A movie that changed the way that movies are made; that’s a tough thing to categorize. Throughout the history of film, there have been countless movies that have made an impact on the industry. With some, their impact is clear and measurable, while others are nearly impossible to track. It would make sense that almost every movie from the early days of cinema effectively changed the way film was made, each new movie throwing their influence in the stew for the next contributor to pull from. But I don’t want to focus only on movies from the early days when we still have films and filmmakers making a difference today.
Almost every year, a film does something that affects the industry as a whole, whether it’s using a new camera technique or technology or changing the traditional narrative structure of film. Some films even go backwards, pulling from a time and a technique that had almost already been forgotten. Does that count as changing the way movies are made? It’s hard to say.
On this list, we have left off some of the greats, The Robe, The Godfather, Bullitt, Raging Bull and Battleship Potemkin. We can’t fit them all, but they’ve all done their part. Film is a collaborative process. It takes years of trying and failing, adding and subtracting from what those before you have done. Some make some changes to what worked before, others take gigantic leaps. The films on this list are the ones that took steps forward for the film industry as a whole. Not all of them were “firsts” but they were the most visible and, therefore, the most influential of the “close-to-firsts.” In trying to spread out the love, this list includes films that influenced film in a range of areas, from filming techniques to sound, narrative structures to genre and screenplays. These are the films that will never be forgotten no matter how far we move forward. Not all of them are masterpieces, but they’re all springboards to something bigger. As Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Well, these are the giants from Hollywood. These are 15 movies that changed the way movies are made.
15. Gone with the Wind
When Gone with the Wind came out, the length and scope of the film was daunting, but the majestic storyline and character development was impossible to overlook. Fit with difficult themes for modern audiences, Gone with the Wind will still always be considered more great than challenging. Many slam it for being a love song for slavery or for how it depicts women in a disempowered light, but there are others who counter that with the fact that it saw Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), the first ever African American to win an Oscar, change the game and the film inspired millions of women everywhere to pursue acting. Despite the debate, Gone with The Wind made romance films into an everyday thing. Love stories and epics have never been the same since. It changed the way color was used in film, and set pieces and set direction were completely revolutionized. Even its cinematography was unrivalled in those years.
14. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Action stars were around prior to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but not at the level of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There was also the incredible CGI, which completely revolutionized the way graphics were conceived, particularly in action films. The technological advances that were made famous in T2 opened up an entirely new direction for filmmakers, letting them explore sequences and characters that were never thought to be possible. Rather than using practical effects, costumes or camera trickery, filmmakers could now create realistic shots on a computer and blend it with live-action sequences. Since then, CGI has become so efficient that it’s overused in film to the dismay of many. Nevertheless, it was T2 that was the first major film to take this leap, spending boatloads of money and staking a large piece of film industry for all action films.
13. The Jazz Singer
The Jazz Singer (1927) is the first feature length film with spoken word sequences in it. This means it’s not the first talkie, but it made an impact on the talkies. The story works in some incredibly complex themes for the time, and it explored a type of character arc that really hadn’t been touched at that point. There is some ugly racism in it that works against its timelessness though. The use of Al Jolson’s blackface is tough to look beyond, even if it was a mark of the times. The entire film’s structure, however, did have an incredibly lasting impression on the film industry, and, for that, it will always be remembered.
12. Toy Story
As the first ever feature-length computer generated film, Toy Story will remain in the history books forever. The film showed audiences a new form of animation that appealed to our modern sensibilities and modern lenses, captivating a new generation of children and making Pixar a colossus in the film industry. More than that, Toy Story also found a blend of humor that touched both adults and children, basically a license for printing money. The good-natured films with feel-good themes and humor, like Toy Story, have now become an essential rite-of-passage for all kids. As the generation of kids who grew up on this modern CG animation are grown and having kids of their own, expect these type of movies to stick around for a long while yet.
11. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Made in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first American animated feature-length film, and the one that is typically thought of as the most important of the “firsts.” Before this film, it was unclear if audiences would sit through and be entertained by straight animation for an hour and change. Well, they did and they were. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went on to win seven Oscars and crush it in the box office, setting the stage for every animated feature film that has been made since. Walt Disney was a pioneer and everyone knows that, but his baby, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the ship that got him there. For making children movies that were respected and enjoyed by audiences of all ages, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs created a style of films that will never disappear.
10. The Blair Witch Project
The year 1999 brought film audiences what might be the greatest marketing campaign for a film ever made. The makers of The Blair Witch Project took a few handheld cameras into the woods and created an atmospheric horror movie that would captivate the American film industry’s imagination. By creating a website that developed a backstory for the witch and the area, then suggesting that the footage from the film was lost and found, a new genre of found-footage films was popularized. Sure, they weren’t the first to do it, but they were the first to make it well-known and profitable. The marketing campaign that preceded and surrounded the film created a world outside the confines of the cameras and made everyone question the validity of what we were seeing. It might have been the perfect meeting point of pre-Y2K gullibility and marketing brilliance.
