Around two years ago, I embarked upon the 1978 Project, a film-based resolution to watch as many movies made in 1978 as I could. As of this moment, I have seen 87 movies that were made in 1978 (full list on Letterboxd, which is what I used as the system of record for determining a 1978 release), though I had already seen approximately 25 of them before starting this exercise. After the traditional Kaedrin Movie Awards, Arbitrary Awards, and a Top 10, it’s time to do a more general retrospective on the experience.
As mentioned above, I’ve seen 87 movies made in 1978. When I look at my All Time Stats, there’s an obvious bias towards recent years, but 1978 sticks out like a sore thumb.
Of all years before 2005, I’ve seen the most movies from 1978 (though 1988 is currently at 86 and I’m guessing it’ll surpass the 87 number at some point). From 2005 onwards, I’ve seen more than that 87 number. Availability certainly plays a role here, but we’ll get into that later.
In terms of genre, I spread things around a bit, though there are some biases at work here:
Naturally, the catchall Drama genre leads the pack. Horror is not far behind, clearly driven by the 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathons I engage in every year (Thriller, another leading genre, probably also falls into that bucket). Action is also high, thanks in part to the boom of Hong Kong martial arts flicks that 1978 is safely nestled within. Other mainstay genres like Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction, and Mystery also put in a good showing. The only thing I’m particularly surprised by is the relative paucity of Romance, though looking through recent years shows a similar proportion, so maybe I’m just bad at seeking that out.
In terms of Country of Origin, I don’t have an easy way to break it down, but there’s an obvious USA bias, with a bunch of Hong Kong (again driven by Martial Arts), Italy, Anglosphere (i.e. UK, Canada, and Australia), and probably a ton of one-offs. Not the most diverse for sure, and at least part of this is driven by availability.
One of the things I’ve noticed about focusing in on a specific year for movies that is far enough in the past is that you get a better feel for people’s careers. You see a lot of bit parts starring young actors who wouldn’t become famous until later (sometimes much later). Kevin Bacon, Tommy lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Steve Guttenberg, and Jamie Lee Curtis all come to mind there. You also see some young folks who put in good work, but whose career never quite took off the way you might have thought in 1978, like Brad Davis or Theresa Russell.
The same goes for directorial debuts in 1978. People like Robert Zemeckis (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) and Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven) were just getting started, and while their respective movies didn’t light the world on fire at the time, they’re both fantastic. Their later work would go on to completely overshadow their debuts, for understandable reasons, but it’s interesting to see this sort of thing in its larval form. Of course, some directors had been around for a few years, and fully hit their stride in 1978, like John Carpenter (Halloween).
On the flip side of the coin, it’s also easier to see the waning years of people’s careers. Ingmar Bergman collaborated with Ingrid Bergman in the waning years of both of their careers (Autumn Sonata). One of Billy Wilder’s final films (Fedora) was perhaps a bit repetitive of his earlier work, but still well done.
Then there’s the genre trends. I’ve already done a deep dive into the Martial Arts boom that was in full swing, but there were some other trends that were emerging. 1978 was only one year after Star Wars, but already you could see several movies looking to cash in on that success (similarly, Jaws had inspired animal attack movies). While we’re still safely ensconced in the infamous 1970s era of New Hollywood artistic freedom where there were few sequels or franchises and original drams could pull at the box office, we’re also seeing the beginnings of the end of that era. Several of the top 10 box office films of 1978 would go on to spawn sequels and long franchises, some of which are still shambling along to this day (i.e. Superman, Halloween, etc…)
The Italian exploitation boom was starting to wind down as well. After Spaghetti Westerns reinvigorated a moribund genre in the 60s and early 70s, they were running out of gas by 1978. Same goes for Giallo flicks and WWII epics. This was at least partly due to the evolution of cinema in Italy. As home entertainment and other activities became more popular in the 80s, the Italian genre machine trailed off. 1978 was towards the beginning of that decline.
It’s fun to have a movie-based project to work your way through. A few years ago, I did 50 Under 50, a resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950 in one year. The 1978 Project was a deep dive into a single year, which is obviously something I could easily repeat with a different year. But perhaps I should try a different tactic. I’ve always thought about doing a 50 from 50 challenge, in which I watch 50 movies from 50 different countries… but then, I almost do that by accident every year (I’d have to research more and see if there are some other constraints I could put around it to make it more meaningful).
As with the 50 Under 50 project, Netflix and Hulu were almost useless. Netflix did have a few of those martial arts flicks, but was otherwise not much help (their DVD service also supplied a few things to watch, even if that service is in decline these days). Amazon Prime was, by far, the most useful streaming service for watching these older movies. The quality of the transfer might not always be the greatest, but you could at least watch it. Amazon was also my go to for streaming rentals as well. Kanopy had a couple things too, but they’re always sorta hit or miss.
Availability in general was not especially great. Streaming has been getting better, but there’s still lots of stuff that is seemingly unavailable anywhere. Occasionally, I could fill a gap with physical media, but not always (and even then, a lot of stuff is out of print, so you’d have to buy a used copy and sometimes even those can be exorbitantly expensive.) I have to assume doing a similar exercise for an even older year would be even worse.
One of the other things I noticed was that I had already seen a pretty large proportion of my Top 10 for 1978 before starting this effort (i.e. I’d already seen 6 out of the top 10 before I started). This makes a certain sort of sense, as the best and most popular films tend to be more prominent and available in general, but that presents an interesting bias. On the other hand, there’s probably some form of recency bias at work too. It’s interesting how these sorts of perceptions get distorted by a concerted effort to focus on a single year, and it’s an exercise that I found worthwhile.
All in all, it’s been a fun little exercise and I’m glad I embarked upon it. I don’t have any additional projects planned as yet, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something…