Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Periodizing the Blockbuster Era

The above diagram schematizes some of the factors influencing the transition from the Hollywood Renaissance period (1967-1980) to the early decades of the Blockbuster Era (1975-present).

In the middle part of the chart (with the "synergy" arrow), I draw a boundary at about 1981, walling off the Hollywood Renaissance from the Blockbuster Era. Going solely by the content, tone, and look of the films, it's easy to impose that gap, with Raging Bull (1980) the last barbaric yawp of the European-influenced Hollywood Renaissance period and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the herald of the big-budget Blockbuster Era.*

You can even see the difference between these cultural and industrial moments -- Renaissance and Blockbuster -- in the two (successful) Spielberg films that straddle the turn of the decade. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), for all its third-act spectacle, is a film of the Hollywood Renaissance, or as close as Spielberg ever gets to directing one barring The Sugarland Express (1974). Close Encounters is an auteurist passion project for Spielberg, based on one of the few screenplays (outside of Sugarland and Poltergeist) he ever wrote himself. It features French New Wave icon Francois Truffaut performing in the movie, his presence a direct nod to Renaissance-era auteurism. More surprisingly for Spielberg, Close Encounters ends ambivalently: an emotionally unbalanced man abandons his earthbound family to fly away with aliens.

And then there's Raiders of the Lost Ark, a tightly episodic, sequel-spawning, consciously "calculated" action blockbuster.

However, at the infrastructural level, and as the short line at the bottom of my chart indicates, the transition between Renaissance and Blockbuster starts well before 1980. Disney is already lucratively synergizing their various product lines (live-action films, animated films, TV shows, theme parks, toys, etc.) by the 1950s, and TransAmerica buys United Artists in 1967. Disney and UA are the corporate harbingers of the post-1970s era of multinational corporate takeovers, corporate mergers, and the dominance of the synergistic business model built around "tentpole" summer blockbusters.

Film historian and political economist Thomas Schatz claims that 1974-5 represents the "peak and, as it turned out, the waning" of the Hollywood Renaissance period, its last hurrah consisting of films like NashvilleNight MovesChinatown, and The Conversation.** Indeed, film historians Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell tell us that the multinational corporate takeover of the major studios was more or less complete by 1982, at which point "all the Majors except 20th Century Fox had become wings of diversified conglomerates" like Gulf + Western, MCA, and Coca-Cola.†

Popeye Doyle sez: "We better enjoy this Hollywood Renaissance thing while we can, Cloudy -- it ain't gonna last."

Yes, certain artsy, downbeat, auterist films continue to be made into the late 1970s and early 1980s: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home (both 1978), Apocalypse Now, Being There (both 1979), Raging Bull, Reds (1981), and even First Blood (1982).

But despite all these promising late entries, there's no denying the implications of 1975's Jaws, "a social, industrial, and cultural phenomenon of the first order, a cinematic idea and cultural commodity whose time had come" (Schatz p. 26). Jaws is extremely well-made entertainment by super-genius director Steven Spielberg -- it's a totally badass movie, even according to Mark Kermode. Furthermore, it establishes the broad template for all subsequent blockbusters via its postmodern genre-mixology:
Jaws was essentially an action film and a thriller, though it effectively melded various genres and story types. It tapped into the monster movie tradition with a revenge-of-nature subtext (like King Kong, The Birds, et. al.), and in the film's latter stages the shark begins to take on supernatural, even Satanic, qualities a la Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. And, given the fact that the initial victims are women and children, Jaws also had ties to the high-gore "slasher" film, which had been given considerable impetus a year earlier by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Schatz p. 25)
Genre-wise, then, the post-1975 blockbuster is nearly always an action-adventure film, even when hybridized with or superficially "skinned" to resemble another genre. Usually set "in the romantic past or in an inhospitable place in the present," the action-adventure typically features "a propensity for spectacular physical action, a narrative structure involving fights, chases and explosions, and in addition to the deployment of state-of-the-art special effects, an emphasis in performance on athletic feats and stunts." As Steve Neale, quoting Michael Nerlich, writes:
the ideology of adventure in its modern sense -- its association with the active seeking out of such events -- was developed in conjunction firstly with the medieval cult of the courtly knight, secondly with merchant adventuring (and state-sponsored piracy) in the early modern period, and thirdly with the spread of empire during the course of the nineteenth century. Hence its links with colonialism, imperialism and racism, as well as with traditional ideals of masculinity, run very deep.††
By defaulting to action-adventure pastiche, rather than artfully revising or reworking specific genres like many Renaissance films do, and by "recalibrating the profit potential of the Hollywood hit" to new, astronomical levels, Jaws and Star Wars toll the death knell of the auteurist Renaissance. Schatz writes that "the promise of Jaws was confirmed by Star Wars" -- its "emphasis on plot over character" solidifies the still-dominant action-blockbuster template (Schatz 24, 31, 29).

