What makes a great blockbuster? Action? Romance? Explosions? A huge budget? We’ve made it our mission to answer that question once and for all, ahead of our upcoming ORWAV blockbuster season.
We’ll be voting on our favourite blockbusters of all time and writing about why we love them so much, but before then we need to know exactly what counts as a blockbuster. For that, I’m joined by our copy editor Calum Baker, and Eddie Falvey.
So Eddie, as the man who suggested the idea, do you want to kick us off with a brief definition of a blockbuster?
Eddie: So, naturally, the definition is flexible. Blockbuster was a term that emerged in WWII to describe bombs large enough to take out a whole block, a definition that pre-empts the critical notion of a blockbuster as a studio film that costs a lot to make, a lot to market, and “takes out the block”, so to speak. I define blockbusters as highly visible tentpole pictures that target the widest possible viewership.
Calum: It is interesting to use that definition (which I agree with) when the blockbuster in question seems more low-key; for instance, Rear Window, or Cast Away.
Tom: Yes, I agree with the definition of a blockbuster as the kind of huge tentpole film designed to attract a mass audience e.g. Jurassic Park, Star Wars, but my problem is the way that definition seems to have changed over the years.
A lot of the blockbusters in my lifetime are more explicitly of the sci-fi, action, spectacle-oriented ilk. Something like Rear Window may be a blockbuster in terms of mass appeal and intent, but it feels a million miles away from… say… the Fast and the Furious franchise.
Calum: Precisely. Don’t forget for decades the musical was also a near-guaranteed blockbuster genre in the same way superhero films are today.
Eddie: That’s why a degree of flexibility is essential. Money on screen has always pulled in the punters – think of the historical epics of the silent era and all those Vitagraph “quality” films that preceded them.
Tom: So if the unifying thread through all this is mass appeal and big budgets, what makes a great blockbuster in terms of what ends up on screen? Is there a genre or tone that links them?
Calum: I think they have to be essentially aspirational, at the end of it all. There are a huge number of downbeat exceptions, but you could safely say the majority are quite positive, to varying extents. Even looking at two darker blockbusters of the last ten years – The Dark Knight and, even more brutal, Logan – both actually contain quite “heroic” messages, which a lot of people are compelled by.
Eddie: Darkness is cool. I agree that they aim to reconfigure the screen hero slightly, but they are tapping into something different from, say, Spider-Man.
Tom: I think it’s a pretty solid component of the blockbuster if only because selling a positive message is a big part of appealing to a mass audience. There’s a certain kind of performative darkness that creeps into most blockbuster franchises in particular, but at the end they all still sell a heroic ideal.
Calum: Yeah, my above examples basically present as dark, dark films but they’re nothing compared to many non-mainstream films – if they were, they wouldn’t be mainstream any more.
Tom: So how do we approach films that appeal to a mass audience, but didn’t necessarily have a huge budget? Sleeper hits, basically.
Eddie: Are we talking the likes of Blair Witch, Pulp Fiction, Clerks? All independents: Indiewood at best.
Tom: Yeah, it’s all a sliding scale obviously, but I’m talking the kind of films that weren’t necessarily made as mega-budget blockbusters, but share a similar spirit and ended up selling very well.
Calum: Sleeper hits can often be the result of a non-blockbuster being marketed with a relatively blockbuster approach, which does make them a close cousin. The Weinstein machine of the ’90s for example.
Eddie: But that’s the problem: the term blockbuster doesn’t just describe reception, it describes a film’s creation. These films only have half of the ingredients. Such films have developed cultural capital sure, but they are not blockbusters.
Calum: The actual money made isn’t the point here though – it’s the marketing approach and spirit. We all know Pulp Fiction didn’t set the box office alight so much as singe it a bit.
Eddie: Sure, but we need to draw some boundaries right? Otherwise it ends up a big, incestuous melting pot. I’m still saying that profitable independents and blockbusters are not the same thing.
Industrial context is, in my opinion, the ONLY thing that determines a blockbuster from something else. Everything else is malleable.
Tom: OK, so how about films that were designed as blockbusters, but sold terribly? Let’s look at Batman v Superman from last year. Pre-release there was no clearer example of a blockbuster, but it badly underperformed financial expectations.
Calum: I would always count them because of the context, but then add a caveat like “failed”.
Eddie: I agree. And I think they are actually a useful means of identifying blockbusters aside from box office numbers which can be distracting.
Tom: I can see that a big budget might be the technically correct definition, but to be honest, the way I’m deciding my favourites at the moment is based quite a lot on spectacle. I’ve been thinking about potential films a lot this month and some just feel right as blockbusters and some don’t. The connecting line is they all prioritise spectacle, whether that’s in the more modern context of something like Avengers Assemble or The Matrix with their slo-mo, kung-fu and explosions or a far older example like Sherlock Jr., with its brilliant stunts.
Eddie: Well, the reason we get a lot of literal “bang” for our moviegoing bucks is because spectacle sells. It’s most often associated with studio films because effects are expensive to put on screen. But while blockbusters often have big spectacles, that alone does not automatically qualify a film as a blockbuster. Industry context must be taken into account.
