Blockbuster, as applied to film, theater, and sometimes also video games, denotes a very popular or successful production. The term began to appear in the American press in the early 1940s, describing the largest of aerial bombs: single bombs capable of destroying a city block, also known as ‘cookies’ during the firebombing of Hamburg. Later figurative use referred to anything making a public impact:

‘Broadway reacted to the request of War Mobilization Director Byrnes to close all places of entertainment by midnight Feb. 26 as if a blockbuster had landed on Manhattan’ (1945). Some entertainment histories cite it as originally referring to a play that is so successful that competing theaters on the block are ‘busted’ and driven out of business, but the OED cites a 1957 use which is simply as a term of ‘biggest,’ after the bombs.

The entertainment industry use was originally theatrical slang referring to a particularly successful play, but is now used by the film industry and the pharmaceutical industry and others. The term ‘blockbuster’ in film generally speaks to the size of both the narrative and the scale of production. On the other hand, a ‘blockbuster’ drug generally implies a successfully marketed therapeutic drug.

In film, a number of terms were used to describe a hit. In the 1970s these included: ‘spectacular,’ ‘super-grosser,’ and ‘super-blockbuster.’ In 1975 the usage of ‘blockbuster’ for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws,’ and became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, a fast-paced exciting entertainment, almost a genre. Audiences interacted with such films, talked about them afterwards, and went back to see them again just for the thrill.

Before ‘Jaws’ set box office records in the summer of 1975, successful films such as ‘Quo Vadis,’ ‘The Ten Commandments,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and ‘Ben-Hur’ were called blockbusters based purely on the amount of money earned at the box office. ‘Jaws’ is regarded as the first film of New Hollywood’s ‘blockbuster era’ with its current meaning, implying a film genre. It also consolidated the ‘summer blockbuster’ trend, through which major film studios and distributors planned their entire annual marketing strategy around a big release by July 4.

After the success of ‘Jaws,’ many Hollywood producers attempted to create similar ‘event films’ with wide commercial appeal. Film companies began green lighting increasingly high budgeted films and relying extensively on massive advertising blitzes leading up to their theatrical release. Although the term was originally defined by audience response, after a while ‘blockbuster’ came to mean a high-budget production aimed at mass markets, with associated merchandising, on which the financial fortunes of film studio or distributor depended. It was defined by its production budget and marketing effort rather than its success and popularity, and was essentially a tag which a film’s marketing gave itself. In this way it became possible to refer to films such as ‘Godzilla’ (1998) or ‘Last Action Hero’ as both a blockbuster and a box-office disaster.

Eventually, the focus on creating blockbusters grew so intense that a backlash occurred, with critics and some film-makers decrying the prevalence of a ‘blockbuster mentality’ and lamenting the death of the author-driven, ‘more artistic’ small-scale films of the New Hollywood era. This view is taken, for example, by film journalist Peter Biskind, who wrote that all studios wanted was another ‘Jaws,’ and as production costs rose, they were less willing to take risks and therefore based blockbusters on the ‘lowest common denominators’ of the mass market. An opposing view is taken by film critic Tom Shone, who considers that Lucas and Spielberg’s reinvention of blockbusters as fast-paced entertainment reinvigorated the US film industry and deserves greater artistic and critical recognition.

In a book written by Chris Anderson titled ‘The Long Tail,’ he mentions the many different possibilities the blockbuster film brought to Hollywood, and the many ancillary markets that followed. He states that a society that is hit-driven, and makes room for only those films that are expected to be a hit, is in fact a limited society. As the transition of online distribution made way, the market entered a world of abundance, and not of limited possibilities. As time went on, and people became more comfortable with it, the changes were astounding. He also speaks on the society and how the voice of society is listened to: if a movie was a blockbuster hit, it may have only seemed that way to the people who traveled to spend their money on it. For the individuals who did not, their voices were somewhat silent. And when directors would sit down to make a blueprint of another blockbuster film, they would keep in mind only the reviews of the people that watched the film, instead of a collective whole.

When a film made on a low budget is particularly successful or exceeds the expectations of the films in its genre, then that film is a blockbuster as well, in the original meaning of the word. Such films may not receive the title ‘blockbuster’ in the current meaning of the word, but are labeled ‘hits’ or ‘sleepers.’


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