As Avengers Assemble, Prometheus and The Dark Knight prepare to slug it out in
cinemas, Robbie Collin asks how Hollywood snatched defeat from the victory of
There are two different accounts of the origin of the word blockbuster and, as tends
to be the way with these things, the bogus one is the most appealing.The version
most often given by those who work in the film industry – the wrong one you wish
was right – claims the word has its origins in jazz-age Hollywood, where it was used
to describe films and plays that were so popular they enticed customers away from all
of the rival theatres and cinemas in the surrounding area. At the expense of one
soaraway hit, so the story runs, an entire block would go bust.
It’s a romantic image – just think of that brilliant scene in The Artist, when the
silent-movie star George Valentin sees the crowd for a talkie stretching all the way
around the block and only then realises that the age of sound has arrived – but
regrettably, it’s also an entirely fictional one. The word actually made its way into
Hollywood parlance from the munitions industry, where in Forties Britain, the term
“blockbuster” was coined to refer to the RAF bombs also known as “cookies”:
4,000lb, 8,000lb and 12,000lb monsters that were big enough to flatten an entire
Nazi neighbourhood in one go. It was seized upon by the showbiz journal Variety,
among others, and was used as a slang superlative for describing a play or film that
was enormously successful, or failing that, just enormous.
The pyrotechnic origins of the word were spookily prescient: cast an eye over
Hollywood’s offerings for the impending summer season and it becomes clear that
blockbusters are now films in which we watch things being destroyed by the noisiest,
costliest means imaginable. In a list of this summer’s most successful films, it is likely
that Avengers Assemble, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises will be placed very
highly, and the trailers promise extensive scenes of buildings and people being
elaborately rent asunder.
There is no reason to think the inevitable box-office success of any of these films will
be undeserved: Joss Whedon, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, their respective
directors, are three rare talents able to marry intelligent storytelling with grand-scale
mayhem. But zoom out a little and the contemporary blockbuster landscape starts to
look increasingly odd. Two of the most successful multiplex franchises of the past 10
years are Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean. Although they share common
ground with older blockbusters such as the Indiana Jones films and Top Gun – in
their blending of history and fantasy and sensualisation of warfare, for a start – in
terms of quality, there is no comparison. But what the Pirates and Transformers
films lack in style, suspense, pathos, structure, characterisation, tragedy, comedy,
artistry, cineliteracy and coherence, they make up for in the size of their budget. It is
hard not to conclude that nowadays blockbuster status is bought, not earned.
With emerging audiences in Russia, India, the United Arab Emirates and China keen
to spend big on spectacle, it often proves to be a shrewd investment. Disney’s risible
science-fiction romp John Carter was branded a flop by the trade press on release
and broadly ignored by Western audiences, but has quietly made back its vast £160
million budget, and more, in places like Russia, Brazil and south-east Asia. The most
recent Pirates of the Caribbean film, which was almost as bad, took three quarters of
its £630 million gross overseas. When James Cameron’s Titanic was re-released for
the Easter bank holiday weekend, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation,
which owns Titanic studio Twentieth Century Fox, triumphantly announced on
Twitter that the film took almost twice as much on its first night in China as it did in
America. “New markets fast expanding for US films,” he tweeted, his ability to use
the present continuous tense temporarily stymied by the thought of all that money.
In fact, the international blockbuster market is in such rude health that previously
recession-cowed studios are upping the annihilation levels in what might otherwise
be run-of-the-mill action films in the hope of cashing in. Battleship, a dim-witted
alien-invasion romp released in Britain last week, found itself “upgraded” to
blockbuster status by Universal Pictures with a reported £22 million budget hike
midway through production, and has been rolled out internationally a month before
its American release – in other words, to the audiences most likely to appreciate it,
which, depressingly, include Britain.
Every cent of additional funding was earmarked for either improving the existing
special effects or adding more computer-generated destruction, not in the original
script. Accordingly, the film’s running time was stretched beyond two hours and the
volume of the explosions increased. “It was one of the craziest meetings I’ve ever
had,” the director, Peter Berg, has recalled. “They said, ‘We want to go bigger.’” Over
its debut weekend, Battleship was the most popular film in 20 countries, including
the UK and Germany, and set new box office records for Universal in South Korea,
Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The film took £35 million in three days, notably,
without the help of either Russia or China (it opened in both countries yesterday). In
the current market, bigger is always better.
It wasn’t always thus. Arguably the first modern blockbuster was Steven Spielberg’s
1975 film Jaws: compared with this summer’s offerings in terms of both budget and
on-screen carnage, a small fish indeed. But the way Spielberg’s shark tale
transcended its creature-feature roots to become an international pop-culture
phenomenon set out the template by which almost all future blockbusters would be
Previously, films had been launched with a glossy Hollywood premiere, followed by
the first tranche of reviews and then a gradual spreading of prints across the US and,
eventually, the UK. Jaws opened simultaneously on 464 screens, many in seaside
towns not unlike the one depicted in the movie. It was advertised in prime-time slots
on all three American television channels for three days beforehand. Universal’s
advertising campaign included “public service shark facts” posters as well as more
conventional bills. Discussion of the movie filtered beyond entertainment journalism
and into the hard news agenda. Like the great white itself, there was no escaping it.
