Lessons Learned: The Western Movie Bubble

I love going to the movies. Cinema is, and hopefully will continue to be, one of America’s greatest exports. It is something our country does exceptionally well. It is an industry Americans should all be very proud of. And, like most of America’s short history, it is a very rich text, full of lessons. There are dozens of periods in the cinematic arts that can teach us all so much. One such period was a time known as the Western Movie Bubble.

I recently saw Quintin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and absolutely adored it. It was some classic Tarantino fare, with some exceptional dialogue, tremendous vignettes, intriguing characters, and, of course, absurd gore. Maybe most importantly, it was also a love letter to Old Hollywood - a theme Tarantino frequently plays with. Specifically, Tarantino was valorizing and analyzing old western movie and television actors. I did not grow up on Western TV (although I did dabble in Walker: Texas Ranger), but I do have an appreciation for the impact that westerns have had on our media since their boom.

The western roared into popular culture with a 12-minute silent film called The Great Train Robbery. It is considered one of the first blockbusters and captured the attention of the film-going public. It started a trend that would last for decades: western movies dominating the box office. The power of westerns were so enormous that they were a big reason for Hollywood’s relocation to southern California: films needed to be shot on location, so they needed to be in locales that represented the backdrop of a western film (this might be a chicken or the egg scenario, but the point still stands).

In the 1930’s, westerns were still being made at an impressive clip, but the quality was not as high as it was in the 1920’s. This was largely due to the Great Depression, but also because of several enormous flops in the Western genre that scared a lot of industry people away from the space. However, this dip in quality only lasted for a brief period of time, and money eventually found its way back into the genre, with Fox, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, among others, throwing their white cowboy hats into the ring. The western boom was reignited. After the end of World War II, many Westerns were still being made, but they were notably weirder. The industry started experimenting and making more avant-garde western films. In the past, these movies followed a handful of pretty straightforward formulas that satiated the consumer’s appetite. But the 40’s and 50’s saw the rise of anti-heroes and more adult themes.

However, technological disruption changed the genre (and the cinema industry in general) pretty massively. The introduction of televisions in most homes in America started in the late 40’s and reached critical mass by the end of the 1950’s, with more than 85% of homes having at least one television set. As a result, the production pace for Western films slowed down and moved to TV. In 1960, there were 48 Westerns on TV, 30 of which were in primetime. Westerns were still being made, but they were mostly an after-thought by the end of the 1960’s. They still get made today, as I am sure you are aware, but they are far less ubiquitous. So like many dominant trends, the western genre finally came to an end.

But that doesn’t mean westerns are dead altogether or that they weren’t worthwhile. There is a ton we can still learn from the genre and there are some fun parallels we can trace from this industry to many others. The first is that bubbles sometimes take a long time to pop. In fact, there is probably a correlation between the time it takes for a bubble to burst and how private the capital associated with that bubble is. Financing of the film industry is remarkably opaque and revolves around only a handful of players - especially back in the day. While some of these companies are public today, the majority of them require and utilize very patient capital and investors. As a result, it takes a long time for a fever to build around an asset class. While this may seem obvious in hindsight, it’s extremely tough to appreciate in the moment. Admittedly, the Western Movie Bubble doesn’t really fit the traditional definition of an economic bubble, but it does share some similar features.

Another lesson from the Western Movie Bubble is that there have always been changes in technology outside of an industry that can radically alter the landscape inside of an industry. Westerns were king of cinema for a long time, and it took the rapid acceptance of the in-home television in the late 1940s for westerns to lose their edge. TV altered an industry it probably didn’t even realize it was entering at the time. This is true for a ton of other industries as well. The introduction of Apple’s iPhone didn’t just change the telecom industry, it radically altered several others by introducing mobile elements into every marketplace. The introduction of the transistor didn’t just change the radio, it altered the course of all electronics. There are ripple effects with every technological innovation.

A third lesson is that when something is working in a formulaic manner, you should expect to see that formula altered eventually over time. Westerns followed a set story pattern (white hat stops black hat, train robbery, moving West, etc.) and it worked. But after a while, bold storytellers started playing with those formulas and created brand new formulas all on their own. As a process starts to age, it will always transform into something newer and weirder. Innovation is always just around the corner and you better be ready for it.

While there are a lot more lessons to be gathered from the western movie industry, one thing that we can’t forget is that the impact of westerns are still being felt today. Some of the greatest films (commercially and critically) of the past several decades have overt and direct references to some of the western greats. One of my favorite movies from 2017 - Logan - was basically a western comic book movie mashup. George Lucas is notorious for using elements of westerns and samurai movies to create the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. The list of movies touched by this piece of American history is nearly endless. So while the bubble has burst, the western cowboy is still riding off into the sunset.

Peter G Schmidt