Film Commentary

MACRO CINEMATIC – The Double Meaning of the Monster Blockbuster

MACRO CINEMATIC – The Double Meaning of the Monster Blockbuster

Mary Erickson

July 8th, 2014


Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, released in 1975, heralded in a new era of expectations about movie performance. Peter Benchley’s tale of a giant shark munching its way through the New England tourist season is considered the first true summer blockbuster. It pushed past the $100 million mark in box office revenues, the first of its kind, and rounded out 1975 with a whopping $192 million in revenue. When we put those numbers into 2014 terms, we’re looking at over $765 million, earned in six months.

In June 2014, another monster blockbuster – or “tentpole,” as these massive films are also known – opened to phenomenal numbers. Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, 2014) earned over $300 million in its first weekend. Two-thirds of this revenue came from overseas, pointing to the crucial component of the summer blockbuster: the international market. Transformers: Age of Extinction opened around the world in addition to the U.S., and the Chinese market alone raked in $92 million, almost equivalent to the domestic box office take.

With tentpole films today, studios put up hundreds of millions of dollars for production, marketing and distribution. These gargantuan budgets function as a promotional tool in themselves, getting early media and audience attention for the incomprehensible amount of money being spent on, say, Avatar (rumored to be close to half a billion dollars). And the marketing spend isn’t even mentioned, usually another 50% on top of the production budget.

Hollywood loves big numbers. The sheer excess of Hollywood spending seems to legitimize the economic impact, and the corresponding cultural impact, of Hollywood movies. Box office record-breakers function as markers of the cultural climate. But the numbers are slippery and they are massaged to play in Hollywood’s favor. There’s a term – an ultimate oxymoron – in Hollywood for how money is tallied: “creative accounting.” Money shifts around the studio, its producing partners, and its distributors. For summer blockbusters, these are most often subsidiaries of the same parent corporation, and these subsidiaries are engaged in a number of strategies to ensure that these films will make money – and lots of it.

Jaws is renowned as the first modern blockbuster not just for its box office revenue. It also signaled a shift in how Hollywood approached blockbusters and their earning potential. Instead of the high-brow, socially- and politically-conscious movies that characterized the “New Hollywood” cinema movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (think: The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, or just about anything by Robert Altman), the studios moved to producing films that would entertain first and foremost. Hollywood in the late 1970s and 1980s witnessed rapid growth of media conglomerates, which are diversified companies operating in various media (and other) industries. Film was not the primary business anymore; as film scholar Yannis Tzioumakis says, we went from the business of film to the business of entertainment. Media conglomerates needed content to satisfy multiple media businesses, and it was clear that the same content could function for movies, music, cable and network television, video games, and later, internet. Conglomerates implemented strategies to cut costs and risk, particularly franchising, synergy, and maximizing the global market.

A singular concept for a film would create a package known as a franchise. Often plucked from literature, television, video games, or other media, this concept would be adapted to film, and re-adapted back to other media. There would be sequels and merchandise and immediate audience recognizability. We’d see the same characters in new scenarios. The audience’s investment in the characters would be ongoing, rather than starting anew every single time we watch a movie. In essence, movies became episodic, like television.

This franchise could be used and reused synergistically in multiple entertainment formats, including movie sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots, television shows, books, soundtracks, video games, theme park additions, and even sports teams (remember the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hockey team?). Suddenly, marketing dollars stretched that much further, since only one concept needed promotion. As one studio executive has said, “If you’re trying to get a movie made, you can push the rock up a mountain or you can push it on flat ground…and most of us would rather push it on flat ground.”

If huge amounts of money are going to be spent producing and marketing these franchises, there need to be the corollary huge audiences to ensure returns on investment. The search for potential audiences travels beyond the domestic border into the global market, which once contributed about 20% of a blockbuster’s total box office revenue. Today, according to Lynda Obst in her book, Sleepless in Hollywood, that number has soared to 70%. Movies are made to satisfy the global audience, focusing on international cast, locations and financing. For these large movies, there are more spectacle-driven action and special effects, less dialogue, more universal themes, and less cultural specificity. Films are released on the same day around the world, and global audiences share in the experience of a huge blockbuster opening. And Hollywood rakes it in, box office records are broken, and monster blockbusters are born.

The monster blockbuster, Jaws, set the bar for how well a movie could perform. It sparked the franchise mentality among studios, perfectly executed by films like Jurassic Park in 1993, which broke all existing box office records, both domestically and internationally. Jurassic Park grew from a book into a movie and several sequels, video games, comic books, theme park rides, and merchandise. So when we say “monster blockbuster,” we aren’t just talking about reconstituted velociraptors, bloodthirsty sharks, aliens or shape-shifters. We’re also talking about the colossal, the behemoth, the gigantic. In other words, Hollywood.

Dr. Mary Erickson is a film/media researcher whose work focuses on the global film industry, independent film and regional film. Her book, “Independent Filmmaking Around the Globe” (co-edited with Doris Baltruschat), will be released by the University of Toronto Press in January 2015. She is the founder of the Pacific Northwest Media Research Consortium.

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