Rain Man was, among receiving critical accolades, a very popular and financially successful film. According to boxoffice2.html, it had the highest domestic gross of any film in 1988. It was successful internationally as well, making as much money overseas as it did in the United States. (Incidentally, researching box office totals is an exacting task, with different sites using different criteria, so I am not certain that all of these figures are totally accurate.)
If I remember correctly, I saw Rainman in a drive-in movie theater in 1989, shortly after moving to Salem, Oregon. In 1989, autism was not part of common knowledge, as it is today, so the entire premise of the film would have probably been novel to me. Whether I could follow the film's plot and complicated family dynamics is another matter. But I ended up seeing "Rain Man", as a nine year old, because there were fewer choices in viewing movies, and most movies were made for adults.
I am actually writing about "Rain Man" because to me, it seems like a perfect lens to dissect criticisms recently made by director Martin Scorsese about films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he said directly that "I don't think they're cinema", that they don't convey real human emotion, and that gigantic franchise spectacle movies were choking the life out of truly novel film ideas. The entire history of Martin Scorsese's vendetta against Marvel is not really worth getting into in a write-up about the film Rainman, but it got me thinking. Despite some cantankerous codgers complaints, hadn't Hollywood always been about mass market appeal? Wasn't looking for a time when Hollywood was dedicated to art and not profit a futile cause? How far back would we have to go to find a time when the top film of the year was a contemporary drama: no fantasy, no animation, no science-fiction? Just a movie about adults dealing with problems in a realistic way?
As you can probably guess, the last film to fit that description was Rain Man, in 1988. In the 31 years since, the top grossing film worldwide has been animated, a fantasy or science-fiction movie, had Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean or Shrek. Titanic, if you squint hard enough, is a period piece drama dealing with social class and loss, but I think it would be safer to say that Titanic is a big budget disaster movie. Domestically, along with Titanic, Saving Private Ryan and American Sniper also were top films at the box office, and whether those are drama films or war films is probably a matter of opinion. Rain Man also won the Academy Award for Best Picture, something that the top grossing film of the year has only achieved twice since: with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. In other words, "Rain Man", released over 30 years ago, was the last time that someone took an original screenplay, based on a non-fantastic or supernatural idea, shot it on a modest budget using dramatic actors, and managed to make the year's most commercially and critically successful film. Not that it was that successful of a strategy before: while the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had their share of dramatic movies, they also had their share of spectacle. For every Kramer v Kramer and Love Story, there was a Jaws, Star Wars, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Back to the Future. But the point is, it used to be possible to make an adult drama and have it be the most popular movie of the year. And the last time that this was true was 1988, when Rain Man managed to capture the public favor.
Which is not to say that Rain Man is a perfect film. Its treatment of developmental disability, novel at the time, would probably be seen as naive or insulting today. The lack of serious female roles might also be seen as an artistic liability, and people's opinions about Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise might also color the movie's reception. But the point is, that like Martin Scorsese said, a film like Rain Man, about two adult siblings meeting for the first time, would be lost today. It might succeed as an art film or as Oscar Bait, or as a niche film, but there is no way that it could go into the ring against a Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe film. So while there have always been spectacle films, and while Rain Man is not a perfect film, the fact remains that films like Rain Man used to be able to be made, and be watched by everyone, and that is no longer true.