The Blockbuster and the Death Of Hollywood (?)

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the big boom as much as the next guy. Cinematic thrill rides still move me.  A great fight  makes me walking out of the theatre looking to get in one and a great car chase makes me push the pedal a little bit harder.  But honestly, is that all there is?   I watch a lot of classic movies and by classic, I don’t mean the original Star Wars trilogy (although those are classics for their time).  By classic, I mean movies in black and white, with actors who, for the most part, are now deceased.  My favorite era is 1935 to 1945, a fertile period unmatched for sheer great film quantity and quality, but that is another blog entirely.  My point here is that when others (my family and those I work with and for) are forced to watch these movies, they invariably say the same thing, “They’re just so sloooow.”  (To which I respond, in my head, “No, it’s just the person watching.”)  To be honest, it’s not their fault.  This generation (and to a large extent the last) has been weened on a relatively recent development in the movie world, the blockbuster.  Fast-paced, plot-anemic blockbusters.

The term ‘blockbuster’ stems from the theatrical world where, it is said, a popular and high-grossing play would ‘bust’ the other theatres on the block and drive them out of business.  In the movie world, the term came into use in the mid-1970’s, coinciding with the release and subsequent success of the first bona-fide movie ‘blockbuster’, Jaws.  Before Jaws, there were massively popular movies, like The Sound Of Music and Gone With the Wind (which, if tickets prices are adjusted for inflation, is far and away the biggest grossing movie of all time.  Take that, George Lucas!) and the term would refer to their box office gross but Jaws started a trend that would change the way movies are made and marketed.  These movies would be termed ‘event movies’ and eventually ‘tentpole movies’, meaning that a large portion of the studio’s money and power would fall behind one movie, usually opening in the summer that would be expected to carry the studio through the bulk of the year, thus the ‘pole’ that holds up the ‘tent’.  This thinking has so changed the way we see movies and the movies that we see that the studios fight, sometimes years in advance, over what weekend their ‘blockbuster’ will open (now movies are called blockbusters before they have made a single penny) so generally, only one movie will open each weekend throughout the summer, especially in the first two months. 

This attitude has changed the way movies are made as well.  Each ‘blockbuster’ has to be bigger, faster and more fantastic than the last which increases the budget through special effects almost exclusively to the detriment of the story and acting.  The story has become secondary, something to hang on the glorious effects.  Granted, last year’s Iron Man and this year’s Star Trek show you can have a successful marriage of story and effects but unfortunately, these are the exceptions to the rule.  Before the 1970’s, movies seemed to be more intelligent, to speak more to the audience.  There wasn’t the need for wall-to-wall because there were characters that we wanted to spend time with between the action.  Film excellence and popularity were not mutually exclusive and here’s some numbers to back that up.  In 1945, the Oscar for Best Picture went to The Lost Weekend which was the number nine box office grosser that year.  In 1950, Best Picture All About Eve was also number nine.  The Ten Commandments, 1956 Best Picture winner was number one and 1960’s Oscar choice, The Apartment was number eight.  Conversely, last year’s winner, Slumdog Millionaire was a somewhat respectable number sixteen, however the previous year was thirty-six (No Country For Old Men), 2005 was forty-nine (Crash) and 2004, twenty-four (Million Dollar Baby).  Get my point?

Attendance numbers have also drastically dwindled and continue to do so.  Although box office groses often range in the hundreds of millions, the fact is that the ticket prices have grown exponentially in the last 20 years.  The average North American movie ticket price in 1980 was $2.69 and this year promises to top $7.50.  In 1960, though, the average ticket price was a measly 75 cents.  Factoring in box office, Gone With the Wind had 206 million admissions, The Sound Of Music had 154 million and The Ten Commandments had 131 million.  Modern day?  Last year’s box office giant, The Dark Knight, had just 72 million while 2004’s Shrek 2 had 74 million and Pirates Of the Caribbean 3 had a (relatively) measly 64 million.  Now I realize that there is so much more to occupy our easily distracted minds than there was 50 years ago but conversely, the population of North America has doubled in that time yet the movie attendance numbers continue to dwindle.  The advent of home theatre and DVD will continue to cut into these, as well.

So, is this the death of Hollywood?  Well, I don’t think we have to pick out a black suit yet but the fact is, the times, they are a-changin’ and Hollywood is going to have to change as well.  The phoenix-like resurgence of 3-D is certainly a good sign that someone in La-La-Land is thinking but it will eventually take more than a pair of goofy glasses to stay alive.

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