Blockbuster: Art Vs. Profit

June 3, 2020
Is the movie industry about making money or making art? It’s a debate that will never end…

Blockbuster films have come to dominate the modern film industry. A film perceived so grand in scale, a work of entertainment, which not only includes the film itself but also various interconnected pieces of marketing collateral, which extends to media outlets, advertising and merchandise. Blockbuster films are high-budget, mass-marketed productions, generated with the goal of large financial return.

While the term “block buster” was initially used to describe a bomb during the Second World War, it was eventually adopted to define the potential of a film’s wide-ranging success. With this in mind, the term still wasn’t utilised in the way that it is commonly perceived today until 1975 with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The infamous film about a killer shark is arguably the catalyst for what we now know as blockbuster films. Jaws catapulted the young director career toward superstar status and set the foundations for an entire business model that would come to dominate Hollywood. Two short years later, George Lucas reinforced that model with Star Wars, a record-breaking film that played in cinemas for twelve months.

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

By the early 1980s, the rise of multiplex cinemas became prominent, contributing to the rise of the blockbuster model. Gone were large, nostalgic, elegant theatres with one or two screens. Instead, in line with the blockbuster business model, large multiplex cinemas with up to twelve screens or more started to dominate. Two decades later, at the turn of the millennium, the film industry endured even further change. The decline of celluloid and video stores made way for digital cameras and online streaming services. Home video was, for a long time, a place where independent filmmakers could attain a kind of revenue, a means to recoup their costs and make enough profit to boost their next project.

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’re now seeing discussions around the possibility that the blockbuster model is effectively destroying film as an art form. From a financial point-of-view, it’s hard to deny the allure that blockbuster filmmaking holds for big studios. Avengers: Endgame, for example, grossed over $2.7 billion. That being said, film is, as many will attest/detest, first and foremost an art form. So the discussion for film, often conflated with ideals of financial success, draws much division amongst filmmakers and audiences alike. Among those who have recently spoken out against the emergence of superhero blockbuster films is acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, who believes superhero movies are not cinema, but rather theme park rides on big screens.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese, a highly respected filmmaker, would not be considered a blockbuster director. He, like many directors, sit outside what is considered blockbuster territory, while at the same time being able to rouse considerable budgets for their work. The likes of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Inarritu, James Gray, The Coen Brothers, David O. Russell, Ron Howard, Quentin Tarantino and many more also fit this model of big name directors who still make personal, idiosyncratic films with the benefit of relatively large budgets.

While general audiences have (until the COVID-induced shut down of the industry) flocked to big blockbuster films, filling out cinemas across America and the world, some argue that the industry is creating an artistic vacuum in Hollywood. With studios acting in a risk-reduction manner, it stifles the growth and development of film as an art form. Instead of pushing the boundaries of film, studios finance major productions costing millions of dollars, which are devoid of originality. The studios push endless remakes and spin-offs and tried and tested ideas. Marvel Studios has produced over 23 movies, with a new phase of films based on the same characters to be released in the coming years.

Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Tetro with Alden Ehrenreich and Vincent Gallo.

There are, however, antidotes to this school of filmmaking. Veteran director Francis Ford Coppola, for instance, has actively moved away from mainstream cinema to pursue other business opportunities, such as cafes and wine, while self-financing his own filmmaking projects and maintaining full creative control. Others claim that while the blockbuster model is dominant, there is room for artistic and original ideas. Most major studios have sister companies that focus on smaller, independent and original productions. There is also a strengthening of independent companies such as A24, which has released a string of successes including the work of Ari Aster, Barry Jenkins, Greta Gerwig and The Safdie Brothers.

As the blockbuster model continues to move forward, many film directors are shifting to TV. The streaming service Netflix, which has gone from strength-to-strength, has managed to financially coax many great directors, including Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and Baz Luhrmann, to the smaller screen. Directors are moving to Netflix with lucrative offers and full creative control, both of which they may not have received with big studios. This counteraction to blockbuster expectations has set a new trend, whilst effectively breaking down career stigma surrounding film directors transitioning to the smaller screen.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, financed by Netflix.

A by-product of this new system of operation, as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have put it, is that people are no longer going to the movies. Director Christopher Nolan has advocated on numerous occasions for the survival of film and cinemas. He is a proponent of the moviegoers’ experience, of the visual and audio immersion of a movie on the big screen, and viewing films in the way in which they were intended to be seen. His own Tenet is being heralded as the film that will entice people back into cinemas following COVID shutdown.

Another issue is ticket prices. As blockbuster films have dominated the market, we have seen inflation within the multiplex rise to the point where many families can no longer afford to go see a film. Single ticket prices of $25 dollars, along with $25 dollars for popcorn combo deals, which are too expensive for average households to afford. Yet, the financial figures and statistics for blockbuster cinema patronage may say otherwise. Blockbuster films continue to make millions, while the scale of separation between film economies, and blockbuster and independent filmmaking, becomes more evident. The blockbuster film model is criticised for producing films of debatable content, and risk-free films that focus on accessibility, franchise and brand, whilst independent films are original and thought-provoking.

As the debate over artistic integrity in Hollywood continues, the blockbuster juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. With new directorial talent being discovered by big studios, it takes little risk and gains maximum profit. With the ninth Fast And Furious entry and the 25th Marvel film on their way, there’s no question that the blockbuster model is here to stay.

If you liked this story, check out our profile on legendary director Akira Kurosawa.

Comments

  1. Matt Thames

    I think with the recent course of events, and more companies streaming movies where we can watch from the comfort of our home theatre setup, it could become a trend. Then they wouldn’t see blockbusters and maybe films would just be appreciated for their art.

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