In 1981, Lucas and Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark confirms the successful formula and sets the tone for the biggest hits of the coming decade:

Top Grossing Movies of the 1980s (adjusted for inflation) according to Box Office Mojo
1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Return of the Jedi (1983)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
5. Ghostbusters (1984)
6. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
7. Batman (1989)
8. Back to the Future (1985)
9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
My favorite sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981's highest grosser and the film that sets the template for the summer blockbuster. 

Quoting Richard Schickel, Schatz notes that blockbusters from this point forward all belong to one of two "metacategories," either the comedy (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters) or the action film (e.g., all the other films on the above list). Schatz describes Star Wars in particular as the key proto-"high concept" summer blockbuster. For him, Star Wars exemplifies the tension between story and spectacle that characterizes the summer popcorn movie writ large:
One the one hand, the seemingly infinite capacity for multimedia reiteration of a movie hit redefines textual boundaries, creates a dynamic commercial intertext that is more process than product, and involves the audience(s) in the creative process -- not only as multimarket consumers but also as mediators in the play of narrative signification. On the other hand, the actual movie "itself," if indeed it can be isolated and understood as such (which is questionable at best), often has been reduced and stylized to a point where, for some observers, it scarcely even qualifies as a narrative. (39)
I agree with this account and have myself written about the recent blockbuster's trend toward spectacle over narrative.

What I want to do with the rest of this post is to try to break down the Blockbuster Era (so far) into smaller constituent periods, mainly derived from the chronological sketch given by Mark Harris in his must-read 2014 piece "The Birdcage":
The revolution of George Lucas’s game-changer — in purely financial terms — was that it confirmed what the James Bond series had suggested a decade earlier: There was no ceiling on how much money the right kind of series with the right kind of potentially escalating fan obsession could take in. Over the 25 years that followed Star Wars, franchises went from being a part of the business to a big part of the business. Big, but not defining: Even as late as 1999, for instance, only four of the year’s 35 top grossers were sequels. 
That’s not where we are anymore. In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period. Twelve of the year’s 14 highest grossers are, or will spawn, sequels. A successful franchise is no longer used to finance the rest of a studio’s lineup; a studio’s lineup is brands and franchises, and that’s it.
To continue where Harris leaves off, I turn to Pamela McClintock's recent piece "Hollywood's Obsession with the 'Requel'" for its succinct definition of the latest transmogrification of the blockbuster: the requel. A requel is "a movie that's both a reboot and a sequel, blending old with new in an effort to extend the life of a franchise and, in the best cases, reinvent it for a 'universe' of follow-up movies."

The most successful requel so far.

Whereas the "hard" reboot usually retells an origin story, as with Star Trek (2009) or The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), the requel, according to McClintock, is different from either the reboot or the pure remake "in that it nods to and exploits goodwill toward the past while launching a new generation of actors and stories." It is, in essence, a thinly veiled remake in which the same basic stuff, with slight new variations, happens all over again to a new generation of characters. I like to describe it as "strangely similar things happening to slightly different people."

It's appropriate that Jurassic World should lead the (successful) charge into the Requel period, since it is so transparently a remake of Jurassic Park (Lee Sabo calls it "fan-fiction story-telling"), which in 1993 was already hyper-aware of its status as a global commodity.

The most important shot in Jurassic Park: Jurassic Park's gift shop. 

To sum up: origin-story-retelling reboots include Batman Begins (2005), Star Trek (2009), and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Recent "pure remakes" include King Kong (2005), Cinderella, and Pan (both 2015).

Our requels category is so far inhabited by Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (all 2015), and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

I propose the following Periodization of the Blockbuster Era so far:

1975-85: Marking the inception of the Blockbuster Era proper with Jaws and Star Wars, these are the "Ten years that shook the industry" (J. Hoberman), the inception of the mega-blockbuster era. Schatz notes the increase in sequels and remakes from 1974 onward, writing that "From 1964 to 1968, sequels and reissues combined accounted for just under 5 percent of all Hollywood releases. From 1974 to 1978, they comprised 17.5 percent" ("New Hollywood" p. 27).

1986-99: The period of international conglomeration, worldwide release, and global synergy. The period during which Schatz's "calculated Blockbuster" -- calculated to be a major hit, produce sequels and spinoffs, and synergize with a larger product line and brand -- becomes the driving force behind the Hollywood film industry. As Thompson and Bordwell write,
The first wave of film studio acquisitions, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, had been initiated largely by conglomerates who wanted to diversify their holdings, to add a movie company to a menu of bowling alleys, parking lots, soft-drink bottling, or funeral parlors. The wave that began in the mid-1980s was more narrowly targeted, aimed at synergy -- the coordination of several compatible business lines to maximize income. (p. 664)
This period includes the Michael Eisner regime at Disney -- he's CEO 1984-2005. Eisner focuses on synergy and developing branded content, placing "special emphasis on activities and services that went beyond moviegoing or TV viewing" (T&B p. 696).