Tom: I think the following question would help: is there a film or two that you’re considering for your list but aren’t sure if they count as blockbusters?
Calum: I’m quite confident in mine actually, but I still find it hard to think of all the Chaplin entries we’re bandying about in our behind-the-scenes conversations as “blockbusters”.
Eddie: I think late Chaplin counts. Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, Great Dictator.
Tom: Yeah, I watched The Kid last night actually, and very much enjoyed it, but I found it hard to consider as a blockbuster. For me, there wasn’t enough spectacle compared to a contemporary like Keaton. Though low-key vaudeville clowning counts as its own kind of spectacle I guess.
Eddie: Sin City confused me a little. It’s ostensibly an independent with all the characteristics of a blockbuster.
Calum: Budget and box office please?
Eddie: $40 million and $160 million.
Calum: Hmm. And in 2005 money… it edges it, definitely.
Tom: Mm, I’d probably count it, though if anything my hesitation would be on it feeling more like an action film than a blockbuster. Which is quite a tenuous distinction on its own. E.g. Hard Boiled is on the rough shortlist I’m making, but it feels more an action film.
Calum: I think it’s a fallacy to compare “action films” and blockbusters. One isn’t a genre. “Blockbuster”, as we’ve established, can be many things.
Eddie: Looking at the figures, Barry Lyndon is a blockbuster.
Calum: And A Clockwork Orange.
Tom: Let me give you two more borderline cases, which I’m considering, just for fun. For both of which I’d broadly offer the “spectacle” defence: The Thin Red Line and Man with a Movie Camera.
Tom: If it helps, The Thin Red Line’s budget was $52 million in 1998 with a global box office of $98 million.
Eddie: Yes for Thin Red Line. War movies are staple blockbusters. Also $52m budget in 1998 is biiig.
Tom: On the other hand, Man with a Movie Camera fails my second, rough litmus test for a blockbuster, which is: “Has my mum heard of this film?”
Calum: Ha! I’d argue for Man with a Movie Camera though. On the basis of its own production context it’s a huge, attention-grabbing show-off with cutting-edge tech.
Eddie: It is. But it’s also a formal experiment. I think its commercial success is secondary to its aspiration towards formal innovation.
Calum: Couldn’t you argue a similar point for certain “obvious” blockbusters? Titanic? A technical show-off (and excuse for maritime exploration) dressed up as love story?
Eddie: I think you can show off while producing what is otherwise a commercial product. Titanic is the embodiment of high-concept blockbuster filmmaker (just look at that poster).
Tom: I’d like to move towards a conclusion, but there is one last thing which has become very apparent during this debate and which I feel I have to acknowledge. The vast majority of these blockbusters are very very male, aren’t they?
Eddie: Thank you, Peter Pan syndrome.
Calum: I do think – pre-empting your question here – that that’s an issue of opportunities for women rather than an inherently male trait. That is, blockbusters don’t have to be “male”, or “masculine”, but they historically have been.
Tom: Agreed. As Bigelow, Patty Jenkins and the Wachowskis, to name the most obvious few, have shown us, women can obviously make great blockbusters. That big-budget arena was just closed to them for a long time because Hollywood didn’t want to “take a chance”.
Eddie: There was a common misconception that young boys will watch what older boys will but not vice versa and girls will watch what boys will watch but not vice versa. Therefore, the target audience member is a 17-year-old boy – Peter Pan syndrome. It’s nice to see that that’s being challenged finally.
Tom: I’d like to finish by helping to show how broad the boundaries of a blockbuster can be. What’s a film on your list that people may not immediately think of as a blockbuster?
Eddie: 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it’s spectacle you’re after, it has it in spades. It’s the best evidence that you can appeal to a wide audience without having to undermine their intelligence.
Calum: It Happened One Night? Only because it’s an old comedy, and as we’ve said before I don’t think anyone really thinks of those as “blockbusters”.
Tom: Mine would be something like Howl’s Moving Castle.
Eddie: We haven’t really touched upon animation. Toy Story has been flirting with my top 20.
Tom: We haven’t, but we should make it clear, it definitely counts!
Calum: I also have Ratatouille very high, which isn’t even a particularly blockbuster-y Pixar film.
Eddie: To conclude, I stand by my position that the “blockbuster” is a highly flexible term to describe a certain type of film. By type I don’t mean genre, I mean product. The blockbuster is the staple product of Hollywood, a carefully planned, executed, and marketed commodity that sets the global market in its sights and, more often than not, “takes it out”.
Tom: Yes, the one obvious takeaway from this debate is that the blockbuster is a very broad category, encompassing countless genres, styles and scales. The closest definition we have is probably a film designed for a mass audience, normally relying on a big budget to put spectacle on the screen. But beyond that loose boundary it’s a pretty flexible term, and that’s what’s so great about it.
Keep your eyes on ORWAV next month for our blockbuster season, where we’ll be voting for and writing about our favourite blockbusters of all time!