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Blockbuster Age of Hollywood

The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood is the age that we are currently living in. It 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. This time, there are only six major studios: Sony (releasing films under the Columbia Pictures imprint), Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Studios, Warner Bros. , Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures (releasing mature films under the Touchstone Pictures label). MGM still exists, but as a shadow of its former self owned by its creditors, and a major studio only by virtue of its history.

"Blockbusters" in both senses of the word

There is significant overlap between the end of New Hollywood and the start of the Blockbuster Age. While New Hollywood is generally held to have ended in the early '80s after a string of expensive, high-profile flops, the beginning of the Blockbuster Age is generally pinned much earlier, in the year 1975. This year marked the arrival of one Steven Spielberg into mainstream Hollywood, with his classic shark film Jaws. 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. This was followed up two years later by the success of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas' Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), which revitalized the science fiction genre. Star Wars also showed Hollywood how merchandising, spinoffs into other media, and sequels could be used by the studios to return to profitability. Together, Jaws, Close Encounters and Star Wars invented the Summer Blockbuster as Hollywood's new paradigm for filmmaking.

Just a few years later, this idea was reinforced with the wild success of Superman and Star Trek The Motion Picture in 1979, which showed that adaptations from media previously scoffed at by Hollywood, such as the Comic Book Super Hero and genre TV series, had potential to become big-time film genres. The huge success of these films — and another '79 entry, The Muppet Movie — with children was also noted. That audience segment was ignored by New Hollywood after the stretch of family-friendly musicals in the dying days of Old Hollywood resulted in huge financial losses for major studios, with only Disney offering anything to kids for years; these new successes proved once more that they were worth aiming A-list fare at. The combined effect of all this was to kick off (and name) the Blockbuster Age.

The name "Blockbuster Age" also has another origin: Blockbuster Video. It is very difficult to overstate how great an impact the invention of the videocassette had on the film industry. It started a golden age for independent cinema, the full impact of which is described below. (It also started a golden age for the porn industry, but that's for a completely different article.) It also effectively killed second-run theaters, grindhouses, and porn theaters, as people could now watch movies in the comfort of their living rooms instead of having to go to sleazy, run-down theaters in that part of town — and in the case of porn theaters, not worry about getting caught at an establishment that was only one step above a brothel or a bathhouse. In addition, home video offered the studios additional revenue streams for their films after they'd left theaters, allowing them to continue making money off of older films — some of which could see a second chance at success when they came out on video. Last but certainly not least, the videocassette seriously spooked Hollywood's traditional arch-enemy, the television industry, which feared people recording shows just to fast-forward through all those lucrative commercials.

Of course, there's a catch to everything. Video camcorders also opened the doors to bootleggers, the pre-internet manifestation of digital pirates, who hawked their wares on the street and packed everything up in seconds the moment they saw a cop. In the early '80s, the film industry, having not yet learned what a potential gold mine it was, feared that the videocassette would destroy them; MPAA head Jack Valenti went so far as to compare the effect it would have on cinema to the effect of the Boston Strangler on a woman alone at home. (Any similarities to the hysterical reaction of the MPAA to file-sharing are completely coincidental.) Persuaded by calmer voices like Fred Rogers, the Supreme Court's decision in the "Betamax case" in 1983-84, which held that the makers of VCRs couldn't be held liable for copyright infringement committed by the devices' users, ultimately settled the matter, with the film industry getting in on the booming home video industry not long after.

When LaserDisc and, more importantly, DVD came around in The Nineties, the studios were able to make even more money by putting out a Limited Special Collectors Ultimate Unrated Edition for each of their big films, packed with commentaries, deleted scenes, "making of" featurettes, feelies, and other bonus features. The high-end Criterion Collection series emerged as taking the greatest care in preservation and supplementation of classic films.

Rise of the multiplex

Another factor in the return of Hollywood to profitability was the rise of the multiplex theater, something that began during the New Hollywood era note  but truly took off in the Reagan years and after. The multiplex follows a fairly simple logic: if you have more screens, then you can run more showings of more movies, and can therefore make more money! Six-screen theaters were opening by the end of The Seventies, and by The Nineties, they had gone Up to Eleven with 20-screen "megaplex" theaters and beyond. It is no coincidence that the rise of the multiplex occurred at the same time as the boom of malls and big-box stores; most multiplexes were part of such complexes, and like their retail cousins, were a driving force behind suburban sprawl through the second half of The Eighties and during The Nineties, the decade when downtown theaters slowly got squeezed out of business, unable to compete with the massive profits made by this new breed of theater.

