The Blockbuster is the audiovisual product which best represents today’s Hollywood. This term has a military origin and was used to indicate the large-scale bombs used during the Second World War, now is used to refer to a thing of the great power of size, in particular, a movie, book, or other product that is a great commercial success. The term really started to pick up when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws came out in 1975. Jaws was a revolution in cinema, marking a shift towards advertising, High Concept and disciplined production as ways of producing high-quality, commercially viable films. Blockbuster introduced the new form of production, distribution and exhibition to Hollywood, makes Hollywood the way we see today.
There is significant overlap between the end of the New Hollywood and the start of the Blockbuster Age. While New Hollywood is generally held to have ended in the early 1980s after a string of expensive, high-profile flops, the beginning of the Blockbuster Age is generally pinned much earlier, in the year 1975. The appearance of the Blockbuster is not unexpected. The filmmakers already started looking for the new art form in the early 1970s, because “there was no longer a regular and predictable audience for their films.” (Cook 2000) Before Jaws, there was Love Story and The Godfather as Hollywood’s attempts to the new art form. They are both adapted from the best-selling novel at that moment, both are directed by famous directors and used the bankable cast. Both films are well-budgeted and use a lot of marketing. These are important features of the Blockbuster. The criticism of the Blockbuster is not always positive. As Spielberg said himself, Jaws to him was a “career death” experience, there was a very well-known actress said to him that Jaws is a completely stink and he is profligate in his spending and irresponsible. This censure was not completely unreasonable, because the Jaws shoot was originally scheduled for 55 days, but the production swiftly turned into a logistical nightmare when the mechanical shark consistently failed to play ball. Day after day went by without any usable footage being shot, storms and seasickness the filmmakers’ only reward (Kermode 2015). Fortunately, Jaws achieved great success and earned a high box office. Jaws was a revolution in cinema, marking a shift towards advertising, High Concept and disciplined production as ways of producing high-quality, commercially viable films. Also as a cultural phenomenon, the real story of Jaws is how a B-movie-style creature-feature became a genre-defining Blockbuster that changed the face of modern cinema.
After Jaws, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’ Star Wars also got success and revitalized the science fiction genre, which blew up science fiction in Hollywood, making people fall in love with the idea of aliens and outer space. Star Wars also showed Hollywood how merchandising, spin-offs into other media, and sequels could be used by the studios to return to profitability. However, the Hollywood’s decisive turn to Blockbuster filmmaking was regarded as a negative development by some criticism. Even now, audiences’ attitude toward the Blockbuster is still ambiguity. The reasons are varied. First, the film company invested too much in the distribution and exhibition. Jaws opened across North America on 464 screens amid an unprecedented publicity blitz: $2.5m was spent on promotion, a substantial chunk of which went on TV advertising, still a novelty at that time. Promotional tie-ins, including Jaws-themed ice-creams, were everywhere. (Kermode 2015) These actions make the film drifted away from the film itself, it’s not like an artwork but more like a commercial activity. Besides, the cost of a Blockbuster is very high, there are two reasons for such high costs: technology and human resources. Blockbusters make use of expensive special effects, using advanced technology, with the aim of distinguishing their product from the competition of other films or media. The choice of genre is conditioned by the decision to focus on the use of special effects (Cucco 2009). The high investment and high return may not equal, which increase the uncertainty of the Blockbuster. What’s more, 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. These imitational behaviors may lead to the lack of the innovation and appear more and more assembly-line works. On the other hand, the Blockbuster did bring a brand-new viewing experience for the audiences. The Blockbuster usually appeals to large audiences and employs the skillful editing, chilling score and sound recording, which keeps audiences on the edge of the seat. The High Concept movies are often regarded as a ‘safe’ way to tell an audience an entertaining story without them having to think too hard.
