Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer” and the forthcoming “Woody Allen: A Retrospective.”
’Tis the season to be grumpy about summer movies: cue the usual complaints about too many sequels, superheroes and special effects clogging up the nation’s arteries. Grousing about big studio flicks is almost as much of a tradition as waiting in line to see them. So let’s at least make our gripes accurate. Here are five myths about summer blockbusters.
1. “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were the first.
In fact, the blockbuster mentality — which is to say, B-movies getting the A-list treatment, being heavily marketed, opening wide and racking up massive profits — took hold of the studios a few years earlier, with “Love Story” (1970), “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Exorcist” (1973) all breaking box-office records. “Godfather” producer Robert Evans declared that “the making of blockbusters is the newest art form of the 20th century.”
Nor was “Jaws” the first film to open “wide,” as is frequently claimed. In 1971, “Billy Jack” opened in 1,200 cinemas, far exceededing the 465 of “Jaws,” which was reduced from a planned 900 by Universal’s Lew Wasserman so that demand for Spielberg’s film exceeded supply. “Star Wars,” meanwhile, opened in just 43 cinemas — in today’s terms, it was the “sleeper” hit of 1977. They were, however, the first movies to break $100 million, and they did so by pioneering the modern, visceral movie-as-thrill-ride, racking up repeat viewings in a way “The Godfather” never did, as people went back for more.
2. Size matters.
So read the posters for “Godzilla” (1998), one of the biggest busts of the ’90s. Today, superheroes do battle with supervillains, decimating our megacities and turning skyscrapers to tinder in their efforts to save the universe (again). In the new “Jurassic World,” the T. rex makes way for the bigger, bulkier Indominus rex, because, as one character says, “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore.” An unpromising sentiment in a movie about dinosaurs.
But the break-out star of the first “Jurassic Park” was not the T. rex but the much smaller velociraptor — smart, fast and lethal. The first generation of blockbusters was made up of such David and Goliath narratives, setting speed and cunning against size, with speed and cunning winning. Spielberg had the option of casting Charlton Heston, the biggest disaster-movie star of the day, in “Jaws,” but went instead for Richard Dreyfuss as his nerdy ichthyologist. He cast Roy Scheider as the hydrophobic police chief, telling him, “I don’t want to ever feel you could kill that shark.” He filled “Jaws” with physical cowards. “Star Wars,” too, was a hymn to the little guy. “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” Princess Leia asks a disguised Luke, who uses the Empire’s size against it, running X-wings down the gulleys of the Death Star.
The rebels vs. the Death Star, Marty McFly vs. Biff, the T-1000 vs. Schwarzenegger’s bulkier Terminator — the Porsche to Arnie’s Panzer, in the words of James Cameron. The “Titanic” director understood better than anyone how the mighty fall.
3. Blockbusters are as American as apple pie.
When “Jurassic Park” opened in France in 1993, Culture Minister Jacques Toubon declared the movie “a threat to French national identity” and said that it was every Frenchman’s “patriotic duty” to see the French period drama “Germinal” instead. The Liberation newspaper called on Prime Minister Édouard Balladur “to confront, with renewed muscle, the yankosaurs who menace our country.”
But a year later, Hollywood’s overseas profits outstripped its domestic ones, a crucial tip of the seesaw that has only grown more acute. These days, a movie like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” makes more than half of its profits overseas. China, the world’s fastest-growing movie market, is expected to eclipse North America in 2020, and Hollywood is shaping and marketing its projects accordingly. You wondered why “Iron Man 3” softened the villainy of the Mandarin, why the Transformers movies featured product placements for Chinese banks and other brands, and why the monsters of “Godzilla” and “Pacific Rim” went on an exclusive, big-city tour of the Pacific? Nine new cinemas open in China every day.
4. Blockbusters are for boys.
Let’s get the nomenclature right: “fanboys.” The merchandise-collecting, DVD-alphabetizing sci-fi nerds, pale of skin and damp of handshake, who are rumored to emerge from their Game Boy-filled man-caves long enough to make the new Marvel movie No. 1 before beating a hasty retreat. It’s true that since “Star Wars,” the studios have zeroed in on teenage boys as the only market obsessive enough for the repeat viewings that keep their blockbusters afloat. “I make movies for teenage boys,” Michael Bay has said. “Oh dear, what a crime.”
But that was before “Twilight,” whose effects were felt at Comic-Con in 2008. Thousands of young, female “Twilight” fans invaded, causing some boys to break out in a cold sweat and walk the convention floor with signs and T-shirts reading “Twilight Ruined Comic-Con!” like hard-line communists confronting the prospect of power-sharing in post-1989 Romania. The myth that only boys can make a movie a blockbuster is shattered fairly regularly these days, with this year boasting “Fifty Shades of Grey”; Disney’s live-action “Cinderella”; the Charlize Theron-dominated and surprisingly feminist “Mad Max: Fury Road”; “Insurgent,” the second installment in the Divergent franchise starring Shailene Woodley; Pixar’s “Inside Out,” about the mind of a 12-year-old girl; and the final installment of the Hunger Games franchise, which has already put star Jennifer Lawrence in the billion-dollar boys’ club.
5. Blockbusters are just mindless fun.
“Opening with lots of zeroes / All we get are superheroes,” Jack Black sang at last year’s Oscars, where a film critiquing comic-book movies as “cultural genocide,” “Birdman,” reigned supreme. The academy’s prejudice against big moneymakers is deep-rooted. When the 1976 Oscar nominations for best director were announced and he found his place taken by Federico Fellini, Spielberg said: “This is called commercial backlash. . . . Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a winner.” Similarly, “Gandhi” beat Spielberg’s “E.T.” in 1983 — although when was the last time you watched “Gandhi”?
The Oscars may regularly mistake themselves for the Nobel Peace Prize and disdain blockbusters as appealing to the lowest common denominator, but there’s nothing low about what we have in common: Today’s mindless fun has an uncanny habit of turning into tomorrow’s much-loved classics. “Inception” was as ingenious a piece of watchmaker cinema as has been committed to celluloid; there’s as much pure kinetic moviemaking in “Mad Max” as in any film released this year; Pixar makes films with as much art, craft, heart and soul as any best picture winner. Let the academy chase the coattails of prestige. This summer, I’m going to the movies.