Blockbuster (entertainment)

Blockbuster (entertainment)

Blockbuster, as applied to film or theatre, denotes a very popular and/or successful production. The entertainment industry use was originally theatrical slang referring to a particularly successful play but is now used primarily by the film industry. The term blockbuster in film generally speaks to the size of both the narrative and the scale of production[1].


Origin of the term

The term began to appear in the American press in the early 1940s, describing the largest of aerial bombs: single bombs capable of destroying a city block, also known as "cookies" during the firebombing of Hamburg. Later figurative use referred to anything making a public impact: "Broadway reacted to the request of War Mobilization Director Byrnes to close all places of entertainment by midnight Feb. 26 as if a blockbuster had landed on Manhattan" (Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1945). Some entertainment histories cite it as originally referring to a play that is so successful that competing theaters on the block are "busted" and driven out of business, but the OED cites a 1957 use which is simply as a term of "biggest", after the bombs.[2] Whatever its origin, the term quickly caught on as a way to describe a hit, and has subsequently been applied to productions other than plays and films, including novels and multi-million selling computer/console game titles.

In film, a number of terms were used to describe a hit. In the 1970s these included: spectacular (The Wall Street Journal), super-grosser (New York Times), and super-blockbuster (Variety). In 1975 the usage of 'blockbuster' for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, a fast-paced exciting entertainment, almost a genre. Audiences interacted with such films, talked about them afterwards, and went back to see them again just for the thrill.[3]

Blockbuster films

Before Jaws set box office records in the summer of 1975, successful films such as Quo Vadis (1951 film), The Ten Commandments (1956 film), Gone With the Wind, and Ben-Hur were called blockbusters based purely on the amount of money earned at the box office. Jaws is regarded as the first film of New Hollywood's 'blockbuster era' with its current meaning, implying a film genre[4]. It also consolidated the 'summer blockbuster' trend, through which major film studios and distributors planned their entire annual marketing strategy around a big release by July 4.[5]

Jaws exceeded $100,000,000 in ticket sales and for a time this was the point at which a film could be designated a blockbuster in North America.[6] However earlier films such as Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965) easily passed this threshold.[7]

After the success of Jaws, many Hollywood producers attempted to create similar "event films" with wide commercial appeal. Film companies began green lighting increasingly high budgeted films and relying extensively on massive advertising blitzes leading up to their theatrical release. Spielberg and his fellow filmmaker George Lucas (whose 1977 film Star Wars was the most successful film of that decade) are the film-makers most closely associated with the beginning of the blockbuster era.

Although the term 'blockbuster' was originally defined by audience response, after a while the term came to mean a high-budget production aimed at mass markets, with associated merchandising, on which the financial fortunes of film studio or distributor depended. It was defined by its production budget and marketing effort rather than its success and popularity, and was essentially a tag which a film's marketing gave itself. In this way it became possible to refer to films such as Hollywood's Godzilla (1998) or Last Action Hero as both a blockbuster and a box office disaster.[8]

Eventually, the focus on creating blockbusters grew so intense that a backlash occurred, with critics and some film-makers decrying the prevalence of a "blockbuster mentality" and lamenting the death of the author-driven, 'more artistic' small-scale films of the New Hollywood era. This view is taken, for example, by film journalist Peter Biskind, who wrote that all studios wanted was another Jaws, and as production costs rose, they were less willing to take risks and therefore based blockbusters on the 'lowest common denominators' of the mass market.[9] An opposing view is taken by film critic Tom Shone, who considers that Lucas and Spielberg's reinvention of blockbusters as fast-paced entertainment reinvigorated the US film industry and deserves greater artistic and critical recognition.[10]

In a book written by Chris Anderson titled, The Long Tail, he mentions the many different possibilities the Blockbuster film brought to Hollywood, and the many ancillary markets that followed. He even states that a society that is hit-driven, and only makes way and room for films that are expected to be a hit, is in fact a limited society.[11] Anderson notes in The Long Tail, the example of a world that thrives on that is a world of scarcity. As the transition of online distribution made way, what was seen evidently was that we are now entering a world of abundance. And not of limited possibilities. As time went on, and people became more comfortable with it, the changes were astounding. He also speaks on the society and how the voice of society is listened too. If a movie was a blockbuster hit, it may have only seem that way to the people that traveled to spend their money on it. For the individuals that did not, their voices were somewhat silent. And when directors would sit down, to make a blueprint of another blockbuster film, they would only keep in mind the reviews of the people that watched the film, instead of a collective whole.

Low-budget hits

When a film, made on a low budget, is particularly successful or exceeds the expectations of the films in its genre, then those films are blockbusters as well, in the original meaning of the word. These films may not receive the title 'blockbuster' in the original meaning of the word, but are labeled 'hits' or 'sleepers'.

Return on Investment

Film producers, in an era where producing blockbuster films runs a high risk due to the budgets exceeding $200,000,000.00, have been distributing small, but promising, low budget films with the hopes of capitalizing on the modern market's film consumption. The term sleeper hit may not always apply to films that take in large gross sales, but films that yield extreme profits based on investment. A number of films have been produced at extremely low budgets that have had proportionately high ticket sales, producing a very high return on investment to their respective studios.

Examples of this are the 2004 documentary film, Tarnation, whose budget weighed in at $218 and whose ticket sales totaled $1.16 million, a profit margin of 266,416.97%. A more famous example is the 2009 thriller Paranormal Activity, which operated on a budget of $15,000 and took in over $196 million in worldwide ticket sales. Other low-budget-high-gross films include The Blair Witch Project, American Graffiti, and Napoleon Dynamite.

As previously stated, studios are somewhat wary of budgetary expenditures, leading to the era of the sleeper. These films, as their name would imply, are unexpected hits. However this is not to say every low budget film sees a return on the investment. As with any industry, especially an industry this volatile, there are risks to consider. As an example, the 2006 indie film Zyzzyx Road had a modest budget of 1.2 million, (which according to the Screen Actor's Guild, any film budgeted less than 2.5 million would be considered low budget) and grossed only $30 dollars at the box office.

See also


  1. ^ Stringer, Julian ed. Movie Blockbusters. London: Routledge. 2003.
  2. ^ "1957 G. SMITH Friends vi a. 114 One day I had what seemed to me like a block~buster of an idea for a musical play." Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989
  3. ^ Tom Shone: Blockbuster (2004). London, Simon & Shuster UK. ISBN 0-7432-6838-5. See pp 27–40.
  4. ^ Neale, Steve. "Hollywood Blockbusters: Historical Dimensions." Ed. Julien Stinger. Hollywood Blockbusters. London: Routeledge, 2003. 48-50. Print.
  5. ^ Shone (2004), Chapter 1.
  6. ^ Jaws
  7. ^ All Time Box Office (adjusted for inflation)
  8. ^ Shone (2004), page 28.
  9. ^ Peter Biskind: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock 'N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon and Schuster, 1998.
  10. ^ Shone (2004). See for example page 34.
  11. ^ Anderson, Chris. [ "The Long Tail"]. Chris Anerson. Retrieved April 20, 2011. 

External links

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