9. The Great Train Robbery
One of the first ever western films ever filmed; in fact, The Great Train Robbery is one of the first films ever filmed, one of the first films with a beginning, middle and end—the first with an actual plot some people might argue. In the 14-minute film, there are actually a few different plot lines. Some of the camera techniques used in the film were done for the very first time, like jump cuts, camera movement, and multiple action sequences occurring simultaneously. While modern audiences may see the plot lines as basic compared to today’s standards, the devices used were duplicated in film for many years afterward and became the essence of all western films for a long stretch of time.
8. The Lord of the Rings
Planned and filmed as a trilogy all at once, The Lord of the Rings transformed the idea of what we thought an epic was. Ignoring the massive scope, the budget, the CGI and cinematography, which all dramatically influenced the industry, Peter Jackson‘s masterpiece also showed studios and audiences that fantasy stories can be memorable and saleable. From the costumes to the set pieces, no movie has ever been so grand, and no movie may ever do it as big again. It was perhaps the perfect timing to take one of the greatest worlds ever created in book form and adapt it for film. The world was ready for it and the result was the best trilogy ever filmed.
Ahh, the summer blockbuster. Love them or hate them, summer blockbusters are a major reason why movies are so popular and so available today. When Steven Spielberg made Jaws in 1975, shocks and scares in film were surrounded with a dark and foreboding mood. Yet Jaws, with all its jumps, frights and gore, is upbeat. It’s light, funny and not so involved; it’s something that everyone can enjoy, and everyone did enjoy. Jaws created a money-making machine for the studios and they ate it up. Movies and concepts like Jaws spawned sequel after sequel, merchandise and advertising that spoke to everyone, not just a niche audience. Without Jaws, we don’t have superhero movies today. Without Jaws, the film industry might not be nearly as big as it is today.
6. Star Wars
Making a list of the pieces of cinema that Star Wars (1977) didn’t influence might be a shorter one. From the way sound is used and played in theaters, to the use of big-budget special effects and pyrotechnics, the now-famous opening crawl, which had never been done on a large scale, to forgoing the opening credits to jump straight into the action, these are all innovations that were made popular by the epic space soap opera. Star Wars was also beautiful and blended, a fantasy epic with a summer blockbuster. It popularized archetypal heroes and storylines for the American audiences and the fanboy hysteria it caused won’t soon be forgotten.
5. Birth of a Nation
Hailed as the first American epic, Birth of a Nation (1915) forever changed the way films were filmed. The use of cinematography to tell a story, the storytelling itself and the editing have all made a massive impression on the industry. There is one huge catch to the whole thing. It’s one of the most racist films ever to be made. It’s ugly beyond ugly and it actually hurts to watch. The director, D.W. Griffith argues that he simply wished to present the mood in America at that time from the perspective of the white KKK protagonists, but it is dehumanizing for the black population. However you read it, the film has left its mark in many more ways than one.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was so much more than one of the first and best horror movies ever made. Outside of essentially handcrafting a genre, Psycho changed the way that narratives in film were structured. In fact, he spat in the face of traditional narrative structures. The way we look at heroes and villains, a protagonist’s place in the film and the confines of story, Hitchcock changed all of this. Killing your protagonist halfway through essentially created two films, plus the ending reveal kept the film going even after the credits were finished rolling. These are all things that filmmakers didn’t do, things they thought they shouldn’t do before Psycho. Add in Hitchcock’s brilliant use of angles, shadows and mystery with the camera and you have easily one of the most influential films of all time.
3. Kid Auto Races at Venice
Before Charlie Chaplin, we had movies. Of course, we did. But movies were something separate from the actors that performed up in them. Movies were bigger than any one person or any one character. That was the case until Chaplin showed up and brought his famous “Little Tramp” with him. Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first of at least 35 films that Chaplin shot and released in 1914 and the first to showcase the “Little Tramp.” He became an overnight sensation, changing the way that audiences see movie stars and movie characters. It’s because of Charlie Chaplin that we idolize actors the way we do. He was the first superstar.
2. 2001: Space Odyssey
Ridley Scott once said of Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), “After 2001: A Space Odyssey, science-fiction is dead.” He speaks to what many people are thinking when they watch everything that has come after the great film; we’ve seen this before. Kubrick’s monumental film looked at really everything in his film, the meaning of life and intelligence, the birth of man and the end of man, space travel and our place in the universe. The special effects were, at the time, magical; today, they’re still spectacular. There’s something different about the movie, from the way it’s shot, with long extended cuts, to the message within that still lingers around all great science fiction movies since. Every science fiction director has a piece of Kubrick and 2001 in them. If they don’t, there’s usually something missing.
1. Citizen Kane
Often thought of as the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane (1941) completely changed the way films were conceived. The use of lighting and camera angles, fade ins and fade outs were totally unique and innovative at the time. Most importantly, Orson Welles, the director, played with the structure of a story, using flashbacks, non-linear plot lines and twists to impact the mood of his audience and perception of the film. Ever since Citizen Kane was released, directors and screenwriters have used devices like Welles to try and accomplish even half of his success and greatness. Today, we like to compare films to Citizen Kane, but, in all honesty, there will never be another film that changes movies the way that Citizen Kane did. It was this movie that made film a malleable art form. It showed us that film can be many different things all at once, and that understanding of its flexibility has made film one of the most beloved art forms in the world.