Multiplexes caused the moviegoing experience to undergo a fundamental shift, and very few would argue that the shift was for the better - it went from well-appointed theaters with well-dressed, butler-like staff (something that is now seen only in special cases, like the Kodak and Chinese Theatres in Hollywood) to massive, fairly spartan auditoriums with floors covered in dropped popcorn and spilled soda (both of which are ridiculously overpriced), staffed by young people making minimum wage and not particularly happy about it — movie theater jobs are often considered to be next to fast food in terms of crappy, humiliating employment for teenagers.

None of this really mattered to the studios, who were mainly pleased with the fact that a movie could make back its budget, no matter how big it was, in a matter of days instead of weeks or even months. The goal of the studios had shifted from making movies with "legs" (i.e. movies that would keep marching on to large, stable box office numbers week in and week out) to movies that could rake in a colossal take on opening weekend. Who cares if bad word-of-mouth causes it to take a 50-60% drop for round 2?

However, there was some push back from the opposing camp of viewers who tried to encourage more discerning tastes, such as when two movie critics from Chicago newspapers, Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times and Gene Siskel of the Tribune, starting doing TV on the PBS show, Sneak Previews, on the side. As such, they later created the long running syndicated movie review TV show, Siskel & Ebert, that became a popular mainstay for decades spreading insightful film reviews from the wordy newspapers and magazines to a more easily digestible medium. While obviously it could not raise all the public's taste, the duo and their imitators at least could help make good artistic work pay off and any halfway ambitious movie studio still knows that credible praise is valuable stuff in marketing. After all, there's a reason that S & E's trademarked catch phrase, "Two Thumbs Up," was front and center for any advertisement for movies earning it.

Hollywood rebuilds

The latest date that can be given for the start of the Blockbuster Age is 1982, which saw the release of a slew of summer blockbusters that are now regarded as classics, including: ET The Extra Terrestrial, The Thing (1982), Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian (1982), Blade Runner, Poltergeist, TRON, and The Road Warrior. 1982 is often regarded as Hollywood's second "golden year" in terms of creativity and classic films, not unlike how 1939 is considered to be the highpoint of The Golden Age of Hollywood. Other memorable films released around this time include Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, and the first film to be released with the new PG-13 rating, Red Dawn (1984).

However, unlike 1939, 1982 most certainly did not come at a high point for the studios financially. Hollywood spent much of The Eighties reeling from the fallout of the New Hollywood era, and the combined share of the six surviving major studios from the Golden Age had fallen to just 64% by 1986 — the lowest it had been since the days of silent film. Two young studios — Orion and Tri-Star — maintained about 6% market share each, Disney had about 10%, and smaller independents (the largest being New Line, "the house that Freddy built") would together make up 13% (more than any one studio besides Paramount).

It would be in The Nineties — after a new round of corporate acquisitions (Paramount, Columbia, Warners and Universal all changed hands) — and the Turn of the Millennium that the rebirth of the major studios would finally come. Orion would go bankrupt in 1992, Tri-Star would merge with Columbia (incidentally a partner in the joint venture that created it) in 1998, and New Line would merge with Warner Bros. in 2008 (after getting into a dick-swinging contest with Peter Jackson). By 2006, the six major movie conglomerates' share of the box office (counting Disney) had climbed back to 89.8% of the North American market. The two largest independent studios, Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company, would share 6.1%, MGM would have 1.8%, and the remaining indie studios shared the remaining 2.3%.

The "indies"

Since The Nineties, a split has grown within American cinema. On one side of the divide is the Summer Blockbuster, which is a modern incarnation of the types of films that powered Hollywood during and immediately after the Golden Age: big on spectacle, star power and lavish production to put tons of asses in seats. The main difference now is that there is a greater focus on having a big opening weekend to make back a film's budget quickly. On the other side of the gap is the independent film, which is a topic so integral to the modern film industry that deserves its own section.

As stated above, the home video boom was a godsend for independent cinema. The first, and most obvious, major effect was that it allowed indie films to reach much wider audiences with much less hassle than before. Prior to home video, independent films would often get (at best) limited releases in "arthouse" theaters that would limit their exposure, and films with controversial subject matter or offensive content often found themselves getting consigned to the "grindhouse" circuit by virtue of the X or NC-17 ratings. Now they could bypass theaters entirely and go Direct-to-Video. Much of the DTV sales model was built by independent studios that couldn't afford theatrical runs for their films.

