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Top 15 Movies That Changed Cinema

By Derek Ruth · June 19, 2010

The internet is littered with scores of "Best of…" movie lists; we even have a few. The angle of this list is a bit different though. These films, for good or bad, changed the course of the movie industry and forever altered how movies are made, marketed and viewed.

15. Avatar (2009)
Time will tell how truly game changing Avatar will be remembered, but it’s easy to see it’s immediate impact. 3D cinema is seemingly here to stay and Avatar made it cool to wear the glasses. Besides the amazing technical accomplishments of the film and the ground breaking way films will be shot in the future – Cameron devised a stereoscopic ‘virtual camera, allowing him to move through a 3D terrain as he shot – Cameron’s baby brought in such staggering dollars – 2.73 billion worldwide – we are guaranteed to have 3D versions of nearly every popcorn blockbuster for the near future.

14. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Love it or hate it, it’s hard to ignore what The Blair Witch Project did for filmmaking. At the dawn of the prosumer camcorder era, Blair Witch showed arm chair filmmakers the world over that anyone can get a group of few friends together, and with a great idea and a lot of hard work, make a blockbuster. The numbers don’t lie: $20,000 budget – $250 million in earnings. And if you think Blair Witch was just a once hit wonder, 2007’s Paranormal Activity took the world by storm in much the same way: $11,000 budget – 183 million worldwide gross.

13. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Widely anticipated to be a guaranteed flop before its premiere, Disney proved the exact opposite with its first ever feature length animated film. Grossing almost $75 million in 1937 Snow White still sits within the top ten in ticket sales. The film is also the first to release a soundtrack for a movie as well as merchandise available at the outset of a film’s run.

12. The Robe (1953)
As television became a common fixture in American households, the movie industry (that previously had known no rivals) began to falter and ticket sales plummeted. Hollywood tried desperately to separate itself from the small screen, moving from the then standard 1.37:1 ratio to wider and wider formats and grander epics. The Robe epitomized the lavish spectacle Hollywood was producing at the time and had the honor of becoming the first feature filmed in anamorphic widescreen – a standard to this day because of its cost effective bottom line and crowd pleasing screen size.

11. Deep Throat (1972)
Like it or not, porn has an enormous impact on the film industry as a whole, both directly and indirectly. Countless careers, but above and below the line, have started and ended in XXX rated cinema. No film had a greater impact on cementing porn as a dominant financial force. This must see cultural event gross over $600 million dollars in the box office and even made porn fashionable for a time. Who would have thought? Porn became ‘chic’.

10. Seven Samurai (1954)
Although the story line might seem dry and mundane now, almost every action adventure film owes something to Kurasowa: a rag tag group of guys banding together to tackle a looming enemy. We could rattle off hundreds of movies that have copied that. And for you script heads, Samurai uses the classic action nine sequences, opening with the end of the main protagonist’s last adventure. A first. Take that James Bond and Indiana Jones.

9. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
It was just one scene of this propaganda riddled epic, but Eisenstein’s brilliant execution of his montage theory of the scene forever changed the way scenes were shot and edited. No longer just a simple telling of events, Eisenstein used cutaways to objects and reaction shots to create mood and emotions. If you don’t want to sit through this silent classic, take a look at DePalma’s Untouchables, he “borrows” perfectly.

8. The Jazz Singer (1927)
Hollywood had been making box office hits for over a decade when this film was released with the distinction of being the first with audible dialogue. The truth is that it took years for the industry to fully switch to the “talkies”, and it wasn’t until the following year’s release of Lights of New York that the sound was fully synchronous. Still, this Alan Crosland classic marks the moment when writers had to work a little bit harder and critics had one more thing to complain about.

7. Citizen Kane (1941)
Listed near or at the top of nearly every “best of” list, it’s how Citizen Kane heralded the birth of the independent filmmaking renegade that lands it on this list. Hot off the success of his War of the Worlds broadcast, RKO quickly snatched up Orson Welles with a two picture deal. The town was so hot for the young talent that Welles was able to get a $500,000 budget for his first pic with zero studio interference and final cut (unheard of for a newcomer). Wells responded like a true maverick filmmaker; he pushed the boundaries and broke the rules with numerous landmark innovations, becoming a trailblazer for future directing greats such as Coppola, Scorsese, and Tarantino, to name a few.

6. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Derided in the modern era for it’s overt love affair with slavery, it’s hard not to acknowledge the reality that David O Selznick’s epic is the blueprint for all blockbuster epics that followed it. Grossing almost $200 million in 1939, Gone With the Wind still owns the distinction of the highest ticket sales of all time, with an inflation adjusted box office of $1.6 Billion. With a record eight Oscar’s (a record that would stand for 20 years), Gone With the Wind also has the distinction of the first Academy Award winning performance by an African American with Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Oscar win.

5. Star Wars (1977)
Lucas certainly wasn’t the first to use special effects, and some naysayers might quibble on how much innovation should be ascribed to him and ILM. What you can’t argue with is it’s success, and Hollywood follows success. Its $2.7 Billion worldwide and the franchises six movies and almost $8 billion in sales easily gives Lucas’ classic the nod over Kubrick’s critically acclaimed 2001: A Space Odyssey. This film is also landmark for it’s impact on merchandising. Twentieth Century Fox had so little faith in the project that they allowed Lucas, a relative newcomer, to retain an unheard of 40% of the merchandising rights against a small salary to direct the film. Merch rights are now a major part of contracts.

4. Winchester '73 (1950)
You’re probably wondering why an obscure Western is so high on this list. The fact is, we actually wanted to put it higher. In 1950, James Stewart (one of the biggest stars in the world) realized that he could make more money if he broke his studio contract and made the unheard of move to become an independent. Universal immediately jumped on the chance of having the star in their new film but couldn’t afford his asking price. Being the visionary that he was, Stewart had his salary tied to the gross of the film. This quickly became the standard practice and continues today.

3. Jaws (1975)
Considered the first true summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws forever changed the landscape of films and ushered us into the modern age of movie marketing. Up until 1975, films would released in a handful of theaters and studios would allow newspapers to spread the word as they slowly released the film into other parts of the country. Jaws bucked that trend by releasing an unheard of series of 30 second commercials during prime time in the days before the first ever nationwide release. The media derided the practice at the time, but’s it’s unapologetic success guaranteed that the industry was changed forever.

2. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Good films and bad films alike owe something to this 12 minute silent gem. This film has the distinction of doing a very basic thing: tell a story. Shot and co-directed by Blair Smith, one of Thomas Edison’s cameramen, the simple narrative consists of 14 simple linear scenes heavily influenced by Mottershaw’s A Daring Daylight Burglary.

1. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Once you get past the highly objectionable subject matter, it’s hard not to recognize that this film launched American cinema. Beyond advancing technical aspects of shots and editing, this film grossed over $10 million in 1915, showing filmmaking as the viable, moneymaking business it continues to be. In fact, it was such an iconic film in it’s own era, that it was considered commonplace for people in the industry to include Birth on their resume just so they could say they were there at the beginning. Even acclaimed director John Ford has an unsubstantiated credit as a horseman.

1a. The Fall of a Nation (1916)
In a revolutionary move of the time, Hollywood sought to cash in on the unparalleled success of Birth of a Nation and created a now commonplace industry standard: The Sequel. And ironically, this “cash-in” feature is considered lost forever.