This saturation approach to marketing was designed to weaken the effects of bad
reviews and negative word of mouth (not that Jaws had much to worry about on
either front) and also to turn the film’s release into an international – here’s that
word again – “event”. It worked. Jaws took more than £300 million worldwide and
single-handedly doubled the share price of Universal’s parent company, MCA.
The decade that followed yielded Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET: The Extra
Terrestrial, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future; an unprecedented purple patch in
blockbuster history. These films – thrilling adventure sagas with a fantastical bent
and a broad, almost universal appeal – collectively make up what I would describe
as, without a flicker of irony, the classical era of blockbuster film-making.
The philosopher Hegel believed ancient Greek sculpture represented the apex of fine
art because the sculptors’ creative spirit was embodied by the very substance of those
sculptures: simply put, marble was the ideal medium through which to communicate
the gods’ unearthly beauty. Similarly in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the
emergent special effects industry allowed the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas,
Ivan Reitman and Robert Zemeckis to fully articulate their ideas on screen for the
first time, and the blockbusters’ form and content existed in a kind of perfect
Quite what Hegel would make of the likes of Battleship and the pornographically
cynical Transformers movies is another matter. Since the Eighties, setting aside very
occasional special cases such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the Wachowski
brothers’ The Matrix and James Cameron’s Avatar, special-effects technology has
hopelessly outpaced and outclassed film-makers’ ideas, and that crucial equilibrium
has been lost.
Yet the lack of worthwhile ideas does not seem to have demoralised cinemagoers,
who continue to turn out in their hordes. Michael Bay has said, with perhaps a trace
of sarcasm, “I make movies for teenage boys – oh dear, what a crime,” but his three
Transformers films have made in excess of £1.6 billion for Paramount, Hasbro,
various cinema chains, and Bay himself. If Bay’s films, the seemingly endless run of
superhero flicks, Battleship et al really are aimed squarely at teenage boys, why are
people who are neither teenage nor boyish going to see them?
For the answer, we need only look to Jaws – or rather to its marketing model, which
is now being pushed to increasingly solipsistic extremes. Trailers are now trailed with
teaser trailers – and in the case of Prometheus, teasers for teaser trailers. Behind-
the-scenes shoots are released before we get the chance to actually see the scenes
behind which they’ve been shot. Positive buzz from preview screenings laps the
planet in seconds thanks to Twitter, while the grumbles remain embargoed. When we
go to the cinema to watch a blockbuster, it doesn’t mark the commencement of our
experience of the film, but the culmination.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Inspired by the ideals of the slow-food movement, I’d
like to see a return from today’s junk cinema to slow blockbusters: handcrafted,
artisanally produced summer entertainments made by directors who actually give a
fig about what they are pumping out. Encouragingly, there are stirrings that suggest
such a move may already be in the offing, thanks to another emerging market:
teenage girls. Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games, a terrifically intelligent science-fiction
film based on the book by Suzanne Collins, is aimed foremost at that demographic.
And Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, the first of the 14 fairy-tale adaptations on
Hollywood’s release slate, had all the wit and dash of the old blockbusters and none
of the barefaced stupidity of the new.
Naturally, it’s still about the money: last weekend, The Hunger Games broke the
£300 million barrier and is now on track to gross more in the US than any of the
Twilight or Harry Potter films. But with any luck, this influential young audience
could give us more blockbusters worth queuing around the block for. In a battle
between the teenage girls and the Russians, I know whose side I’m on.
CLASH OF THE TITANS: Your guide to this summer’s biggest films
Avengers Assemble – Comic book legends Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the
Incredible Hulk, along with a host of supporting players from their respective solo
movies, join forces to save Earth from an other-worldly menace in this winningly
glossy superhero spectacular. Pop culture maven Joss Whedon directs.
Release date: 26 April
Prometheus – Ridley Scott returns to the Alien universe with a sprawling space
exploration epic in which a crew of scientists travels to a distant planet in the hope of
finding mankind’s origins. Instead, they find something considerably nastier. The
red-hot cast includes Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender.
Release date: June 1 – Snow White and the Huntsman
In her first blockbuster role outside of the wildly successful Twilight saga, Kristen
Stewart stars as a sword-wielding Snow White in this expensive-looking, Tolkien-
inflected spin on the evergreen fairy tale. Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Bob
Hoskins number among the dwarfs.
Release date: June 1 – The Amazing Spider-Man
Columbia Pictures takes Marvel’s web-slinger back to his roots, again, in this moody
reboot of the superhero franchise starring Surrey-raised 28-year-old Andrew
Garfield alongside Emma Stone and Martin Sheen. Not only is director Marc Webb
ideally named for the project, his previous film, (500) Days of Summer, suggests he
can handle the swirling twentysomething angst.
Release date: July 4
The Dark Knight Rises – The third and final instalment in British director
Christopher Nolan’s broodingly solemn Batman trilogy pits Christian Bale’s Caped
Crusader against the drawling terrorist kingpin Bane, played by Tom Hardy, and
Anne Hathaway’s light-fingered Catwoman. Breathtaking set pieces and a relevant
social subtext are both promised.
Release date: July 20
By Robbie Collin, Film Critic – 27 Apr 2012 – UK Telegraph