The second major effect only became apparent at the start of The Nineties: it created a generation of young film geeks who had spent much of their lives watching old films on video, picking up the various techniques used by classic directors, and deciding that they wanted to become filmmakers themselves. People like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh made such films as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Do the Right Thing and sex, lies, and videotape, sparking a renaissance in independent film that lasts to this day. Other directors, such as The Coen Brothers, worked with both independent and major studios interchangeably.

Indie films published through studio psuedo-indie subsidiaries (Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features) are now key weapons in Hollywood's award-season arsenal, with recent films like Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Five Hundred Days Of Summer, The Hurt Locker, and way too many more to list (although feel free to do so) winning critical acclaim and, sometimes, commercial success. In addition, many independent studios, such as Lionsgate, the Weinstein Company, FilmDistrict and Magnolia (as well as the now-defunct PolyGram, Miramax, New Line and Summit), have gained footholds in the mainstream market by both distributing independent and foreign films and, increasingly, making films in-house (Lionsgate's Saw franchise, Summit's Twilight adaptations), often raking in enough money to blur the line between "indie" and "major".

Roll credits?

Some have argued that this era of Hollywood history may soon be coming to an end, and that Hollywood is on the edge of another fall on the scale of what it experienced in the '60s. The most popular reason cited is the "blockbuster mentality" of the major studios. The trend of fewer, bigger films has been going on since The Fifties, but it truly picked up with the rise of the Summer Blockbuster. Studios are investing ever-growing amounts of money into their blockbusters (it was less than twenty years ago that $175 million was an obscene price tag; such a number wouldn't even raise an eyebrow today) in the hopes that they will produce ever-growing returns at the box office. So far, rising ticket prices have helped to cover for these rising costs, and 3D technology is providing a new(-ish) novelty for people to pay for, but at what price point will the average moviegoer say "enough!" and refuse to pay money to see a movie?

With a massive recession underway, some feel this point may be coming sooner rather than later. Theater attendance in 2010 saw an 5% drop from the year before, bringing it to its lowest levels since 1996, a figure that doesn't account for the fact that the US population has risen by 47 million in the fifteen years in between. But taking in the population growth in the US, it's even more concerning to see a new 16-year low in theater attendance in 2011 (1.28 billion compared to 1995's 1.26 billion) while ticket revenue saw a further 3.5% drop from the previous year. The cause for this drop is still being analyzed, but general consensus is pointing at the inability to rake in money from increased 3D ticket price and the obligatory drop to regular 2D ticket price. Other factors, such as the ongoing economic crisis and spiraling inflation also have some effects on this phenomenon.

Several analysts have also pointed out the fact that 2011 is also the year that the most-assured box office contributing demographic — young children and their parents — did not bring in as much gross revenue. Due to weak anticipation and negative word-of-mouth from early screenings, the biggest animated feature of 2011 — Cars 2 — finished its theatrical run at around $191m, making it the first highest grossing animated film of the year since 2005 to fail to reach the $200m mark. Other family features of the same year have done even less to attract this crowded, tolerating demographic, domestically, such as Gulliver's Travels (2010), Yogi Bear and Mr. Popper's Penguins. Indeed, The Muppets, Hugo, and other family-oriented productions had been expected to save the year for studios during the traditionally lucrative Thanksgiving-to-New-Year's period, but instead struggled to attract crowds despite good and even excellent reviews. Again, rising ticket and concession prices are cited as a prime culprit here.

Also, with the decline of print journalism and movie review TV shows, especially now with critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert now dead, there has been some carping that film critics now have no influence over the din of movie marketing. However, online reviewing has exploded with both professionals from the remaining print publications' websites and exclusive website and amateurs. Furthermore, ways have been found to make their influence more organized as a whole with the rise of aggregate review sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic providing scores that now have the influence that "Two Thumbs Up" used to have.

