Gone With the Wind (1939)
The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Sound of Music (1965)
Star Wars (1977)
Jaws 2 (1978)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. the Atari Video Game (1982)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future II (1989)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Independence Day (1996)
Batman and Robin (1997)
The Lost World (1997)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
When the book Jaws by Peter Benchley was published in 1974, it proved immensely popular and stayed on the bestseller list for almost a year. Luckily, Universal Studios had bought the film rights even before the book came out. The first few directors they approached weren’t interested. But there was a young (26-year-old) director named Steven Spielberg who had just directed Sugarland Express for them the year before. They gave him a copy of the book to read, and he signed on immediately.
The shoot was famously troubled with malfunctions and went way over schedule and over budget. But Spielberg later commented that this was a godsend, since it allowed for rewrites and forced him to adopt a more “Hitchcockian” approach of just suggesting the shark rather than seeing it for most of the film.
Up until this time, most films would debut in just a few theatres in New York and Los Angeles and then slowly get released more widely across the country. Even The Godfather, the current box office record holder, only debuted in 5 theatres. Wide releases were usually only done for exploitation films that producers knew were so bad they didn’t want word of mouth to get out. But Universal decided to go for broke with Jaws. By the time it was released in June of 1975, Universal had inundated the media with promotional ads. This was the first film to put a huge investment in opening weekend. And it worked. Jaws opened on 464 screens, and audiences flocked to the theatres that week. In fact, Jaws had recouped its production costs by the end of its 2nd week of release. It passed The Godfather as the highest grossing film of all time after 78 days. Combined with all the promotional tie-ins--posters, t-shirts, books, beach blankets, shark-tooth necklaces--the film made Universal a ton of money.
When George Lucas made Star Wars two years later, they used all the same marketing strategies and passed Jaws’ box office record after six months. The Blockbuster era had arrived and continues to this day.
Some characteristics of modern blockbusters:
One characteristic that has changed dramatically the last decade is the nature of the Blockbuster protagonist. The old blockbusters were all David vs. Goliath type stories. You had an everyman type hero that was way in over his head against a giant shark or a Galactic Empire or an army of Nazis or whatever. Maybe he was above average in skills, but he was still way out of his league. But, the modern blockbusters all fight their Goliaths with a bigger Goliath. “Oh no, that invincible villain is destroying our city! Hey, turns out I’m an invincible superhero! Let’s punch each other and destroy the city together!”
Interestingly, even though the blockbusters of the 70’s and 80’s were making buckets of money for the studios, they didn’t cost that much comparatively. Jaws cost $9 million but went on to earn $133 million. Star Wars cost $11 million and made $220 million during its first run. So they are making 10-20 times what they cost. Not a bad deal. Compare that to the top grossing film of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy, which cost $170 million and has made $330 million. Since $1 in 1975 is worth about $4 now, it makes you wonder why they spend so much more on movies that make so much less. The answer is the International market. Transformers 4 cost $210 million and only(!) made $245 million in the US market. But worldwide, it was the highest grossing film of the year with over $1 billion.
Let that depressing thought sink in for a while. The movie that movie studios wanted to spend the most money on and most people in the world wanted to see this year was Transformers 4. What about you, did you pay money to see it? Then this is your fault. A lot of my students try to justify it, saying things like, “It was just a fun, mindless movie,” or “It wasn’t trying to win any awards.” Well, of course it wasn’t--but neither was Jaws, or Star Wars, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. At least all of those were smart and fun and still successful. And, it turns out all of those films did get nominated for Best Picture.
The problem with the modern blockbuster era is that the public has convinced itself that it wants something “mindless,” that mindless = fun. It’s the same kind of cultivated ignorance that makes Robin Thicke a successful artist or that gets Ted Cruz elected to the Senate.
When did we stop demanding anything from our entertainment other than robots and explosions? When did we say, “Okay, Marvel and DC, you just keep making the same movie over and over and release one a month for the next thirty years, and I’ll pay to see every single one of them?” It’s a mess. So, I implore you, when the year 2017 comes around and Marvel reboots Spiderman starring Justin Beiber as the webslinger, stand up for yourself, your intelligence, your humanity, and say, “I’m not going to pay for this crap anymore!” Or, if you are so far gone that you just can’t help yourself, you can’t resist the marketing, you just have to see which scenes they changed, or in what ways the Bieber version is more true to the original comics… If that’s the case, then at least promise me that you’ll buy a ticket for something else--something that passes the Bechtel test, something by a female director for heaven’s sake--and then sneak into your rotten superhero movie.
On the bright side, recent digital technology advances have made it possible for filmmakers to get something made for a fraction of the budget it used to cost. Last year, some former students of mine, straight out of high school, raised $5,000 and made a feature film. You could, too. Nowadays, anyone with the time and determination and some mildly generous friends and family can get a film made. And, if you make it with honesty and creativity, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to make a better film than whatever recent macho-fest Hollywood spent $200 million on.