New American Cinema

New American Cinema

New American Cinema, also referred to as New Hollywood or post-classical Hollywood, refers to the time from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. In this period, a new generation of young filmmakers came to prominence in American cinema. In the mid-sixties the attendance of U.S theaters was declining. The audience were hungry for something different and raw, and then Bonnie and Clyde came as a shock to the system, and a renaissance was under way. Hollywood had long been an exclusive club, and the only way for a new director to gain entrée was to know somebody on the inside. Hollywood’s old boys network now opened up for new kids, and many of the New American Cinema directors were outsiders. This new generation influenced the types of films produced, their production and marketing, and the way studios approached filmmaking. Their work was thematically complex, formally innovative, and morally ambiguous, and they spoke for a generation disenchanted by the Vietnam War, dissatisfied by the ruling elite, and less willing to conform than their parents. Their films were mostly financed by the major studios, but they introduced subject material and styles that distinguished them from studio tradition that an earlier generation had established ca. 1920s–1950s. They re-worked and re-imagined some of Hollywood’s classic genres, like the crime film, the western, and the war film, and by doing that, they presented a more critical view of America past and present. The director took on a key authorial role in the New American cinema films, and the new approach was to treat the director and the script as “the star”. Together with the directors came a bright generation of actors and actresses who brought a new level of bold intensity and contemporary significance to the screen. The new generation had ambition to overturn the system and create something better in its place, which failed. They did, however, succeed in producing work who is now considered a Golden Age in American cinema.

Characteristics of New Hollywood films.
This new generation of Hollywood filmmakers was mainly film school-educated, counterculture-bred, and from the point of view of the studios and young, and therefore able to reach the young audience they were losing.
So, this group of young filmmakers, actors, writers and directors dubbed the “New Hollywood” by the press and briefly changed the business from the producer driven Hollywood system of the past, and added movies with freshness, energy, sexuality, and passion for the artistic value of film itself.
Todd Berliner wrote about the period as an unusual narrative practice. Berliner said that the 1970s marked Hollywood’s most important formal transformation since the studio era and modern Hollywood.

Seventies films differ from classical narrative norms more than Hollywood films from other eras. Their narrative and stylistic devices did threaten to disrupt an otherwise straightforward narration. Berliner argued that the five principles of narrative strategies and characteristic of Hollywood films of the 1970s were the following:

  1. Seventies films showed a perverse tendency to integrate, in narratively related ways, story and stylistic devices counterproductive to the films’ overt and essential narrative purposes.
  2. Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s often situate their filmmaking practices in between those of classical Hollywood and those of European and Asian art cinema.
  3. Seventies films prompt spectator responses more uncertain and discomforting than those of more typical Hollywood cinema.
  4. Seventies narratives place an uncommon emphasis on irresolution, particularly at the moment of climax or in epilogues, when more conventional Hollywood movies busy themselves tying up loose ends.
  5. Seventies cinema hinders narrative linearity and momentum and scuttles its potential to generate suspense and excitement Technically, the most important change the New Hollywood filmmakers brought to the art form was an emphasis on realism. This was made possible when the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system was introduced and location shooting was becoming more viable, because of breakthroughs in film technology as for example the Panavision Panaflex camera. Therefore, New Hollywood filmmakers could shoot 35mm camera film in exteriors with relative ease.

Location shooting was cheaper and often easier than in a studio. New Hollywood filmmakers rapidly developed the taste for this kind of shooting, which had the effect of heightening the realism and immersion of their films.

Their use of editing was also an important factor in New Hollywood cinema, for example, Easy Rider’s use of editing to foreshadow the climax of the movie. There were also editing to enhance and reflect the feeling of frustration in, Bonnie and Clyde or the subjectivity of the protagonist in The Graduate.

Different from realism, New Hollywood films often featured political themes, use of rock music, and sexual freedom, which back then were deemed as “counter-cultural” by the studios.

The popularity of these films with young people showed the importance of the thematic elements and artistic values. The youth movement of the 1960s turned anti-heroes like Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke into pop culture idols, and Life magazine called the characters in Easy Rider “part of the fundamental myth central to the counterculture of the late 1960s.