By contrast, the international market for Hollywood films has grown more prominent than ever, and has even begun to overshadow the once all-important domestic North American market. For instance, the true biggest animated feature film of 2011 worldwide, Kung Fu Panda 2 earned a gross of $665,692,281 with 75.2% of it from international markets, including $95 million from China alone.note  Furthermore, the Steven Spielberg film The Adventures of Tintin earned $230 million (more than covering its budget) before it ever opened in North America outside of the Canadian province of Quebec, and a remarkably short-sighted failure to account for the international popularity of The Golden Compass ultimately destroyed New Line Cinema as an independent studio.note 

Another culprit is that age-old nemesis of the film industry, television. For decades, Hollywood had three key advantages over television — standards for decency were much lower on the big screen than on the small one (the lasting legacy of the fall of The Hays Code and the New Hollywood era), the rise of home video in The Eighties made it much easier to catch up on an old movie than on an old TV series, and finally, the experience of seeing a movie (especially a blockbuster effects film) in a theater was something that no television set, no matter how big the screen, could hope to match. All three of these shields have had big holes blown in them in the last decade. The rise of cable television (which has much more lenient Media Watchdogs) as a major outlet for original programming has brought much edgier material to the small screen, eroding Hollywood's monopoly on such content and leading to what has been described as a creative renaissance and a golden age for American television. The emergence of Hulu, Netflix and, most importantly, affordable DVD box sets of television shows means that TV viewers now have decades worth of material to watch that once could only be accessed by way of bootlegs. Finally, high-definition TVs and surround sound audio systems have plunged drastically in price, with the former becoming the new standard (to the point where standard-definition TVs aren't even made anymore) and the latter, while still a luxury, no longer restricted to millionaires who could afford their own private theaters.note  An upper-middle class consumer can now enjoy all the spectacle of the movies in the comfort of his or her sofa, without having to pay $7 for popcorn and put up with fellow moviegoers playing Angry Birds on their phones.

And speaking of Angry Birds, the internet and Video Games have entered the pop culture arena to grab a growing share of the American populace's money and attention, filling much the same role that television did in The Fifties. Video games have become big business, with much being made of the fact that the video game industry's revenue has surpassed Hollywood's for several years now, as well as the fact that games like Call of Duty and Halo are setting revenue records not only for games, but for entertainment releases in general. Studios not only have to schedule their movies to avoid competing with each other, but also, increasingly, to avoid competing with big video game releases (especially in the case of action movies). And the internet, for its part, has not only created a digital piracy threat that some fear will overwhelm Hollywood just as it did the music industry, but it has also created new legal avenues for content distribution, such as YouTube and Hulu. At least in this case, the two blood rivals of film and television are effectively one in the impact of the Internet on their business.

On the plus side, the internet offers several new revenue streams for the studios, most notably streaming movies from home. With Netflix leading the way in this area, the studios can look ahead to a future where they can charge customers every time they want to watch movies at home — something that was attempted in The Nineties with the DIVX disc system, but which didn't take (chiefly because DIVX was a physical format). Many of the major film companies are now planning to try out a "premium download" distribution model to offer downloads of their theatrical feature films only one or two months after their theatrical release for around $30 each, which means that, for a bit of patience, whole families could be able to forgo going to the cinema altogether. Of course, this has run into heavy resistance from theaters — Universal was forced to cancel plans for a limited VOD release of Tower Heist after the Cinemark and National Amusements theater companies responded by threatening to refuse to show the film. Keep in mind that this VOD release was to happen in just two cities (Atlanta and Portland), and at a price of $60 per viewing.

The concept of "star power," the idea that having big-name actors is able to guarantee a box office smash, has also become rather questionable in recent years. While there are still some actors who can push a movie to the top by virtue of their presence alone (Will Smith, for instance), the emerging trend, not dissimilar to what was seen in New Hollywood, is that characters, concepts, and directors are attracting audiences more than A-list stars. Movies with casts of mostly unknown or C-list actors are becoming smash hits (James Cameron's Avatar, the Twilight films, and all the movies based on comic book or toy properties are prime cases), while "star vehicles," once a sure bet, are an increasingly hit-or-miss prospect (see, for instance, Knight and Day and The Tourist). Many have questioned whether the "movie star" is even relevant anymore in today's film industry.

Of course, complaining about the "death of Hollywood" is like complaining about the "death of the music industry": it's practically a professional sport on the internet these days, and is an easy way to start a ready-made Flame War. The opposing side claims that the film industry was facing all of these problems in different forms during the Fall of the Studio System and still managed to come out just fine, so it can make it out of this too. Which side will be Vindicated by History? Stay tuned.

For information on the development of animation during this period, see The Renaissance Age of Animation and The Millennium Age of Animation.
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