After thinking about how there is only about a dozen sci/fi movies ever made in my home country, I started to wonder. In the history of movie-making in the USA, what periods was sci/fi the hottest thing, and when was it disregarded as a genre belonging in the trash? And why do you think it was popular/profitable and unpopular/unprofitable respectively?
In the 1960s, special effects designer/director George Pal, who made When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, made a damn bold claim: he said that in the future, the highest grossing movies will be science fiction films. Everyone laughed at him at the time, since scifi was a genre for b-movies, teenagers, drive-ins, and weirdos. But he was right.
It’s worth noting that teenagers and college students were seen as a fringe market worth ignoring until the late 1960s and almost no culture was made for them. In fact, even the idea of a “teenager” (an in-between period between a child and an adult) is a pretty recent invention that only goes back to the late 1940s and 50s. I think that’s the reason scifi went from being unprofitable to profitable: young people were discovered to be a kind of consumer, and that has implications way beyond just scifi films.
To directly answer your question, the absolute nadir for the entire genre of science fiction on film had to have been in the 1930s and early 1940s. It had that status because of the failure of two huge and expensive scifi movies. The first was the German studio UFA’s Metropolis, which, today, we remember as a brilliant movie and an all time classic, but at the time, lost a tremendous amount of money, to the point it was part of the reason that UFA closed its doors. It was such a bomb that UFA’s collapse meant that Germany wouldn’t successfully be a rival to the Hollywood studios the way they had been in the 1920s (there were also some political events happening at this time in Germany that you might have heard of).
The other big bomb was 1930′s Just Imagine, a comedy set in the incredible year 1980. The most interesting thing about it is that the props used in the movie were so expensive that they were re-used everywhere for every laboratory, including James Whale’s 1931 movie, Frankenstein. If you ever wondered why every movie used the same five pieces of lab equipment, this is why.
For decades, the only people who even tried scifi were movie serials who did “kid’s stuff” like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, not to mention chillers shown for drive-ins. That’s why I think a very important turning point was Forbidden Planet in the 1950s, because that was a big studio making a science fiction movie. And not just any studio…MGM, the guys who made Gone WIth the Wind and movies like that, the most dignified and elder statesmanlike of all the studios. Except Disney, most studios don’t have brand identity anymore, but back then they did, and MGM certainly did, which is why it mattered when they did a scifi film.
Star Wars was definitely a turning point, and sure, everyone knows that one…but it’s important to put it in the context of the 1970s, when all scifi movies were moody downer pictures starring guys in turtlenecks. A scifi crowd-pleaser was new, and since then scifi’s found it’s footing. Star Wars didn’t change the world all at once, though; I remember when Independence Day came out and was a huge hit, people were shocked that a scifi movie could do numbers like that.
What’s the best time to be a scifi fan at the movies? Definitely right now. There are all kinds of scifi films coming out now that, if they had come out in the 1980s, would be these generation defining cult films the way Tron was, but now they’re just another scifi film. If it came out in the 1980s, for example, people would still be dressed up as Live, Die, Repeat characters to conventions.