The End of the Summer Blockbuster

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Summer season is fast upon us and with it an endless array of brightly colored computer generated worlds and brightlier colored computer generated worlds exploding, all amid densely packed ear thumping soundtracks (one of which WILL win the Oscar for Sound Editing). It is the season of the summer blockbuster.

That sounds a little snarky but actually I love the summer blockbuster. I look forward to it with a vengeance despite all past experience telling me that only 1-2% will be worth watching in a given year (I’m putting my sheckles on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY this year). And inevitably when this time of year comes a-calling I drift back a little and think about the birth and development of this strange media behemoth, probably because it coincides so closely with my own youth and adolescence.

A lot of ink has been spilled about how the phenomenon arose, particularly about the dual arrival of JAWS and STAR WARS at the box office in 1975 and 1977, and the way they opened studios up to the realization of the vast amounts of money a film could make in a fairly short amount of time. JAWS made $260 million (about $1 billion in today’s dollars) off a $7 million budget (about $30 million today) in just 12 months, instead of having to play for years and years. That’s a big multiple, so naturally studios were quick to try and make more movies do the same thing which is why we get a film like JAWS every weekend through the summer, every year.

What’s that you say, they make big, successful suspense movies like JAWS about once a decade or so? Well that can’t possibly be the direct antecedent of the modern blockbuster then, no matter how much money it made.

Yes, of course it’s STAR WARS. Forgetting for a moment how much money it made or how popular it became by itself, it codified what the blockbuster was: fast, loud, so entertaining it could out outrun leaps of logic, filled with wonderful visuals which would obviate the need for movie stars, held down by classic storytelling archetypes, giant merchandising sales. In every way that matters it was the first summer blockbuster, even if took another 15 years or so for all of those rules to become set in stone.

Not coincidentally, that’s also about how long it took for all of the major studios to finally be purchased and ingested into the mechanisms of the giant global conglomerates which began to rear their heads in the late 70s, lured in part by the ticket sales of the growing cadre of summer event films. As more and more came in, more and more was expected from these event tent poles, and more and more they had to conform to the needs of their new corporate masters, which means more and more they played to their base (teenage boys, mainly) for cheap applause.

Except for one. STAR WARS, the original summer blockbuster, was also the last one not under the purview of a corporate overlord (so to speak). And it showed. Like or loathe the Star Wars Prequels, they were without question the vision of a single artist telling the story he wanted, how he wanted, without a lot of effort or thought given to what other people thought of the outcome. There’s danger doing that (as many STAR WARS fans will say, very loudly) but that’s usually where new ideas come from. It was in doing so that the STAR WARS was created in the first place.

And that makes me wistful this year as blockbuster season starts. After a gap of a decade a new STAR WARS film is on the horizon but now the old sawhorse, like its brethren before it, is one more asset in the corporate portfolio of a larger parent, and it is a film being made under those auspices, to appeal to the broadest number of people with the fewest chances taken so that it may increase the likelihood of taking in the most amount of money. The kind of film where every item on the budget and in the script is signed off on by a greenlight committee of studio executives (and run past more than a few consultants) before it can move forward. It’s a philosophy which doesn’t usually have much room for individual vision.

This doesn’t mean that there every giant effects filled sci-fi or comic book film out there will be entirely the result of vision by committee or that there won’t be any room for big budget sci-fi as the result of the vision of a single, committed individual.

What it does mean is that the person who will do that will be the one who will naturally make the films those committees would also want made. They will be made by people who, like Chesterton said of Dickens, make great works not because they are trying to give people what they want, but because it is what they want themselves.

When that happens sometimes you do get Dickens. And sometimes you get Michael Bay.

But all of the time there will be less room for idiosyncrasy and that’s a sad thing if for no other reason than idiosyncrasy brought us the blockbuster in the first place. Now we’ll get more and more of the big movies we want, and fewer and fewer of the ones we never knew we craved.

The blockbuster is dead. Long live the blockbuster.

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