Useful Notes / The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood
aka: 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), 20th 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.

In short order, this idea was reinforced with the wild success of Superman in 1978 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 and cable television 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 or on a movie channel. Last but certainly not least, the videocassette seriously spooked Hollywood's traditional arch-enemy, the over-the-air 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 the LaserDisc appeared in the 80s and, more importantly, DVDs came around in The '90s, 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 and "director's cuts", "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 '70s, and by The '90s, 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 '80s and the early years of The '90s, 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 the few remaining "legacy" movie palaces, 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 the 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: E.T. 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 (1984), 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). The faltering animation industry got a badly-needed kick in the pants at the end of the decade with the releases of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The "Disney Renaissance" became one of the main factors of a new age for not only cartoons, but also for the film industry as a whole.

However, unlike 1939, 1982 most certainly did not come at a high point for the studios financially. Hollywood spent much of The '80s 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 '90s — 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, Lions Gate 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 '90s, 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 '90s: 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, (500) 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 Lions Gate, 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".

Recent Developments

Throughout the new century, there have been further developments in the movie industry: By the 2000s the big studios had regained their foothold in the industry, but unlike the days of the Golden Age or the 1980s, executives took a backseat in terms of creative control, giving leeway to artistic freedoms before limited to the "indie" circles, which now were craved by the bigwigs.

The decade also saw an important change on release schedules that in the 80s and 90s was heavily dependent on the Memorial Day-July 4 "summer season" and the Thanksgiving-New Year "holiday season", the rest of the year being pretty much the film equivalent of the "death slot". Since then these became a field for more artistic films, specially the period between August and October, where nowadays most "award bait" films open in hopes of getting the media's attention.

While adapting popular media to the screen is as old as film itself, it was not until the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series when Hollywood took note of it. Since then, a flurry of novels (primarily teen-oriented), comic books (eventually forming the Marvel Cinematic Universe), 1980s TV shows (primarily cartoons), comic strips and even toys have been translated to Hollywood to varying degrees of success. The CGI revolution led not only to animation becoming a film genre of its own, but its reliance on proven products have sparked a "Franchise Age of Hollywood".

The late 2000s financial crisis greatly changed the landscape, as studios were compelled to make flashier pictures to keep moviegoers in theaters. 3D filmmaking finally got out of its "passing fad" label as the releases of James Cameron's Avatar and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland led to a three-dimensional craze beginning in 2010. However by 2011 a deluge of badly-reviewed high-budget films sparked concerns about blockbusters "racing to the bottom" aiming to the lowest common denominator, specially by the fact 3D films were cannibalizing each other. Also, the relative freedom filmmakers (and even actors) had was rolled back after a series of big-budgeted flops in 2012-14 that led to serious fears about an imminent "death of the film industry" as even the then-booming mobile game trade was considered to be a threat. Studios then began adopting a more "hands-on" stance in production matters, prioritizing more solid spectacle and storytelling while artistic pretenses were largely abandoned as cable series had made this redundant.

After a point of inflexion during the second half of 2014, 2015 was marked by a strong recovery of the industry, with attendance records being broken twice (first by Jurassic World and then by The Force Awakens), while other films such as Inside Out, Kingsman: The Secret Service and American Sniper also got impressive figures. 2016 also has shown an increased interest for original content as demonstrated by films like Zootopia, Deadpool and others, showing that the film industry as well as an appetite for originality are alive and well (specially considering how some established actors and formulas took a beating at the box office), and will remain for years to come.

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, many films since the 2011-2014 period were saved from bombing by overseas rentals. For instance, 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  And films like the Fast & Furious series, Transformers and Minions among others have become more popular overseas than in the domestic market.

The Web Goes to the Movies

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 '90s 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. However, while many have feared this might be the end of the blockbusters, theatrical runs have not been replaced just yet.

In 2014, Sony Pictures got the necessity to do it for real with the film, The Interview, when vague terrorist threats against showing it caused all the major theatre chains to drop the film. As a result, Sony decided to shelve the film, which drew a storm of criticism ranging from media pundits to US President Barack Obama himself about "giving in to terrorists." As a result of the pressure, Sony decided to open it not only in the few independent theaters willing to show it, but also simultaneously made it available online such as on iTunes and Google Play as well. The result of this move was that it earned about $31 million.

With the decline of print journalism and movie review TV shows having all but disappeared, 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.

Key filmmakers of this era include:


Alternative Title(s): Blockbuster Age Of Hollywood

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