Useful Notes / The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood
aka: Blockbuster Age Of Hollywood

"A long time ago, in a studio boardroom far, far away..."

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 Studios Motion 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.

But fundamentally, this is a studio-system In-Name-Only. Most of the production companies are owned by corporations who saw the old companies as valuable intellectual property with a venerable name and back-catalogue of other IP through which they could access to spin new ideas and franchises, or, alternatively, use as a bridge to access other intellectual properties. The studios such as they are no longer have the personalized studio lots of old (in fact most of them were sold off in The '70s), they don't have a contracted list of players and actors and actresses, and movie deals are more or less per film. By the time of The New '10s, some even doubt if there are movie stars in the old sense of an actor who can guarantee sales by mere presence alone. There are undoubtedly a few actors and actresses who still have that, but it's no longer quite the necessary or sufficient condition for blockbuster success, which is more or less what success means.

"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 film-making.

Notable is the fact that these science-fiction thrillers were in genres that in the Old Hollywood days would be B-Movie (and Star Wars was called such by Roger Corman during a visit to the set on hearing George Lucas' ideas) and would have been made on low budget or No Budget with limited technical resources. The above films more or less structured on similar concepts with a much higher production standard and better visual effects. This trend continued 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 and that the supposedly niche teenager, geek and nerd concepts could in fact appeal to a big part of the mainstream. The huge success of these films — and another '79 entry, The Muppet Movie — with children was also noted. For all its rebelliousness, New Hollywood fundamentally was built on the old genres of the Golden Age Hollywood (The Musical, the Screwball Comedy, The Western, Film Noir, the women's film, the Epic Movie) and either made Deconstruction of those genres, or updated or reconfigured it. What Lucas and Spielberg achieved was a Perspective Flip whereby the disreputable serials, science-fiction and adventure stories suddenly went from micro-budget B-Movie to more or less epic spectacular made on a scale and budget comparable to a Cecil B. DeMille production. This realignment of the audience kicked off the Blockbuster Age.

Home Video

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

There are many waves and stretches for the Blockbuster era. The first wave 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 with the caveat that Blade Runner and The Thing were flops. 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). 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 (the latter initially a joint venture of Columbia, CBS and HBO) — maintained about 6% market share each, Disney had about 10%, and smaller independents (the largest being New Line Cinema, "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 was acquired by CBS-connected Viacom, Columbia was purchased by Sony, Warners merged with Time Inc. and HBO to form Time Warner [with the Turner Broadcasting merger bringing New Line into the pack], Fox became part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Universal was tossed around like a cursed diamond throughout the 1990s and 2000s before merging with NBC in 2004 and finding a forever home with cable giant Comcast in 2011) — and the Turn of the Millennium that the rebirth would finally come. Orion would go bankrupt in 1992 (and eventually get eaten by MGM), Tri-Star would merge with Columbia (HBO and CBS having since sold out) 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 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, and it revived the fortunes of the Walt Disney Corporation which in The '80s bled animators and saw many defections and came close to becoming a theme park with film-making as a side-business. By the Mid-Nineties, Disney became a major money spinner with a huge slew of valuable IP and then more lucrative acquisitions like Pixar, exploding in 21st Century with its acquisition of Star Wars and Marvel Comics, becoming far and away the biggest and richest studio in Hollywood with the most profits.

The "indies"

There has been an independent cinema in America since The '50s (with John Cassavetes being seen as The Pioneer) but until The '70s, the understanding was that with independent cinema was a proving ground for talented artists to transition into the mainstream. Now of course some independents will stay independent and be better off for it, but most people who made independent films could conceivably expect some kind of audience and a shot at the big league. In The '80s and The '90s, independent film-makers were more or less expected to make a career in the margins and remain there and at best hope to break through by carving out some niche or the other, or somehow reinventing themselves into a mainstream film-maker (such as Steven Soderbergh who was a Sundance discovery who later made Ocean's Eleven and Out of Sight). The real hope of revenue for these films was home video and international sales. Home Video provided wide accessibility but also greater marginalization and invisibility from the mainstream. 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. But this meant that the audiences for these films were largely niche fans or genre-specialists and cinephiles and provided little room to reach audiences from other demographics. Film critics note that before one could say that both the mainstream and the independent scene had great talent and visionaries, now the independent scene had the bulk of the innovation, much of it was unrewarded, little seen and without an wider cultural relevance.

The major positive effect of home video was that it provided a channel for 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. In time, these independent films more or less became another arm of the corporate-studio system, who produced their own subsidary labels such as (Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Universal's Focus Features and [prior to 2008] Paramount Vantage) who use it to farm 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 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".

Recent Developments

Modern Hollywood is fundamentally based on intellectual property and the ability of those IP to generate profits in the form of movie franchises and vast merchandise driven profits. This means that film production is inspired by marketing, advertising, demographics and focused on youth, teenage boys rather notoriously and the genres that caters to the same. Now of course the Fleeting Demographic Rule exists and this need not be inevitable and permanent. The nature of the blockbuster era is instability and changing trends even in the supposed "family friendly" focus on the blockbusters. Much as Star Wars is credited for the Blockbuster era, it must be noted that The '80s and The '90s are a little anomalous in that at the same time as family fare, there were R-Rated action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis among others which faded in time for PG-13 rated fare in The '80s and The '90s. The most successful film of that time was James Cameron's Titanic which is more or less an old-fashioned Hollywood Epic mixed with the disaster movie, with star-making roles by little known actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. It's unprecedented success came largely because it appealed to the biggest demographic of the moviegoing public, one that the old studio bosses especially targeted: women. Yet the success of Titanic did not lead to more blockbusters that targeted the female demographic, and while it did inspire some disaster movie trends in the late nineties, the film didn't catch on because it wasn't an intellectual property that could be franchised and its success owed itself to the director's powerful vision, i.e. the New Hollywood resurgent (and Cameron is an old Corman alumnus). Paradoxically its only in the 21st Century, heralded in part by George Lucas' prequels, that the Merchandise Driven franchise targeting youth and nerd properties became really ubiquitous in a way it wasn't before.

The superhero movie genre was the sole province of Warner Bros. but Superman crashed in The '80s, and Batman burnt out in the middle of The '90s. This led Warner Bros. to start looking for other IP, striking gold with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings which inspired a wave of fantasy films as well as (primarily teen-oriented) genre fair like Twilight which fit the new model of serial trilogies and long-form sagas with the regular cast released over successive years. By the 2000s the big studios had a strong foothold in the industry. 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.

Yet at this time, the superhero genre really took off with the Spider-Man Trilogy whose worldwide success made the film studios to reinvest in the Marvel properties and later led to Marvel forming its own production companies which led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that more or less forced Warner Bros to return to the superhero genre. The Merchandising reached new heights and depths, leading in addition to 1980s TV shows (primarily cartoons), comic strips and even toys being 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". In addition the focus on IP, youth and Fleeting Demographics has led to Reboots, remakes, and other Lost in Imitation products that has flooded the market.

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. However, sitting alongside this is what Steven Spielberg called the disappearance of the middle film, the erosion of the adult audience who more or less went to see TV Shows that now boasted higher production values than before. Spielberg and later George Lucas believe the blockbuster model is unsustainable and would ultimately implode, much as the Epic Movie craze of fifties and sixties Hollywood did. Of course Spielberg's point has attracted cries of hypocrisy since he's credited with starting the blockbuster era, but he would point that in his career he has made a wide variety of movies catering to different audiences, and he was never in favour of only making one kind of film all the time.

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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