New American Cinema was a cinematic Renaissance in America. In the 1960s, there was a decline in theater attendance and the introduction of modern, avant-garde films helped the business to boom again. Prior to New American Cinema, Hollywood was producing musicals and historical epics because they looked better on the new wider screens. Most of these movies ended up becoming flops and attracted older audiences. The introduction of the television and the Paramount Case also contributed to the decrease in theater attendance. The Baby Boomer generation was raised at the time of the Vietnam War and were heavily involved in social and political issues. The filmmakers that brought New American Cinema brought new, fresh ideas to the screen that attracted these younger audiences. The era of New American Cinema came to an end with the introduction of blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws in the 70’s.

Why Important

Because there was a shift toward independently produced films, directors had more control over the films and could add their own style to their films. New American Cinema also brought in younger audiences who were interested in the art of cinema. Movies with questionable morals, violence, sex and shocking endings were a breath of fresh air to the new generation. These films, like The Graduate (1967) also commented on social and political issues that audiences could relate to and understand. New American Cinema filmmakers took a stand against rosy films and produced stylistic films that showed the unpolished American culture. Elements of New American Cinema can be seen in popular blockbusters.

Notable Movies, Directors and Actors

In 1966 Jack Valenn became the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). With this new position, Valenn saw the opportunity to overhaul the Production Code. This code, an industry of moral guidelines for motion pictures in the United States, was created in 1930 but not strictly enforced until 1934. It states what was and was not acceptable to be shown in a film. Those who did not meet the guidelines would be dubbed “not approved” and have a much more difficult time getting into theaters. Examples of Production Code rules include: pointed profanity, illegal traffic of drugs, miscegenation, murder, actual childbirth, suggestive nudity or sexual situations, and sympathy for criminals.

For about 25 years, films followed the Production Code and became almost repetitive. During the late 1950s, the enforcement of the Production Code became weaker due to new television series, live news reports, and the slow inclusion of elements in films that broke the production code. In 1967, Bonnie and   Clyde as well as The Graduate were released which are now considered two of the first films to break the Production Code and introduce New American Cinema. Bonnie & Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn is a film about two young lovers who travel across the country robbing banks and committing murder. This film breaks production code with its multiple acts of violence and sexual scenes. Warner Brothers studios was hesitant about the release of this film and worried it would be unsuccessful due to its content. It showed limited screenings and was very unpopular. Though unappealing to the older generations, it blew up in popularity to young adults in England. Young film critics described it as “The new cinema…violence…sex…art”. Audiences viewed the characters as a couple “fleeing from society’s structures”. This film also introduced fast editing and slow motion.

During the summer of 1967, The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols was released. It was considered New American Cinema due to its multiple breaks in the Production Code and its appeal to younger generations. Older audiences strongly disliked the film due to its possible accusations that older adults were self-centered, hypocritical, and materialistic. This appealed to the younger generations because they could connect to the young actors of Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross.


4 thoughts on “New American Cinema

  1. This is a really informative discussion about New American Cinema, which I was not even really aware of previously. Of course I’d heard of some of the movies, but I had not seen any of them. I definitely had not paid attention to how they were connected by the themes of the New American movement. I like how it came about because of the response of the younger generation and included things that they found entertaining. I’m interested in seeing some of these films now to understand it for myself.


  2. As you say, both violence and sexual scenes in Bonnie and Clyde contributed to break the production code. The director portrayed violent scenes with a comic tone and then shifted into shocking and graphic violence, with endless, unnecessary killings following an unrestrained few years of assassinations and war. The Bonnie and Clyde death scene was also one of the first portrayed with graphic realism using stage blood to simulate bullet hits. This made the audience confront death in a way that most films avoided at this time.


  3. Good post and very informative. Its spectacular to learn a film movement by its history and how it was influenced. It makes it all the more unique and understandable in a sense.


  4. I find it notable that with each generational wave the emphasis put on any form of entertainment somehow changes to match their needs. Of course, since this industry is profit-based, it makes sense that a film style such as the generation of the New American Cinema would come about. I’ve watched a couple films from this era, like ‘The Graduate’, and while not my taste, find their patterns unique and different from their predecessors. And while I’ve never actually heard about this cinematic movement, it was interesting to learn of the societal influences that molded their style of storytelling.


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