The Blockbuster Backlash

Star Wars

History of the Modern Blockbuster

In his 1998 book High Concept, Charles Fleming describes the change that came about in the film industry when executives Barry Diller and Michael Eisner (current CEO of Disney) entered the field.

Until then, directors (like Scorsese, Lucas and Altman) were the true creative powers in the Hollywood movie business, but Diller and Eisner had come from TV backgrounds — where the producer called the creative shots and the director was regarded as just another technician.

Bringing such a culture with them caused — as Fleming notes — the entire Hollywood film industry to change in a single weekend.

The movie Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, and according to Richard Sylbert, then Paramount second-in-command; “Everything changed forever. Suddenly the studios were trying to make something that had never been known before — the summer blockbuster. It changed the level of everything.” American audiences had never been exposed to that type of movie, released with that kind of national campaign. Previously, movies were released in selective cities and rolled out gradually around the country.

Jaws was a wall to wall national release, opening in every available theatre Universal Pictures could book. It was a national sensation and broke every standing box office record. The summer blockbuster — the ‘tentpole’ or ‘event’ picture that would become the principal focus of every studio executive in the industry — was born.

Fleming recounts how Steven Spielberg (whom Jaws — ironically — made a star director) was recently among the most vocal complainants of the new paradigm that had developed. It seemed only two kinds of films were being made — the ‘tentpole’ behemoths that made money or the quirky low budget projects that scored creative kudos for studios at the Oscars.

Spielberg likened the American film industry to India, where “there’s an upper class and a poverty class and no middle class. Right now, we’re squeezing the middle class out of Hollywood, and only allowing the $70 million plus or the $10 million minus films.”

But nobody is more powerful in Hollywood than the shareholder, so once the precedent had been set, there was no stopping the juggernaut.

The New Blockbuster

The market forces pushing movie budgets — and earnings — into the stratosphere were more recently joined by the advent of new technology to create the New Blockbuster.

The New Blockbuster had varying levels of depth of story, believability of character or directing/cinematographic talent, but they were characterised by one thing; computer effects that — when their results appeared on screen — thrilled us like nothing had before.

In a 2001 feature on the upcoming Pearl Harbor, Total Film (UK) likened the post-CGI blockbuster to the porn video, declaring that “every blockbuster has its money shot'” — that one scene or sequence both you and the studio knows you paid your money to see.

Pioneered (again by Spielberg) for Jurassic Park was a new generations of computer generated effects that bought action to life on screen like film audiences had never seen before. And from the mid 90’s onward, CG special effects have been the star of the New Blockbuster.

So now, directed by multinational firms (like Sony) used to marketing products across the globe, the nationwide marketing campaigns and mass release of huge American movies has gone global. It’s not unheard of for holiday season blockbusters to release simultaneously in thousands of theatres across the world.

Each new production bought CG magic to another Hollywood mainstay (alien invasions, freak natural disasters etc) — and previously cheap and nasty effects appeared on screen with thrilling new realism thanks to the processing power of the computer.

Who can forget the thrill audiences worldwide felt the first time the Tyrannosaur crashed through the wire into view (Jurassic Park, 1993), the first time gigantic alien craft turned their awesome weapons onto Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC, blowing away each entire city (Independence Day, 1996), monstrous tornadoes sweeping away towns and cornfields (Twister, 1996), the final cataclysmic eruption (Dante’s Peak, 1997), New York being swept away by the tidal wash from an impacting comet (Deep Impact, 1998) or Jack and Rose balanced on the stern as it starts to sink into the Atlantic (Titanic, 1998).

CGI was the new movie star — far more money and attention were paid to it than any scriptwriter or costume designer. The legacies of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation or Edward D Wood’s twine-suspended UFO (humble as it was, a technique still used up to and beyond Star Wars) were passe. Now we could experience anything we could imagine, thanks to the clever manipulation of pixels with 3D software together with clever sound design and decent sound systems in theatres.

