The Blockbuster Era

02.05.2016 |

Episode #6 of the course A brief history of cinema by Ryan McCarvill

 

The New Hollywood period was notable for its auteurs: the idea of the director being the “author” of a film. The movies produced by this auteur generation were extremely popular and sucked audiences back into the theaters by the millions. Studios noted the big box office returns and focused on developing “high concept” films. High concept essentially refers to a compelling story idea (or “hook”) that is easy to communicate in one sentence. In industry jargon, that sentence is called a logline.

Want an example? “A monstrous shark terrorizes a beach resort town and three guys who don’t get along have to work together to kill it.” You’re right, it’s Jaws (1975), a thrilling and terrifying horror-adventure.

While Jaws wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s first film, it did catapult him to international fame and set him on the fast track to become Hollywood’s golden boy. More importantly, Jaws had people lining up around the block to see it again and again. When little-known George Lucas released Star Wars in 1977, it smashed box office records and sold millions of dollars in merchandise. The blockbuster hits of the mid to late ‘70s reignited the spark in major studios. Hollywood’s Golden Age had returned at last.

Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future (1985)

Studios focused on formulas, franchises, and special effects meant to target the youth market. Youth was no longer synonymous with peace, love, and hippies but MTV, shopping, and the latest cars and gadgets. Producers pitched sequels, trilogies, and high concept twists that were guaranteed to draw big crowds: “It’s Jaws with a grizzly bear!” or “It’s another Rocky sequel!”

A group of young actors called the Brat Pack popularized the “coming of age” genre with hits like 1985’s The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. Other teen movies included Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

Beyond cute comedies, the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises encouraged studios to develop films with dazzling special effects. Producers combined practical effects with state-of-the-art computer graphics to create showstoppers like Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984). Increasing globalization brought cinema cultures together. Chinese martial arts flicks and Japanese samurai films became increasingly popular in American movie theatres. If nothing else, the Blockbuster Era inspired tremendous technological advances and encouraged audiences to embrace foreign films more than ever before.

The goal was to produce “event” movies that audiences couldn’t afford to miss. Marketing became a critical component of the filmmaking process with test screenings, focus groups, and demographic research. Mainstream audiences wanted more action, more nudity, and more laughs, and the studios delivered them.

Harrison Ford as action hero Indiana Jones

Harrison Ford as action hero Indiana Jones

If you buy into the typical stereotype of the 1980s being a period of greed, then the motion picture industry provides an excellent microcosm of those trends. At times, true storytelling triumphed with films like Amadeus (1984), a fascinating drama about Mozart, and the sports drama Chariots of Fire (1981). Overall, the Blockbuster Era is remembered for, well, its blockbusters. For better or worse, this period was crucial in developing the structure and attitudes of the Hollywood “system” as we know it in 2016.

 

Did You Know?

Box office flop Heaven’s Gate (1980) was such a massive failure that it has become synonymous with any troubled film. The film lost so much money that United Artists was sold to MGM to help cover (some) of the cost.

 

Five Films to Watch

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Back to the Future

The Breakfast Club

The Empire Strikes Back

Die Hard

 

Recommended book

“The Jaws Log: Expanded Edition” by Carl Gottlieb

 

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