Every now and then a movie comes along which does things a little differently than we are used to. This is a look at 5 innovative films from the last decade which not only did things a bit differently, but found huge success in doing so, and have already inspired many other films to follow suit.
When you look back at the history of film, there are certain titles which stand out as innovators. These are the movies that were the first of their kind. They gambled on new technological innovations, new methods of storytelling, or a different type of story we hadn’t seen before. Each decade has it’s innovative films which have advanced the industry in one way or another. Below is a look at 5 such examples from the last decade.
Innovative films don’t always stand out upon release. Sometimes it takes time for audiences to understand and embrace the differences. The five films I have highlighted below are not those types of innovators. These are 5 films which audiences recognized for their genius right away, which resulted in huge box office proceeds. They are movies which had their finger on the pulse of pop culture, and delivered exactly the types of films audiences wanted but hadn’t really seen before. As such, their successes have inspired many others to follow suit. But more importantly, each of these films have essentially “opened the door” in one area of film making which hadn’t been explored with as much interest as there will be moving forward.
Marvel’s The Avengers
(Wide) Release Date: May 4, 2012
Box Office: $1.5 billion
What it Did Differently: The Crossover Film Event
Later Films Which Did Something Similar: The other Avengers/MCU films, The DC Extended Universe, The “Dark Universe” franchise, Star Wars spinoffs, The later Fast and the Furious films
When Disney/Marvel released Iron Man back in 2008, audiences ate it up because it was an exciting new superhero/comic book movie. Today, in 2020, audiences are still just as excited for new superhero/comic book movies as we were 12 years ago. Part of the reason for this is the way that Disney has essentially curated their most successful movie franchise. What started with a successful first film has evolved into an impressive entertainment empire with dozens of films, television shows, merchandise, and (hopefully) some collaborations with other franchises.
But at the center of this, the lynchpin which makes it all work, is a progressive story which has culminated in a crossover film every few years. At the end of each “Phase” of the MCU the studio has put all of its heroes together into the Avengers films. The first Avengers movie was the first big-budget crossover film of its kind. It was the culmination of everything the franchise had accomplished up until that point of time. Disney made the ingenious move of making each film in the series its own film, but have elements of an overarching story leading to the Avengers.
The Avengers is the modern evolution of the blockbuster. It is not just a movie, but a movie event. Something for which the MCU had been building up expectations for years. Its box office success proved that all of the careful planning not only paid off, but was necessary to maintain continued interest in a franchise for the long haul. The success of The Avengers has opened up the door for more carefully-planned movie franchises which are more than just sequels continuing a single storyline. It is also the reason all of these films are using end cut scenes to tease “the next installments”.
These days, it is arguably more difficult than ever to grab someone’s attention. Not only are films competing with themselves (with larger and larger advertising budgets), but they are now competing with high production television/streaming shows and other forms of digital entertainment. The Avengers proved that a way to ensure audience involvement is to generate hype early, and keep building it over time. This type of approach has probably had the single biggest impact on the film industry in this decade.
(Wide) Release Date: October 4th, 2013
Box Office: $732 million
What it Did Differently: Big budget survivalist films, long continuous shots using CGI, foreign-born directors in mainstream English-speaking cinema, the high-budget science fiction (non-action) film
Later Films Which Did Something Similar: Birdman, The Revenant, The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Interstellar, The Martian, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049
Gravity is an innovative film in more than just one regard. Unlike some of the other films listed here, it also seems more unexpected. A CGI-heavy space survival movie with a Mexican-born director isn’t the type of film you would have thought would result in the biggest box office success of both George Clooney and Sandra Bullock’s careers. What makes Gravity special is that all of its “innovations” work together to create something that is both very unique, but also very ‘of its time’. Let me explain.
First, let’s start with director Alfonso Cauron. Up until this point in his career, the filmmaker had found some success with movies like Y tu Mama Tambien, and Children of Men. But despite Prisoner of Azkaban, he had not done anything in the mainstream or would have been able to be identified by 90% of the movie-viewing population. His vision and unique drive to create this movie is what makes Gravity a success. People who have worked in the film industry outside of Hollywood like Cauron tend to have a different perspective on storytelling than those who made their careers on making typical Hollywood movies.
Gravity was one of the first films to find major success at the box office by doing things differently than Hollywood had done traditionally. Not only did this open up the minds for audiences to start watching films by non-Hollywood directors, but it opened up the opportunity for larger-budget films to be made by foreign-born filmmakers. It also allowed for more acceptance of non-traditional storytellers in cinema.
Gravity’s other most important innovations come from the way the film was made. While Avatar may have pioneered the way for all-CGI films, Gravity took that dependence on technology to another level. Avatar had 60% of its shots composed entirely of CGI, where Gravity was more like 80%. The production team had to develop specially built rigs to create 3-dimensional movement in weightless space, and sophisticated programs to capture the light correctly. The impact was threefold.
First, the heavy use of CGI allowed for long continuous, and very complicated tracking shots. These type of shots helped to really emerge the audience in the viewing experience. They were very helpful in establishing a suspension of disbelief, which is very important for not only a science fiction film, but one that is mostly comprised of CGI. Soon, we saw these type of complicated shots appearing in many other types of movies.
Second, the story of Gravity appealed to audiences for its simplicity. It is survival against seemingly impossible odds. This is not new to cinema, but reestablished the popularity of this kind of story in a bigger, more sophisticated way. Finally, the success of Gravity at least softened up major film studios to the idea of big budget science fiction movies which were not also action movies. Those types of films have almost never been made because they often fare badly at the box office. Gravity proved that with a strong vision and a unique perspective, audiences would be more than happy to go see them.
