The Rise, Fall, and Unlikely Rebirth of the Hollywood Blockbuster

What is a blockbuster in 2023?

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The Summer Blockbuster Issue

Once upon a time, the summer blockbuster season was limited to just that — the summer. But over the past decade, it seems like blockbuster season has expanded to fill the entire year.

Marvel Studios, the most reliable blockbuster machine of the modern era, used to only release movies between May and August. Then, in 2018, Black Panther dropped in February, once a dead zone for major releases, and quickly became the biggest movie of the year. Now, rarely does a month pass without a mega-budget, VFX-filled franchise installment.

And that is, essentially, our modern definition of a blockbuster: big, loud, full of CGI, and (most importantly) familiar. These days, it often feels less like a blockbuster is something we’re genuinely excited for and more like something we’re culturally obligated to see. It’s safe, it’s predictable, and all those visual effects will look better on the big screen than on our TV.

But how did we get here? And is there any hope for a different kind of blockbuster movie? To answer those questions, we have to go back to the director who started it all: Steven Spielberg.

An Abridged History of the Blockbuster Movie

Jaws is credited as being the first modern blockbuster.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

It’s common knowledge that, in the summer of 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws created the modern blockbuster. But at the time of its release, there had already been plenty of action epics (like Ben-Hur) and jaw-dropping spectacles (like 2001: A Space Odyssey). What was different about Jaws was the way it was released. Back then, Hollywood movies would open in one city and then slowly roll out across the country over a period of months. Jaws took a different approach. Accompanied by a marketing blitz on television, it opened across the country on the same day.

Jaws would remain the No. 1 movie in America for the entire summer of 1975, playing in theaters for months and making nearly 30 times its budget. Hollywood quickly shifted to prioritize high-concept, spectacle-driven films that could open big and play to a wide audience. Instead of a movie taking up to a year to make a profit, now, you could have a hit within days of release. As Roger Ebert put it, the impact of movies like Jaws and Star Wars was “inspiring executives to go for the home run instead of the base hit.”

Half a century later, it seems obvious Jaws and Star Wars would become the biggest hits of their time, but when they arrived, they were not the familiar properties they are now. Star Wars was once “an original movie,” that thing Hollywood now fears. And the blockbusters that came in their wake were nothing like what we expect from our big-budget tentpoles today.

They were R-rated horror movies like The Amityville Horror, The Omen, or Alien; supernatural romantic dramas like Ghost; and comedies featuring Saturday Night Live alumni like Ghostbusters or Beverly Hills Cop. Even E.T. is an unlikely candidate for one of the biggest blockbusters of all time: an emotional coming-of-age movie set in the suburbs (that, yes, happens to have an alien).

As much as producers tried to refine the formula for blockbuster-sized hits (to varying degrees of success), it was never an exact science. Often, when studios attempted to replicate the success of one movie, like Disney’s Star Wars knockoff The Black Hole, they would underperform. None of the three Jaws sequels came close to the success of the original.

When it came to blockbusters, the hook was seeing something new — a new kind of story, a new twist on a familiar concept, and often, as this was in the Industrial Light & Magic-driven days of breakthrough visual effects, new awe-inspiring sights. Superman, one of the biggest hits of the late ’70s, sold itself on the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.”

Tim Burton’s Batman provided the blueprint for our current blockbuster era — for better or for worse.

Warner Bros.

In the 25 years that followed Jaws, the biggest blockbusters of each year were rarely sequels (Star Wars installments were the notable exceptions). Most years, the movies that audiences gravitated toward the most, the ones that stuck around in theaters for months thanks to constant repeat viewings, were new original films. But in the early 21st century, that started to change.

You could argue that our current era begins with 1989’s Batman (a familiar property originally aimed at children with huge franchise potential, a massive budget, and a movie star in the lead role). Since 2004, the top movie of every single year has been part of an established franchise (the sole exception being the first Avatar in 2009). As silly as it sounds, it’s easy to get nostalgic for the not-too-distant time of 1996, when the big movies of the year were Twister and Independence Day.

The box office strategy for blockbusters in the 21st century is to open to a massive first weekend, then drop off steeply, and be gone from theaters after a month or so. Financial success is more a demonstration of successful marketing than genuine audience passion.

Early blockbusters made their money over a longer period of time, becoming hits because of real enthusiasm and word of mouth keeping them alive for months. These days, it’s hard to tell whether blockbusters are really popular or if we’re just so bombarded by marketing hype that we show up that first week out of obligation and then promptly forget about them. Disney’s 2019 remake of The Lion King made over $1.6 billion, a staggering amount of money — but have you ever heard a single person say they love that movie? Or that they’ve watched it again at home?

Maybe the best gauge for determining real popularity is what’s known as a movie’s “multiplier” (how much of its money was made after its opening weekend). Finding this requires a bit of math. You divide the movie’s total box office by its opening weekend box office. A higher multiplier means more people saw the movie after opening weekend, either returning for repeat viewings or seeing it later based on positive word of mouth. Terminator 2 (1991) had a $31 million opening weekend and went on to gross $201 million domestically, earning it a multiplier of 6.5. Men in Black (1997) has a multiplier of 4.9.

Most hit blockbusters from the past 20 years have a multiplier around 2 or 3. Last year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness had a multiplier of 2.2. Avengers: Endgame, for a time the highest-grossing movie of all time, had a multiplier of 2.4.

Can the Blockbuster Be Saved?

With the one-two punch of Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, the blockbuster showed signs of life again.

Paramount Pictures

In the past year, there have been some signs that the original breed of blockbuster might still be alive. Two 2022 releases, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, each have a multiplier above 5, the highest of nearly any blockbuster in the 21st century (beaten only by the original Avatar).

Both Top Gun and Avatar generated a lot of talk about how “refreshingly old-fashioned” they were, but I think that really just means they prioritized the things the best blockbusters of the earlier era delivered. Each film sold itself largely on awe-inspiring spectacle, promising to show the audience something new, either with astonishing aerial photography and stuntwork or an immersive, detailed alien world. While both were sequels, they didn’t feel like episodes in a long-running TV series. Neither film bothered with a post-credits scene teasing the next installment, a practice that has become standard for blockbusters. Even if we know there’s an Avatar 3 coming in a few years, The Way of Water offered a fully satisfying, transporting experience, that people went back to see again and again over a period of months.

While some might knock these movies for being “hokey” or “cliched” (although both did receive Best Picture nominations at this year’s Oscars), they feel like the kind of blockbuster we haven’t seen in a long time. Ones where the emotional rush you get watching them comes not from recognizing a cameo of a character from another film, but from good, old-fashioned, exciting storytelling with real stakes. And while Hollywood spent the last two decades training audiences to flock to the safe and familiar, to the brands they can recycle forever, the success of these movies shows they still have an appetite for the classic blockbuster experience. Next step: Get people to show up for this in a movie that’s not a sequel.

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