Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Modern Blockbuster

Just because a movie is big, does not mean it needs to be dumb. The point is made very well in Tom Shone's exhilarating book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer.

The concept of the Blockbuster is tricky to pin down. It generally revolves around an axis of cost a lot of money/made a lot of money and Jaws is generally considered to be a 'turning point' of some kind. It seems to me that there are (at least) two different types of Blockbuster, largely drawn from two different eras - Classical and Modern.

Stated simply, a Classical Blockbuster is any film that makes a lot of money at the box offices. Modern Blockbusters are films that belong to the Blockbuster genre, typically cost a lot of money to make and are marketed to within an inch of their lives.

To that extent, ET, which, for a time, was the highest grossing movie of all time, is a Classical Blockbuster only. It did Blockbuster box office, but was produced for very little cost. Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Arc, which, although it was certainly made for a mass audience, cost (comparatively) little money, when measured against the most extravagant films of its era. Back to the Future was another big earner, but not a particularly big spender.

What we now think of when people say, ‘Blockbuster’ was not really invented until the 1990s and it did not evolve fully into the Modern Blockbuster until the 2000s. Of course there were Classical Blockbusters, which had made a lot of money - The French Connection, The Godfather, The Exorcist. But there was no Blockbuster genre, which is what really distinguishes the Modern Blockbuster from its earlier cousin.

Jaws - regarded by many as a kind of watershed - changed some things. It pioneered the summer release date, opening wide and saturation marketing across multiple media. But even Jaws was not a Modern Blockbuster. Post-Jaws, films started to be marketed as Blockbusters but it was not until the 1990s that the Modern Blockbuster genre was formalised.

In the broadest possible terms, the Blockbuster genre is a grouping of films set mostly in a fantastic or science fictional world (creating the need for state-of-the-art visual effects), featuring a romantic hero (usually male), who struggles against great odds, but ultimately triumphs to fulfil his destiny. The Modern Blockbuster encompasses a far narrower spectrum of thought, feeling and emotion than the old-fashioned Classical Blockbuster, as defined by box office success.

In that sense, the Modern Blockbuster is an avowedly self-conscious construct.

The enormous costs involved in producing a Modern Blockbuster has also contributed to the diminution of what is considered permissible under banner of Blockbuster. Given the astronomical financial figures this now involves, the Big Six studios are practically betting the farm every time they make one these behemoths; the film has to make its money back, lest it bankrupt the entire studio.

As a result, only the most anodyne ideas make it to the screen, with a few notable exceptions - take a bow Chris Nolan. If you can tie your investment to an established property - a sequel, a remake, a comic book character, a well known toy range or (God help us) a board game(!) - all the better.

This is what has changed.

The big studios were always setting out to make money (obviously). But it was not a financial necessity for that quirky film about a lonely boy who, struggling to come to terms with his parents' painful divorce, befriends a kindly alien, to make US$800 million. Although it must have been a nice surprise for everyone when it did!

With a property like TDKR, the expectation of a billion-dollar box office is almost built into from the beginning of the project. Not to say it is not a good film, but it is a very different kind of film to what we used to called Blockbuster. It is a Modern Blockbuster.