The Internet Parallel

But things — as with any new technology — went too far. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan said, became the message. But McLuhan wasn’t completely right — we don’t go to the movies to view the technical prowess of some geek at ILM or Pixar, we go to experience the richness of our emotional response.

When the Internet came into its own and the world business community realised its potential in the late 1990s, there was (as some of us remember with pain or embarrassment) an orgy of corporate spending in the new media sector. Corporate boards the world over threw billions at startup ventures with predictable and now infamous results. The market imploded and billions in investor funds evaporated.

Ask any advertising guru or new media director now and they’ll tell you you don’t build a website for its own sake or because it’s trendy or says you’re a happening young company. You have one to extend your existing service to your customers — to add value to their dealings with you.

The same thing happened with the CGI blockbuster. With the possibilities the new technology opened up, one can almost imagine the hordes of hot young producers lined up outside Hollywood film executive offices with huge CGI budgets and single sentence pitches; Volcano!, Comet!, Asteroid!, Dinosaurs!, The destruction of New York (again)!

And we, as audiences, bought into it — for awhile. Because it was an incredible new experience to see a city wiped out by an alien spacecraft or an interstellar body slamming into the ocean or a seemingly flesh and blood dinosaur tear a car to pieces (at least, it was before someone flew planes into New York skyscrapers with no help from Hollywood special effects whizzes).

Discerning Internet users realised early on that the dotcom explosion was really a dotcon — the orgy of new media technology and spending did little to improve what services or products they already used. And it wasn’t long before discerning moviegoers saw through the CGI wool being pulled over their eyes. We were being bought off with fancy firework displays and soon the absence of decent storylines, original ideas or identifiable characters became conspicuous.

The End

Things came to a head with 2001’s notoriously reviled Pearl Harbor. It seemed to polarise audiences the world over into realising that they were paying twelve bucks to see an expansive, sweeping (and certainly impressive) battle scene surrounded by two hours of flimsy plotting and corny characterisation — in reality, no worse than what Independence Day, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor’s other CG predecessors had offered before.

The CG blockbuster was big budget pseudo porn — nine tenths sensory tension and foreplay for a five second long orgasmic climax (half of which we’d seen in the trailer anyway).

The New New Blockbuster

Film critic and Guru David Stratton puts it this way; “There has certainly been a critical backlash against empty blockbusters,” he says, “but audiences are still very open to the spectacular images Hollywood provides.

“In the end, the quality of the film will always depend on the screenplay, the casting and the passion of the director. Better stories aligned with the wonders of modern technology will always attract large audiences — look at Lord of the Rings. I don’t see the blockbuster dying out, but we need more imaginative story-tellers who aren’t reliant on technical wonders.”

Revolutionary technologies are like revolutionary social movements. Their wakes are littered with the corpses of failed paradigms. As a society, we need to sift through anything new and revolutionary, separate the wheat from the chaff and do away with the get rich quick hucksters so we end up with whatever really works for us.

Like the Internet, the CG blockbuster has been and continues to be a technological as well as a social revolution. We’ve been through the CG ‘dotcom startup’-like era where every new technology and business model was marketed to the hilt just because of how cool it was.

We’re no longer satisfied with stories that promise a CG spectacular for its own sake. We want CGI to be what it was supposed to be from the beginning — a tool to tell good stories better. Making films that simply showed what CG could do with a volcano, an asteroid, dinosaurs or the attack on Pearl Harbour only whetted our appetite.

Smart filmmakers — to take David Stratton’s analogy further — are realising what CGI can do for good material. Before the advent of today’s special effects technology, the only way Tolkein’s epic could be committed to film in such a visually astounding way was the 1978 animated version.

Studios in the dumbing down business might continue to reap record profits from the 15 to 19 year old male audience that makes up their favoured global demographic, but somewhere between Independence Day and Pearl Harbor, audiences that sought quality realised they were being duped, and woe betide any producer who continues to leave us out in the cold!