Man. Small wonder that producer Jon Peters’s first instinct was to cast Bill Murray and make Batman a comedy.
Whenever a dazzling innovation explodes onto the movie scene – talkies, three-strip colour, Arnold Schwarzenegger – it takes a while for everyone to read the instructions and learn how to use it. Certainly, after Batman took $251m at the US box office (and a further $750m worth of merchandising), every studio suddenly wanted its own superhero movie. However, the hastily-filmed cash-ins like The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren and Cannon’s Captain America (1990) were unwatchable and didn’t make a dent at the box office. A labyrinthine imbroglio of rights and permissions kept Marvel’s big boys off the big screen for the next decade, leaving only sixth-tier superheroes like The Phantom (1996) and Steel (1997) to be ineptly made, then ignored and forgotten.
Bryan Singer’s X Men (2000) was the magical alchemy moment that occurs when the right person is given the right project along with the right amount of money. It was released just as Marvel’s complicated comic book rights nightmare was finally being settled. Singer’s tremendous X2 would arrive three years later, but not before Spider-Man emerged victoriously from a seemingly intractable legal web to become the biggest hit of 2002. Crucially, the quality of special effects that were now available to comic book movie directors were light years ahead of what was available in 1989. It is too hilarious to even imagine just how tin-foil terrible Iron Man would have looked like in 1991 say – presumably with Richard Grieco playing Tony Stark.
Special effects took a giant evolutionary leap forward in 1989 courtesy of James Cameron. Always about ten years ahead of anyone else, Cameron took the fermenting CGI phenomenon, still in its infancy and put it to jaw-dropping use in The Abyss. A rather lumbering plot and the worst ending of the year saw The Abyss disappoint in box office terms, but no one could deny how breathtaking the special effects were to behold. The photo-realistic, CGI simians that wowed everybody in this summer’s Dawn of The Planet of The Apes can all trace their roots back to the moment in 1989 when a sentient tentacle of water morphed into the face of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
1989 was also the year that Disney broke free of a terrible magic spell that had found the studio utterly unable to connect with its audience, when they released the classic The Little Mermaid, ushering in their second golden age. Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in a New York deli and the whole world fell in love (and stayed in love with her until she did that thing with her face). ’89 also saw both the arrival in Hollywood and the swift departure of wacky Australian comedian Yahoo Serious, whose comedy Young Einstein ruined the summer holidays for so many of us.
However, the two most important films of 1989 changed the way that movies were defined and distributed and led to an injection of much needed intelligence into the mainstream. Spike Lee’s third ‘joint,’ Do The Right Thing may have been a Universal Studios release, but it was independent from its uncompromising, aggressive politics to its meagre budget ($6.5m). At the time, films like Do The Right Thing (and Lee’s previous movies School Daze and She’s Gotta Have It) were boxed into the ‘Art-House’ category, playing to tiny audiences of cineasts. Early word was ecstatic, and the controversy of its race-riot plot helped, but no one predicted that it would end up inside the Summer Top 20, outpacing Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone and Freddy Krueger.
Even more extraordinary was the success of Steven Soderbergh’s directorial debut, sex, lies and videotape. A Palme d’Or winner at Cannes (much to Spike Lee’s chagrin), this $1.2m budgeted independent film was picked up for distribution by new kid on the block, Miramax, headed by Harvey Weinstein. Publicist Christina Kounelias summed up the Miramax mission-statement when she told Peter Biskind in his stunning book, Down & Dirty Pictures, ‘They were trying to unghettoize art house films, get them out of the teeny theaters at the edge of town where the beatniks live, and make them accessible to a broader, more mainstream audience.’
sex, lies and videotape was Miramax’s break-out moment. After it had grossed an extraordinary $24m in the summer of 1989, Miramax put its considerable muscle behind such esoteric, commercially dubious titles like My Left Foot, Cinema Paradiso, The Grifters, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, The Crying Game, Strictly Ballroom, Farewell my Concubine and The Piano – all box office hits and Oscar darlings to boot. Weinstein’s canny backing of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in 1994 led to a $214m return on a $8.5m investment.
Tarantino told Peter Biskind, ‘In the ‘80s, the studios could predict what worked and what didn’t. And that’s what the ‘80s were – one movie you’d already seen after another. Suddenly, that’s not working anymore…When the audience is fed up with the standard stuff and crying out for something different is when exciting things happen in Hollywood.’ That moment happened in 1989. However, the big studios weren’t overrun by iconoclastic mavericks as it had been after 1969. Unique films with limited appeal suddenly had their own studio and advertising revenue (as well as copycat studios hoping to become the new Miramax).
One therefore has to address the legacy of 1989 with a certain amount of caution. The major studios didn’t lose their appetite for huge returns at the box office – far from it. After Batman’s domination of the cinema tills, it wasn’t enough anymore just to have a hit movie. Now they wanted ‘Event Movies,’ and were prepared to pay increasingly absurd amounts of money to get them. Thus cinema audiences across the next two decades were assaulted by extravagant behemoths like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Twister, Independence Day and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, each of which had a new weekend box-office record in its sights.
Thanks to Marvel, DC and the rapid evolution of computer generated imagery, the multiplex screens of 2014 are filled largely with the super-tales of Batman’s super-colleagues. Miramax, though is now merely a name, owned by an investment group called Filmyard Holdings. Spike Lee is currently trying to live down his Oldboy remake, and Steven Soderbergh has retired from film-making altogether. Independent Cinema’s class of 1989 may not be thriving in their dotage, however their success in that year opened doors that filmmakers like Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, David O Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson would still be walking through 25 years later.
While you think on that, and if you will excuse me, I’m going to try and find the only working cassette player left in Great Britain so that I can listen to Batdance.