(Wide) Release Date: February 24th, 2017
Box Office: $255 million
What it Did Differently: Racially conscious mainstream cinema, new opportunities for directors of color
Later Films Which Did Something Similar: Blindspotting, The Hate You Give, Sorry to Bother You, BlackKklansman, Queen and Slim, Waves, Black Panther, Us, A Wrinkle in Time
Get Out was an important breakthrough on many different levels. On the basic level you have Jordan Peele, an actor/filmmaker best known for his comedic creations releasing a disturbingly dark and impactful film about race relations. He was one of several comedians during the decade who found success outside of the places where they had first become famous (other examples include Bill Hader, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, Steve Carrell, Melissa McCarthy). But that isn’t why Get Out made this list.
Get Out wins accolades because it takes a difficult subject, and broaches it in a way that we haven’t really seen before in mainstream cinema. One of the most impactful social movements of the decade was the Black Lives Matter movement, which, among other things, sought equality for people of color Get Out speaks on some of the issues brought to light by this movement. More importantly, it opened up the opportunity for more discussion on the topic and representation of African Americans and their perspectives in cinema as a whole.
This film, along with Best-Picture winning Moonlight, and the films of Ryan Coogler, Ava Duverney, are seen as the beginning of a new time in mainstream cinema where those types of stories would be told in major motion pictures. And they are not just merely being told, they are written, produced, and acted out by people of color. It isn’t just a matter of casting a person of color into a role which traditionally would have been filled by a white male, but telling the types of stories that come from an African-American perspective – a perspective which has traditionally been underutilized in mainstream American cinema.
(Wide) Release Date: May 2, 2017
Box Office: $822 million
What it Did Differently: Female-fronted blockbuster film, new opportunities for female directors
Later Films Which Did Something Similar: Captain Marvel, Mulan, Black Widow, Birds of Prey, The Rhythm Section, The New Mutants, No Time to Die, Booksmart, Widows, Hustlers, Terminator: Dark Fate
As Get Out has illustrated to the importance of racial equality both in terms of storytelling and the opportunities for the storytellers themselves, Wonder Woman represented the same type of movement for gender equality. For how successful the MCU had been, there was one glaring omission in the series’ impressive filmography. With only one major female character in the first phase of the franchise, and only three compared to more than a dozen men at the conclusion of the second phase, it was easy for critics to call out the series’ male-centric nature. Indeed all of the directors had been men, and the series had yet to helm a film with a female lead character.
The MCU’s competition noticed this oversight, and took advantage. They introduced Wonder Woman in Batman vs. Superman before giving her a standalone film in 2017. But Wonder Woman wasn’t just the first big-budget mainstream superhero movie with a female lead – it was directed by a woman too. The film was a hit at the box office and showed audience enthusiasm for not only more female superheroes, but women-fronted big-budget action films, and in general women-directed films. Wonder Woman proved that audiences would support these types of films. It showed how Hollywood had long (wrongly) overlooked the importance of having women in major roles in their biggest films, and how much audiences would come to support female filmmakers when they are given the same opportunities as men.
Wolf Warrior 2
(Wide) Release Date: July 17, 2017
Box Office: $874 million
What it Did Differently: Recognition of the economic power of international markets
Later Films Which Did Something Similar: Mulan, The Meg, The Foreigner, Escape Plan 2: Hades, Parasite, Air Strike, Empires of the Deep, Journey to the West, Out of Control
The last film on this list is one which few of the people reading this have probably seen, let alone even heard of in the first place. Wolf Warrior 2 is a Chinese action blockbuster. This is a Chinese-made film, and holds the record for the largest Chinese Box Office earnings so far. That’s impressive on its own, but probably not enough to earn a place on this list. What is special about Wolf Warrior 2 is the scale of the films’ success, not just the fact that it was a successful foreign film.
Wolf Warrior 2 is the second-highest grossing film ever for a single market. The record holder is The Force Awakens, which made $937 million in North America. Wolf Warrior 2 made all of its money in China – that’s more than Avatar, Titanic, and Avengers: Endgame all made in their home market. Wolf Warrior 2 is the fasted grossing film to surpass $500 million, and the first film at all to surpass $600 million at the Chinese box office. This incredible run allowed it to become the 7th highest grossing film of the year, and it was released ONLY IN ONE MARKET.
So what does this mean? Well, first it speaks to the importance of international markets for film. Until this decade, major releases didn’t really concern themselves with international markets. But China is a gigantic market for movies, and this film proved that it could very well end up being bigger than the North American market. Of course, in order to make money in China, you have to appeal to Chinese tastes. For a film like this one, made domestically in China, that’s easy to do. But for Hollywood to take advantage, movies will need to be more geared towards Chinese tastes in order to find a market there.
More importantly, this doesn’t just speak to the Chinese market, but the international market as a whole. As technology has advanced around the globe, movies are something that appeal to more and more people. Comparatively, with streaming options and competition from other digital forms of entertainment, it is getting more and more difficult to make profitable movies for a traditionally English speaking audience. What this means is that moving forward we should expect a shift Hollywood’s in biggest films to try and appeal to international tastes, at the expense of domestic ones. As a result of this movement, expect to see more foreign filmmakers and actors in domestic films as collaborations, and vice versa. Wolf Warrior 2 is simply the proof of how film has now officially become an international staple of pop culture.