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Culture, Film

The Birth and Death of the Summer Blockbuster

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It’s safe to say that nowadays blockbuster films are two to a penny. Big-budgeted films (with even bigger marketing budgets) dominate the multiplexes all year round. The choice year upon year is so indulgent (putting it mildly) that it’s hard to remember the golden-age of the blockbuster where films were few and far between, released during the summer months and generating a buzz that you’d struggle find amongst the plethora of superhero and fantasy epics of today.

Before the 1970s the term ‘summer blockbuster’ was a non-entity. Big studios generally avoided releasing films during this time, considering it something of a no-man’s land. The mentality at that time was dictated by the fear of committing commercial suicide. Positing that the majority of cinema-goers were a younger audience, studios predicted they’d be spending their summer basking in the sun (when you could actually predict the weather), rather than a sweaty theatre. It wasn’t until 1975 that Universal took a punt and released a film with every intent on scaring the beach-goers back into the cinema. Through word of mouth and an (for the time) unprecedented $1.8 million marketing campaign, Steven Spielberg’s third feature-length film made him a household name, became the highest grossing film of all time (until a certain space-opera took that accolade) and almost certainly made an entire generation fearful of open water – I’m of course talking about Jaws and the birth of the summer blockbuster.

Despite a notoriously difficult production and musings within the industry that Spielberg would never work as a director again, Jaws went on to become the first film ever to exceed $100 million in theatrical rentals. Contradicting the summer lull that studios had avoided and setting the blueprint –for all other blockbuster films that came after it (not only in terms of concept but promotionally), Jaws has fully embedded itself within popular culture.

The idea was to create high-concept, easily describable and highly marketable features that could be capitalised upon through merchandising. Achieved through the aforementioned high marketing budgets, rather than slowly build and filter a film’s release over several months, the aim was to saturate the market with heavy advertising across various mediums and a nationwide release. The risks that Universal took to release Jaws are nothing short of amazing, it’s the kind of risk-taking that would never be seen today, a true innovation within the industry where auteurism and commercial viability married perfectly.

Fast forward to 1977 – if Jaws was the inception of the summer blockbuster, laying down the foundations to a sure-fire profitable business plan, Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope almost certainly elevated the concept to the cultural phenomenon we know today. Similar to Jaws, Star Wars wasn’t an easy journey. Its writer and director, George Lucas, was still relatively new to the industry (with Star Wars also being his third feature) and there were concerns surrounding the large budget sitting in inexperienced hands. Several studios passed on the idea – one of which, ironically was Disney, until it reached 20th Century Fox (can you spot a theme here?). Again, production wasn’t plain sailing; the project went over budget, the newly founded Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) were struggling to achieve the then-groundbreaking effects work and Lucas was diagnosed with hypertension as a result of the pressures of the shoot. Despite all the blood, sweat and tears Star Wars surpassed all expectations, it out-grossed its precursor, went on to win six Academy Awards and generated, quite frankly, the most astonishingly expansive merchandising campaign ever produced by a feature. It’s reported that the first six films in the saga have made roughly $20 billion in merchandising revenue alone.

Moving into the 80s the concept of the summer blockbuster was an annual anticipation, utilising the model set up so perfectly by Jaws and Star Wars. Thinking about it now, the majority of the most beloved big event films sit in the 1980s. You could almost call it the Golden Age of the summer blockbuster – ET, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Aliens, Bladerunner, the list is endless, but the quality of the writing, directing and acting remained intact making these films timeless and accessible for generations to come. The vision that Universal had for Jaws was successfully being used by other studios. As a child in particular, growing up with these films from the 80s, and to a lesser extent the 90s, made for some wonderfully nostalgic celluloid memories. This would however come at a price.

In 1993 Jurassic Park was released. Despite not being the first film to use computer-generated imagery (CGI) to enhance practical effects, it almost certainly revolutionised it. The results were fantastic still hold up to this day. This sent shockwaves amongst its studio peers causing a reactive response where the writing, directing and in some cases, the acting, took a back seat in favour of overblown CGI set-pieces. These are the big-dumb-fun films that dominated the 90s and moved into the new millennium. You could argue that the same could be said of any big film made after Jaws however, using my own young children as guinea pigs, I can honestly say that they prefer the films I grew up with over the majority of modern blockbusters. I don’t want to stigmatise the modern-day blockbuster – there are some fantastic films out there and franchises that have a connective breadth I could only dream of as a child. What Marvel have achieved (even with the thematically well-worn formula) is nothing short of extraordinary, tapping into a new generation’s pop culture consciousness that I only ever imagined Star Wars achieving. There are also some brilliant directors out there whose films generate the buzz of old in the buildup to their release; the likes of Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are bringing ‘event’ cinema back to the masses.

You may be wondering where the ‘death’ part may appear in all of this; big films of today are making hundreds of millions, merchandising and marketing campaigns are financially rewarding and release dates aren’t just limited to the summer months, they’re all year round. But this is my issue; the market is so overloaded that the modern-day blockbuster is taken for granted in a day and age where supply and demand forces the studio’s hand. There are so many blockbusters released throughout the year that it’s become the norm – expectation has replaced anticipation and originality has often been sacrificed for a more financially reliable cookie-cutter approach. The summer blockbuster simply doesn’t exist the way I remembered, where innovation was granted a pedestal and studios took a financial risk to release it. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on what you want to see within a film but there is no denying that what Jaws and Star Wars did for the industry, and more importantly the modern blockbuster, was create a monster.


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