How The Godfather Saved/Changed Hollywood

By January 16, 2020News


The Godfather ushered in a new era,” claimed Dr. Darl Larsen, professor of Theater and Media Arts. Hollywood film studios changed their structure because of the success of Fancis Ford Coppola’s blockbuster hit, The Godfather (1972). Throughout the 40s and 50s, Hollywood studios experienced significant strength and stability, but new media such as television began to threaten their dominance as well as the more experimental and thematically frank foreign films that made their way to American theaters throughout the 50s and 60s, American audiences wanted to see things that were more complex. Foreign films were not under any obligation to self-censor sex and violence, so they were marketed towards Americans as being more titillating, although whether the content was actually more explicit is up for debate according to Larsen. American audiences were drawn to these more challenging, foreign films because of the more extreme cultural circumstances of the 60s, including race riots, the war in Vietnam, and a myriad of political assassinations around the world. Movies, they thought, should reflect the darkness of real life and the news.

Hollywood was slow on the uptake. Westerns had more or less wandered into the setting sun and musicals were soon to follow. After the success of The Sound of Music in 1965, the studios thought that they could pour money into big musicals again, but after three massive flops including Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969) the days of the Hollywood musical came to a close as did the doors of MGM Studios. Hollywood needed to fundamentally change in order to survive. “The Godfather was directed by nobody,” Larsen joked, “That’s not true. It was directed by a nobody.” Francis Ford Coppola, as opposed to the Hollywood directors who preceded him, went to film school as opposed to having worked his way slowly up the ladder after working every job on the lot. 

In film school, which was relatively new, Coppola studied film both practically and critically. He watched all the great American and foreign films from the festivals and learned how different lenses, angles, sounds, etc. affect audiences. Despite rather disliking the novel, Coppola was sought after to direct The Godfather in part because he himself was Italian-American and because the studio knew they needed some fresh new vision. The Godfather became the first Hollywood blockbuster. It was a book. It was a movie. It was a soundtrack. All of these elements were mass marketed to push each other for greater sales and the film opened not in hundreds but in thousands of theaters to massive critical and audience acclaim. 

Because of The Godfather’s success, the studios shifted to center more around these blockbusters or “event films.” Studios also started looking for their next directors in recent film school alumni. There would be no Jaws (1975), no Star Wars (1977), no Taxi Driver (1976) were it not for Coppola and The Godfather.