Making A Case: The Summer Blockbuster

The “blockbuster” may not be a new term when describing the success of a feature film, but it’s the term that has carried the most weight for the last thirty-five years. And it’s a good thing too. I’d hate to ask people, did you see that “spectacular”, which was the term The Wall Street Journal used to describe a hit.

But are blockbusters – the summer blockbuster, to be specific – a good thing for Hollywood, or counter-intuitive to the film-making process, where it becomes more about the commerce and less about the art? The summer is when Hollywood rolls out its most high-concept material of the year. As such, film producers are at a high risk of having their projects exceed budgets of more than $200 million. And that figure doesn’t include the costs of print and advertising.

It wasn’t always like this, though. The state of Hollywood changed for better or worse, depending on your view, in the summer of 1975. More specific: June 20, 1975 with the release of Jaws. The film was a defining moment in motion picture history. Before “game changer” became a relative term with the release of Avatar, director Steven Spielberg was changing the landscape of cinema with the advent of the summer blockbuster. Grossing $7 million on its way to $490 million worldwide (or $1.9 billion in 2010 dollars) it had a two-year run as the box office champ before George Lucas delivered some sci-fi opera called Star Wars.

Steven Spielberg has such a hold on summer releases that his filmography reads like a scorecard of hit films. Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones adventures. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Jurassic Park. Saving Private Ryan. Minority Report. Catch Me If You Can. War of the Worlds. The director is so respected as the father of the summer blockbuster that films use his name in the advertising to encourage viewer participation. Summer releases Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon have his name prominently displayed yet he only functioned in a producer or executive producer capacity.

The success of Jaws and Star Wars changed studio focus. More and more money was being thrown to creating blockbusters rather than smaller releases. Every studio wanted to replicate the success of Jaws. They also wanted to make the summer a hotspot for entertainment. Get the people away from the beach and into an air-conditioned theater to watch movies.

Yet as production costs began to rise, studios were more inclined to not take risks. And who could blame them. A return on investment is the end game that producers strive to achieve. But with a risk-leaning risk-to-reward ratio, a producer or filmmaker must be certifiably deranged to even attempt such a gamble. So to help ensure success, they throw money into advertising campaigns aimed to attract a mass audience.

While the “blockbuster mentality” has taken up residence in Hollywood for more than a quarter century, making the summer blockbuster what it is today, there’s been a noticeable shift in viewership in recent years. Point fingers if you want at the bad economy and the price of tickets as the explanatory factors in a decrease in attendance, but don’t discount the apathy viewers have shown at what Hollywood has given them. The “leave your brain at the door” argument (aka “The Michael Bay Defense”) is a worn defense that moviewatchers direct toward those critics or writers who have eviscerated a film they may enjoy. The phrase can also be interpreted as completely overstepping the boundaries of the suspension of disbelief. Even Spielberg, Mr. Summer Blockbuster, is guilty of this with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when Dr. Jones uses a fridge to escape a nuclear blast.

Easy as it is to dismiss summer blockbusters as a wasteland of high-concept action movies and leave-your-brain-at-the-door prescribed entertainment, they help to ensure Hollywood’s longevity. The revenue stream is much too great. Not all summer releases will reach their full potential and become a blockbuster, but it leaves the door open for an unknown to hit the jackpot. In June of 1994, Twentieth Century Fox had an unexpected hit when it released a movie about a bus that couldn’t travel below 50 miles per hour. Speed finished in the top ten for overall box office performance that year. Four years later, the studio would have another summer surprise with There’s Something About Mary, a comedy that didn’t reach the number one spot in the weekly box office until its eighth weekend of release.

As a child I knew nothing of summer blockbusters or the impact they had on Hollywood. All I knew was that I enjoyed watching them. At the tender age of eight I went and saw Back to the Future Part III on the same day school let out for the summer. A week later it was Total Recall – God bless my parents for desensitizing me to violence at such an early age.

Growing older I’ve become more accustomed to cinema and how films of the past influence the works of current filmmakers. It’s helped my film taste buds, being able to sample different directors and genres. I’ve also noticed how the landscape of summer blockbusters has changed as a result of audience make-up – there are so many more teenagers these days – and technological innovations, like visual effects. While I haven’t quite become the “get off my lawn,” crotchety old man when it comes to going to the movies, as a thirty-year-old I’m at that age where I expect more from movies. Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to be overly enthusiastic with summer releases and feel like a kid again.

Consider that snobbish, but it’s too easy these days to get burnt out by sequels and franchises. Last year’s Inception was the most successful summer release that wasn’t a franchise or an adaptation of some kind. Just a man (Christopher Nolan) and an idea – and $160 million courtesy of Warner Bros. Originality has long been thought of as dead in Hollywood, but when an original idea can gross $825 million worldwide, maybe it’s time to check that light bulb called an “idea” and see if it still works.

So where does that leave us this summer?

Audiences will want something different that’s the same, and something that’s the same but different. Confusing, huh. Comic books and sequels are hot, per usual. A fourth Pirates of the Caribbean should perform well when it sets sails later this month. The Hangover Part II will have a hard time to meet the box office expectations set by the first Hangover. The wild card release of the summer will undoubtedly be J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. An original idea like Nolan’s Inception, it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to Abrams’ tribute to Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment releases from the ‘80s. Those had a youthful exuberance about them – a quality that’s been sorely lacking in summer movies.

Regardless of how well the last Harry Potter and Transformers films perform – both should lead the pack for summer earnings – know that there are probably one or two movies that get released over the next four months that nobody could predict as being a hit. If you can, imagine how studios will try to replicate their success. Because you know it’s going to happen. That’s Hollywood for you.

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