Blockbuster (entertainment)
Blockbuster, as applied to film
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

 or theatre
Theatre is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music or dance...

, denotes a very popular or successful production. The entertainment industry use was originally theatrical slang
Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often to be found in areas of the lexicon that refer to things considered taboo...

 referring to a particularly successful play
Play (theatre)
A play is a form of literature written by a playwright, usually consisting of scripted dialogue between characters, intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading. There are rare dramatists, notably George Bernard Shaw, who have had little preference whether their plays were performed...

 but is now used primarily by the film industry
Film industry
The film industry consists of the technological and commercial institutions of filmmaking: i.e. film production companies, film studios, cinematography, film production, screenwriting, pre-production, post production, film festivals, distribution; and actors, film directors and other film crew...

. The term blockbuster in film generally speaks to the size of both the narrative and the scale of production.

Origin of the term

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" (Chicago Tribune, February 2, 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
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

 cites a 1957 use which is simply as a term of "biggest", after the bombs. Whatever its origin, the term quickly caught on as a way to describe a hit, and has subsequently been applied to productions other than plays and films, including novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

s and multi-million selling computer/console game titles.

In film, a number of terms were used to describe a hit. In the 1970s these included: spectacular (The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal is an American English-language international daily newspaper. It is published in New York City by Dow Jones & Company, a division of News Corporation, along with the Asian and European editions of the Journal....

), super-grosser (New York Times),
and super-blockbuster (Variety
Variety (magazine)
Variety is an American weekly entertainment-trade magazine founded in New York City, New York, in 1905 by Sime Silverman. With the rise of the importance of the motion-picture industry, Daily Variety, a daily edition based in Los Angeles, California, was founded by Silverman in 1933. In 1998, the...

. In 1975 the usage of 'blockbuster' for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg
Steven Allan Spielberg KBE is an American film director, screenwriter, producer, video game designer, and studio entrepreneur. In a career of more than four decades, Spielberg's films have covered many themes and genres. Spielberg's early science-fiction and adventure films were seen as an...

's Jaws
Jaws (film)
Jaws is a 1975 American horror-thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Peter Benchley's novel of the same name. In the story, the police chief of Amity Island, a fictional summer resort town, tries to protect beachgoers from a giant man-eating great white shark by closing the beach,...

, 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.

Blockbuster films

Before Jaws set box office records in the summer of 1975, successful films such as Quo Vadis (1951 film)
Quo Vadis (1951 film)
Quo Vadis is a 1951 epic film made by MGM. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and produced by Sam Zimbalist, from a screenplay by John Lee Mahin, S. N. Behrman and Sonya Levien, adapted from Henryk Sienkiewicz's classic 1896 novel Quo Vadis. The music score was by Miklós Rózsa and the cinematography...

, The Ten Commandments (1956 film)
The Ten Commandments (1956 film)
The Ten Commandments is a 1956 American epic film that dramatized the biblical story of the Exodus, in which the Hebrew-born Moses, an adopted Egyptian prince, becomes the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves. The film, released by Paramount Pictures in VistaVision on October 5, 1956, was directed by...

, Gone With the Wind
Gone with the Wind (film)
Gone with the Wind is a 1939 American historical epic film adapted from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer-winning 1936 novel of the same name. It was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Victor Fleming from a screenplay by Sidney Howard...

, and Ben-Hur
Ben-Hur (1959 film)
Ben-Hur is a 1959 American epic film directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the title role, the third film adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The screenplay was written by Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Fry. The score was composed by...

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.

Jaws exceeded $100,000,000 in ticket sales and for a time this was the point at which a film could be designated a blockbuster in North America. However earlier films such as Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music (film)
Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is a 1965 American musical film directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The film is based on the Broadway musical The Sound of Music, with songs written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and with the musical...

 (1965) easily passed this threshold.

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. Spielberg and his fellow filmmaker George Lucas
George Lucas
George Walton Lucas, Jr. is an American film producer, screenwriter, and director, and entrepreneur. He is the founder, chairman and chief executive of Lucasfilm. He is best known as the creator of the space opera franchise Star Wars and the archaeologist-adventurer character Indiana Jones...

 (whose 1977 film Star Wars
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, originally released as Star Wars, is a 1977 American epic space opera film, written and directed by George Lucas. It is the first of six films released in the Star Wars saga: two subsequent films complete the original trilogy, while a prequel trilogy completes the...

was the most successful film of that decade) are the film-makers most closely associated with the beginning of the blockbuster era.

Although the term 'blockbuster' was originally defined by audience response, after a while the term 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 Hollywood's Godzilla
Godzilla (1998 film)
Godzilla is a 1998 science fiction monster disaster film film co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich. It is a loose remake of the 1954 giant monster classic Godzilla. The storyline was conceived from a screenplay written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin. The film relates a tale of a nuclear incident...

(1998) or Last Action Hero
Last Action Hero
Last Action Hero is a 1993 American action-comedy-fantasy film directed and produced by John McTiernan. It is a satire of the action genre and its clichés, containing several parodies of action films in the form of films within the film....

