Is the blockbuster killing film studios?

Arthur Velker

The smell of heated popcorn kernels fills the nasal cavities as you slowly make your way down a carpeted hall, scanning the doors for a number corresponding with your ticket label.

Inside, a flight of stairs extends past the aisles of fold-up seating to the back of the room, where, from a subtle opening, an artificial ray of light shoots out onto a projector screen.

Despite increasing video portability and a rise of movie-streaming platforms, the age-old charm that accompanies a night at the cinema is still alive. The movies we once knew and craved, however, are long gone: as the Hollywood-induced ‘blockbuster’ twitches on its slab, a resurrection of the director-pioneered model of filmmaking looks to be on the horizon.

A quick review of the top ten box office grossers of last year shows that seven out of ten of the films can be put into either a category of: remake; sequel; or franchise. In 2015, that figure stood at six. In 1995, it was one film.

While global box office earnings pretty much remained consistent over the past five years, indicators show there is a drastic decline among moviegoers between the ages of 18 to 25.

It seems the overreliance on sequels  is distancing film studios from their most valuable demographic.   

Quantitative analysis gathered by Vox also shows that critics’ acclaim for high-grossing movies has waned through the years. The dotted line forms a ski slope steep descent across the graph.

The conundrum closely resembles the New Hollywood revolution of the 1960s, when family-run film studios were driven into the ground by aged executives out of touch with contemporary culture who were forced to give some level of creative control over to a group of small-time apprentice directors just in order to level their finances.

These directors flourished and eventually enjoyed complete control over film production for almost a decade – but then, the blockbuster arrived.

The blockbuster, in all its glory, was brought to life by one of these up-and-coming directors, Steven Spielberg, in the summer of 1975, when he turned the box office’s drabbest time into peak season with his multi-million grossing ‘Jaws’.

Jaws broke the mould in many ways. It was the first studio picture to open in theatres all across the country upon its release – unheard of at the time – and the first movie ever to gross $100m.

Two years later, a relatively unknown director by the name of George Lucas surpassed this record and catapulted to unprecedented heights himself with sci-fi hit ‘Star Wars’, which raked in almost $200m in its opening year.

‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ would completely redefine the way in which the film business operated. The two high-grossers spawned countless products, toys and clothing items, bringing about a business model that saw movies expand into a massive franchise – the business model which ultimately introduced a new phenomenon known as ‘high concept’ to film studios.

“Network executives had a TV-mindset that burned through feature production like a laser, focusing everything on one idea, one image so that the films could be shoehorned into promotional spots,” wrote author and film critic Peter Biskind.

The blockbuster mentality, with its marketable characters and simplistic storylines, went against every fundamental belief of the New Hollywood era – the era that introduced innovative directors like Scorsese and Coppola to the big screens.

Since the end of the 70s, the formula was applied vigorously by studios and it remains the standard template for Hollywood filmmaking today.

For the 21st century, it’s been redefined to include massive-scale explosions and excessive levels of CGI while erasing dialogue, plot context and character development. All of this can be seen in the byproduct of Hollywood’s continued love affair with Marvel and DC comics.

We can find solace in the rising talent of independent cinema and international film. As Derek Thompson of the Atlantic said in 2013, “the future of the movie industry is overseas. Full stop.”

But, sure as the marketing mentality returned to Hollywood studios at the turn of the 80s, the director-led movement will make a comeback. The industry’s response time is drastically slow, but it will come.

Like Biskind said in his book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’: “because movies are expensive and time-consuming to make, Hollywood is always the last to know.”

When that bubble bursts, studios will once again be forced to open the floodgates to a cavalry of new generation’s filmmakers, allowing them to indulge in their fountains of creativity. It’s about time.

Arthur Velker