However, in the late seventies Hollywood, the “events film” is no longer enough for the audiences, the producers started seeking “mystical experience” (Cook 2000). The Blockbuster started to discuss the relationship between human and other living creatures in the universe. Then here comes the Superman (1978) and the Alien (1979). Superman has the most expensive budget of $55 million, and its worldwide box-office earnings of $300 million made it the second-highest-grossing release of the year. It was adapted from DC Comics, and it is well known for its large-scale visual effects sequences, all of which were created before the digital age. A technique was developed that combined the front projection effect with specially designed zoom lenses. The illusion of movement was created by zooming in on Reeve while making the front projected image appear to recede. For scenes where Superman interacts with other people or objects while in flight, Reeve and actors were put in a variety of rigging equipment with careful lighting and photography. This also led to the creation of the Zoptic system (Leahy 1982). Although the story of the Superman may seem bland when comparing to the Blockbuster nowadays, the technology of it is a milestone. The film was widely regarded as one of top 10 films of 1978. However, some criticism felt that the film focused too much on shallow comedy, take it as “simply puffed-up TV episodes.” (Hagen 1988). We can tell from the comments of the Superman that the positive comments of the Blockbuster are mainly about its special effect and audio-visual experience, and the negative comments are focus on its shallow narration. However, the Superman is literally the film that started the superhero film genre. Without it, there would not have Batman or Iron Man. The superhero film is also the embodiment of American spirit. Hollywood use the Blockbuster to advocate the American spirit to the world.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is a 1979 science-fiction horror film. The film’s title refers to a highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature that attacks the whole crew of a spaceship, which is a standard High Concept film. Alien creates a new species, including the form of the “ovomorph”, the “facehugger”, the “chestburster and the “xenomorph”. Aliens’ design includes aesthetics and metaphor. The design of the “chestburster” was inspired by Francis Bacon’s 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Lauzirika 2003). The comments of Alien were initially mixed. Robert Ebert called it “basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship”. However, as time goes by, as of 2017 the film holds a 97% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 104 reviews, with the consensus reading: “A modern classic, Alien blends science fiction, horror and bleak poetry into a seamless whole.” No matter how the Alien’s plot, the Alien aesthetics did inspire a lot of films, included The Matrix and Dark City.
The effects of Hollywood’s investment in the Blockbuster are diverse. First, the Blockbuster creates the pre-sold way, it offered the kind of prime product needed to entice exhibitors to offer competitive bids against one another for the right to play the picture, exhibitors’ advance payments and guarantees allowed the studios to begin paying off their production loans some time before the pictures opened (Hall 2006). Second, the Blockbuster opens the market of the movie derivatives. For example, the success of Alien spawned a media franchise of novels, comic books, video games, and toys. The Blockbuster make the film a more profitable industry, which has a clear interests chain. Audiences see the trailer on TV, see the advertisement on newspaper and magazines, then they pay for the tickets and pay for movie merchandise. In other word, the onscreen activity is not as important as the saleability of the product brand. What’s more, the Blockbuster changed the release time of the hit film, it was usually during the Christmas time, now producers also take the summer vacation as an important opportunity. And major films only open towards the end of the week which allowed the investor to maximize the profits. Fourth, Blockbuster produces the serial. Such as Star Wars, Superman, Alien, and Rocky. They all have sequels after decades even until today. Without any exaggeration, the Blockbuster supports for most of the Hollywood market, the Blockbuster relies on its fans base to get returns. This phenomenon can also cause a negative result, the lack of innovation will lead to the aesthetic fatigue of audiences. As the development of the Blockbuster, many directors also build up their own brand during this period, like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s kind of the inherit of the auteurism from the New Hollywood. In addition, the Blockbuster promotes the development of the Steadicam, which developed in 1978, allows camera mount attached to the cameraman, it’s more flexibility than tripod/dolly. This invention caters to the Blockbuster’s need for thrilling senses.
The 1970s is the transitional period of the Blockbuster era and the New Hollywood. Blockbuster marks the end of the creative freedom and excesses of the New Hollywood era and the rise of a new studio system, built upon the ashes of the old. In other word, the Blockbuster is not a completely different art form compares to the classical Hollywood. It still follows the beginning-middle-end structure of narration and some basic editing strategies. However, the application of special effects is a distinguishing feature of the Blockbuster, and still dominant in the film industry nowadays. What’s the new creation of the Blockbuster is the way of production, distribution, and exhibition. It’s also a cultural phenomenon. Blockbuster introduces the High Concept film into Hollywood, which relies on plot over character, it’s another distinction of this period. Jaws and Star Wars marked the beginning of the new US film industry business model that was hugely dominated by High Concept movies. The importance of a movie shifted from an artistic focal point to money-making focal points. The 1970s was the beginning of the end of the New Hollywood period. The basic idea was that the movie had to be easily described/understood and marketable.
In general, the appearance of Blockbuster drags audiences from the aesthetic fatigue of the typed movie. Also, the Blockbuster builds a marketing system for Hollywood, which makes the film more like a commodity, this means that film production is inspired by marketing, advertising, demographics and focused on youth, teenage boys rather notoriously and the genres that cater to the same. There is no absolutely break between the classical Hollywood and the Blockbuster. There are some features of the Blockbuster that can be traced from the classical Hollywood. The Blockbuster is developed on the base of the New Hollywood, the Blockbuster expand the market for Hollywood, enriched its technology. However, after the decades of the viewing of the Blockbuster, audiences seem to start getting bored with the superhero and the disaster senses, it’s time for Hollywood to have another transition.