When you try to define what a blockbuster is, you may find yourself a little confused. Before Jaws arrived in 1975, a blockbuster was a film that gained traction through word of mouth, eventually going on to make plenty of money. That makes perfect sense. Calling a film a blockbuster suggests that the film has found a huge audience, and has made a healthy profit. It’s after Jaws that things become complicated, and the word blockbuster suddenly loses all meaning. By exploring the evolution of the films that have gained the moniker of blockbuster, as well as the marketing and the eventual merchandising that seems to accompany so many films deemed blockbusters, we can start to see a very different definition for the term as it is used now.
Jaws is actually one of the last true blockbusters, although it’s also the beginning of a strategy to create a blockbuster. Great test screenings led to Universal cutting down the number of theatres that the film would open in, creating a demand for the film and allowing it to run for the entire summer. Jaws was a huge financial success, and also helped create the idea of a summer blockbuster.
The difference was that Jaws was a slower paced film with a well written script that hides its main selling point for most of the film. You couldn’t make a film like this now as a summer blockbuster, which is ironic because without Jaws, there would be no summer blockbusters. With Universal spending $1.8 million on marketing, an unheard of number for the time, and the fact that they realized they could create demand by limiting the release, Hollywood was suddenly aware that they could create a blockbuster.
Jaws is actually one of the last true blockbusters, although it’s also the beginning of a strategy to create a blockbuster. Great test screenings led to Universal cutting down the number of theatres that the film would open in, creating a demand for the film and allowing it to run for the entire summer.
If Jaws started the idea of creating a blockbuster, it’s Star Wars that became the final packaging for the product. Star Wars also happens to be much closer to the original idea of a blockbuster as well. Confidence in the success of the film was low, and the immediate reaction to the film wildly exceeded expectations. Star Wars was a success because the fans made it that way, and not because the studio did.
Star Wars sets the stage for basically all future blockbuster films. It’s a huge story, filled with great action, and coupled with merchandising that oftentimes overshadows the film itself. With Star Wars, the demand for merchandise necessitated its creation, again staying true to the original concept of the blockbuster. This film gained its success because we wanted it. The public helped to create our current version of the blockbuster, even if we now decry them on a regular basis.
The birth of the multiplex theatre also started in high gear in the late ’70s. Before that time, smaller theatres with two screens had been created, including the Elgin Theatre in Ottawa, Canada. In the late ’50s, the Elgin Theatre began showing older films on one screen, with newer films on the other. This had never been done before, and is the first example of how multiplex theatres work now. Two screens isn’t exactly what we expect now, but in 1979, the 18 screen Cineplex opened in the Toronto Eaton Centre, becoming the largest multi-theatre complex in the world.
Everybody realized that they could start making a lot of money at this point. With places like the 18 screen Cineplex, the theatres had the chance to program a wide variety of films and to continue to profit off of older films while still programming newer films. As the multiplexes grew, and audience demand would increase, Hollywood could see that they could produce more films to fill that demand.
By the time the ’80s hit, the strategy was complete. You’ve got massive theatres being built, ready to screen a large number of pictures at the same time, or the same film on multiple screen. Merchandising has become a part of a film, and Hollywood is starting to realize what audiences will turn up for. Throw in some major marketing dollars and you’ve got a hit. At least, that’s the way Hollywood would like it to be.
Star Wars sets the stage for basically all future blockbuster films. It’s a huge story, filled with great action, and coupled with merchandising that oftentimes overshadows the film itself. The public helped to create our current version of the blockbuster, even if we now decry them on a regular basis.
In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was released, and 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm were ready to create a hit. Merchandising was almost non-stop in between the 1977 release of Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Here we can see how things change from filling the demand of fans, to essentially creating the demand. Cards, action figures, and even a novelization of The Empire Strikes Back – released shortly before the film even was – start to make it the film to watch. Of course fans were going to turn up in large numbers, but you start to get the impression that you need to see this film right away, which is a massive part of blockbuster films today.
The ’80s saw a growing number of releases every month, with many of the summer months filled with massive action spectaculars. Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Die Hard, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan are just a small number of them. They’re big, they’re loud, they start to follow a more simple plot, and you can bet that you knew these films were coming. The machine had begun to take over.
Things evened out a little bit more in the ’90s. There were still plenty of huge action films to fill the summer months, but you can see that films like American Beauty, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Schindler’s List also begin to make huge profits. The difference here is that you probably didn’t hear that Schindler’s List was the blockbuster event of the year. These are serious films, typically looking toward award season to gain them the recognition they want. That doesn’t mean that they’re not marketed as much. In fact, they may be marketed even more at times, but you aren’t rushing out to grab the comic book adaptation, or the trading cards of Titanic like you would be for Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
By the time we reach the ’00s, things have gotten out of control. The number of films released in any given month since 2000 is outrageous. The number of multiplexes has skyrocketed, and Hollywood studios need to fill those seats. Films don’t play for months like they used to, and the demand to watch them at home is shortening release windows. We want to see these films on opening weekend in the summer, and be watching them on our couches by Christmas vacation.
In 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was released, and 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm were ready to create a hit. Here we can see how things change from filling the demand of fans, to essentially creating the demand. Cards, action figures, and even a novelization of The Empire Strikes Back – released shortly before the film even was – start to make it the film to watch.
The ’00s are also the rise of the comic book movie, perhaps the current definition of a blockbuster movie now. The X-Men, Batman Begins, Spider-Man, and Iron Man kick off a never ending stream of movies. These action films make ’80s action films look like kids filming themselves playing with their toys. They are massive action spectaculars, with huge set pieces and plots that are often very simple and to the point. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shows just how the idea of a blockbuster film has changed.
Marvel has played a huge role in this for current films. They have created a massive universe with their films, making it almost essential to have seen their previous release before you see their latest. As this article is being written, some of the best things being said about Ant-Man is how it teases Captain America: Civil War. It’s not enough to start marketing your film years in advance – as so many comic book films tend to do now – but you also have to use the films themselves to market the future films.
The connected nature of Marvel films also makes it feel like you must see them right away, or risk missing out on something and having it spoiled in another of their products. If you didn’t watch Captain America: Winter Soldier on opening weekend, be careful when you watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or you may wind up spoiling the film. Hollywood has created an importance to these films through marketing. If you don’t see the latest summer blockbuster, you must not be ‘cool.’
If we go back to the original definition we explored for blockbusters – films that slowly gain traction and popularity which leads to high profits – we see that it’s just not applied properly now. There are lots of films that make profits that far exceed their budgets, but they are rarely called blockbusters. Paranormal Activity grossed almost $200 million worldwide on a budget under half a million dollars, but you wouldn’t really associate the term blockbuster with it. However, I’d be willing to bet that somebody is already calling Captain America: Civil War the blockbuster event of 2016, even though it hasn’t earned one single dollar yet.
So what exactly has the blockbuster become? A blockbuster is now a genre of film represented by huge budgets, explosive action, massive marketing – which tends to include plenty of merchandising – a feeling that if you don’t watch you’re missing out on the next great thing, and for many of the films; an almost non-existent plot. It also helps if you can sell these films to the entire family, because making sure that everybody can get into the theatres means more tickets sold. These are the movies that you grow tired of hearing about, but still wind up going to see, and that’s exactly what Hollywood wants you to remember about blockbusters. I mean, you don’t want to be the one person who didn’t see Jurassic World on opening weekend, did you?