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
New Hollywood
New Hollywood or post-classical Hollywood, sometimes referred to as the "American New Wave", refers to the time from roughly the late-1960s to the early 1980s when a new generation of young filmmakers came to prominence in America, influencing the types of films produced, their production and...

 era. This view is taken, for example, by film journalist Peter Biskind
Peter Biskind
Peter Biskind is a journalist, former executive editor of Premiere magazine, and the author of numerous books depicting life in Hollywood, including Seeing Is Believing, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Down and Dirty Pictures, and Gods and Monsters...

, 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
Tom Shone
Tom Shone is a British film critic and writer. He was the Sunday Times film critic from 1994-9 and has written for Slate, the New Yorker, the New York Times and the London Daily Telegraph....

, 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
The Long Tail
The Long Tail or long tail refers to the statistical property that a larger share of population rests within the tail of a probability distribution than observed under a 'normal' or Gaussian distribution...

, he mentions the many different possibilities the Blockbuster film brought to Hollywood, and the many ancillary markets that followed. He even states that a society that is hit-driven, and only makes way and room for films that are expected to be a hit, is in fact a limited society. Anderson notes in The Long Tail
The Long Tail
The Long Tail or long tail refers to the statistical property that a larger share of population rests within the tail of a probability distribution than observed under a 'normal' or Gaussian distribution...

, the example of a world that thrives on that is a world of scarcity. As the transition of online distribution made way, what was seen evidently was that we are now entering 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 too. If a movie was a blockbuster hit, it may have only seem that way to the people that traveled to spend their money on it. For the individuals that did not, their voices were somewhat silent. And when directors would sit down, to make a blueprint of another blockbuster film, they would only keep in mind the reviews of the people that watched the film, instead of a collective whole.

Low-budget hits

When a film, made on a low budget, is particularly successful or exceeds the expectations of the films in its genre, then those films are blockbusters as well, in the original meaning of the word. These films may not receive the title 'blockbuster' in the original meaning of the word, but are labeled 'hits' or 'sleepers
Sleeper hit
A sleeper hit, a.k.a. surprise hit , refers to a film, book, single, album, TV show, or video game that gains unexpected success or recognition...


Return on Investment

Film producers, in an era where producing blockbuster films runs a high risk due to the budgets exceeding $200,000,000.00, have been distributing small, but promising, low budget films with the hopes of capitalizing on the modern market's film consumption. The term sleeper hit may not always apply to films that take in large gross sales, but films that yield extreme profits based on investment. A number of films have been produced at extremely low budgets that have had proportionately high ticket sales, producing a very high return on investment to their respective studios.

Examples of this are the 2004 documentary film, Tarnation, whose budget weighed in at $218 and whose ticket sales totaled $1.16 million, a profit margin of 266,416.97%. A more famous example is the 2009 thriller Paranormal Activity, which operated on a budget of $15,000 and took in over $196 million in worldwide ticket sales. Other low-budget-high-gross films include The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 American horror film pieced together from amateur footage. The film was produced by the Haxan Films production company. The film relates the story of three student filmmakers The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 American horror film pieced together from amateur...

, American Graffiti
American Graffiti
American Graffiti is a 1973 coming of age film co-written/directed by George Lucas starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford...

, and Napoleon Dynamite
Napoleon Dynamite
Napoleon Dynamite is a 2004 comedy film co-written and directed by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess and stars Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite. The film was Jared Hess' first full-length feature and is partially adapted from his earlier short film, Peluca....


As previously stated, studios are somewhat wary of budgetary expenditures, leading to the era of the sleeper
A sleeper is a person who is sleeping. It may also refer to:-Music:* Sleeper , a Britpop band in the 1990s* The Sleepers , a punk/post-punk band active from 1978 until 1981...

. These films, as their name would imply, are unexpected hits. However this is not to say every low budget film sees a return on the investment. As with any industry, especially an industry this volatile, there are risks to consider. As an example, the 2006 indie film Zyzzyx Road
Zyzzyx Road
Zyzzyx Road is a 2006 independent thriller film. It stars Leo Grillo, Katherine Heigl, and Tom Sizemore. The screenplay was written by John Penney, who also directed the film. The film has gained a degree of notoriety due to its extremely low U.S. box office gross .-Plot:Grant is an accountant...

 had a modest budget of 1.2 million, (which according to the Screen Actor's Guild, any film budgeted less than 2.5 million would be considered low budget) and grossed only $30 dollars at the box office.

See also

  • Box office bomb
    Box office bomb
    The phrase box office bomb refers to a film for which the production and marketing costs greatly exceeded the revenue regained by the movie studio. This should not be confused with Hollywood accounting when official figures show large losses, yet the movie is a financial success.A film's financial...

  • Oscar season
    Oscar season
    Oscar season is the time period in which Hollywood studios release their more critically acclaimed films, hoping to win at the Academy Awards. Oscar season usually begins in the fall, around November, although the date in which the summer blockbuster season ends and the Oscar season begins are...

  • List of biggest opening weekends
  • List of highest-grossing films
  • Sleeper hit
    Sleeper hit
    A sleeper hit, a.k.a. surprise hit , refers to a film, book, single, album, TV show, or video game that gains unexpected success or recognition...

  • Four-quadrant movie
    Four-quadrant movie
    In the movie industry, a "four-quadrant movie" is one which appeals to all four major demographic "quadrants" of the moviegoing audience: both male and female, over and under 25 years old....

External links

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