1989 is a key year, the starting point for the "dark" and "adult" interpretation of Batman on film. As Eileen Meehan documents, a dark interpretation of Batman was test-marketed beforehand by the release of Frank Miller's comic The Dark Knight Returns into mainstream bookstores.‡

Neale notes that in the 1990s Hollywood "conglomeration and synergy tended to accelerate on a national and international scale, as some of the mini-majors disappeared and as others were absorbed by the majors, and as the costs of making blockbusters and routine features alike continued to rise" (p. 230).

This period sees the wholesale onset of computer generated imagery (CGI) with pioneering effects-driven blockbuster films The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and of course Jurassic Park (1993).

Jurassic Park (1993) is perhaps the key film of this period -- a landmark in computer-generated effects, synergistic product lines, and global release strategies (Thompson and Bordwell p. 697).

Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman, another key film of the 1986-99 period.  

2000-14: I am tempted to call this the "Pointlessly Serious Superhero Movie" period. Fox's X-Men franchise launches eponymously in 2000, setting the general tone for the period. Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, which starts with Iron Man in 2008, goes a bit lighter in tone than X-Men, whereas Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009), Man of Steel (2013), and Batman v Superman all go darker and more pretentious.

Speaking of Nolan and Snyder, Kevin Tsujihara becomes Time Warner's chairman/CEO in 2013 and announces a slate of ten Warner Bros. movies based on DC Comics characters to be released between 2016 and 2020. Of Tsujihara, Harris writes:
He has never produced a movie; in fact, he is the first studio head to rise in the ranks purely through brand extension and ancillary divisions, and brand extension is what he’s all about. Besides the DC announcement, his big accomplishments have been to nail down those three additional [J.K.] Rowling movies to add to the studio’s portfolio of eight, and to turn one Lego movie into four.
Tsujihara's counterpart at Universal is Jeff Shell, who becomes CEO in 2013 and about whom Variety's Peter Bart and Claudia Eller write that "Shell’s background and management style is strictly corporate and solidly Comcast." Significantly, Shell rises through the corporate ranks on the television side. Writing in 2014, Mark Harris suggests that by making seven- and ten-year plans for interlocking franchises a la Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, contemporary movie franchises replicate formulas that have been honed to perfection on and by television:
TV looms large over this new movie lineup. How could it not? TV is everything. TV is how people see movies; TV is where people want to watch movies, on demand and on their own terms; TV is what Twitter wants to talk about. Most of all, TV knows how to keep people coming back, which is its job, every day and every week, and is a quality that, above all others, the people who finance movies would dearly love to poach.
2015: The Requel period begins. In addition to the McClintock piece referenced above, see also Adam Sternbergh's recent essay on the studio as auteur and the "Marvel movie" as prototypical blockbuster. Analyzing directorial duo Joe and Anthony Russo's successful run of MCU films, Sternbergh writes:
As TV becomes more cinematic in its execution (multiple locations, expensive FX), and films become more TV-like in their storytelling (single chapters in an ongoing story), the decision to employ TV directors on Marvel films starts to make sense. Which is why directors like the Russos — talented, proficient, flexible, and instinctually collaborative — are perfectly suited to flourish.
If the release of Jaws marks the beginning of the Blockbuster Era, then it's been forty-one years since then. We are over forty headlong years into this Era, it is barreling along, we are just beginning the Requel period, and there's no end in sight. We don't even really know what we're in for yet. As Harris concludes,
What we are witnessing is not stability but transition — the evolutionary moment of overlap in Hollywood when the old way and the new way transiently coexist. Ten years from now, the old way will be gone. The new way will simply be the way.
The way of the endless requel and its mutant spawn.

Hi, I'm Mark Harris. I'm so goddamned smart about movies and a fine writer, too. Carter is quite impressed with me.

* You'll notice that I call the Hollywood Renaissance a period and the Blockbuster Era an era. That's because the former is a short transitional period bridging the stretch between the decline of the Studio Era (and it is surely in decline by the 1950s) and the rise of the Blockbuster Era. The Hollywood Renaissance years constitute the tail end of a longer period that begins circa 1948 when the Paramount Decree critically alters the makeup of the Golden Age Studio System. Thomas Schatz describes the 1947-60 period in the later chapters of his The Genius of the System (Pantheon Books, 1988).
** Schatz, "The New Hollywood," in Movie Blockbusters, Ed. Julian Stringer (Routledge 2003),  p. 27.
† Thompson and Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction (Third Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009) p. 664.
†† Neale, Genre and Hollywood (Routledge, 2005) pp. 49, 46, 51.
‡ Meehan, "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in The Many Lives of the Batman (Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, Routledge 1991) p. 53.

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