[Below is my research essay that I wrote for my American Cinema course this past fall. It is more or less entirely intact minus a few edits here and there and the added pictures. Let me know what you think and whether you agree or disagree in the comments!]
There are few things considered more “American” than going to see the latest blockbuster at the Cineplex. As Tom Shone said in his book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004), attending blockbuster wide-releases may be the quintessential American form of entertainment, the marquee meaningless activity we do to pass the time, hang with friends, and simply have some relaxing fun and be entertained. Shone even makes a notable observation that, “Many countries have film industries, but only America makes blockbusters.” But how exactly did blockbusters come to be? How did the modern Hollywood trend of producing, hyping, advertising, and selling massive titles with huge production values and massive budgets to reap massive profits come into being? How exactly did the industry change from what it was before?
The answers to those questions lie in the complex and much studied era in American filmmaking of the 1970’s. The time then was the age of the American auteur, a time when the wunderkind, film-school educated movie brats wielded considerable control over their major studio-funded projects. The auteur period, or “New Hollywood” era of the 1970’s, is widely considered to be one of the greatest decades in American cinema (Lewis 2008), if not the greatest. And yet, this period in American history was remarkably brief and came to a swift close as result of several major shifts in the film industry, perhaps none more important than the release of two extraordinarily popular summer titles, Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg, and Star Wars (1977), written and directed by George Lucas, and the subsequent rise of the Hollywood summer blockbuster (Shone 2004; Greydanus 2006; Lewis 2008).
The incredible commercial success of Jaws and Star Wars transformed the Hollywood film industry into a culture fixated on the production of fewer, bigger, “high-concept” blockbuster titles, while in the process returning mainstream American cinema much closer to the filmmaking conventions of the pre-1960’s “Golden Age” of Hollywood, thus ending the auteur renaissance of late 60’s-70’s New Hollywood. Jaws was by far the most successful film to capitalize on the new marketing techniques of television advertising, wide-release “saturation-booking,” and demonstrated how the summer season could be used to release big budget films to huge success. What Jaws started, Star Wars finished by replicating the initial summer blockbuster success of Spielberg’s shark thriller through similar marketing strategies, and popularized the mishmash of old, Golden Age Hollywood genre tropes to create a sensationalist, emotionally powered spectacle film. As a result, the turning of the tide guided Hollywood attention toward fewer, bigger films, which were intended to return larger profits, and heralded the end of mainstream support for the French New Wave and European film-influenced auteur pictures of the Hollywood Renaissance (Lewis 2008; Biskind 1998).
Jaws and Star Wars: The Blockbuster One-Two Punch
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was, for lack of a better phrase, the monster that ate Hollywood. The creature-feature demonstrated the immense value of massive commercial emphasis on certain films, namely through intense, novel marketing techniques. While television advertising had been used to promote films in the past, Jaws was the first picture to rely heavily on the medium, using television as an allying force for rather than a rival to movie success (Jaws: the Monster that Ate Hollywood 2013). Universal Pictures spent millions of dollars saturating television networks during prime-time hours with 30-second trailers for the film. In this light, Jaws was the first film to put such huge stakes in advertising, something that had been uncommon in the past. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for marketing to equal a movie’s production budget (Jaws: MAH 2013).
Additionally, Jaws replicated the theatre release strategy of another popular ’70’s film, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), which bucked the trend of releasing films slowly across the country, first in major markets and later in smaller venues, thereby allowing positive word of mouth to market films. The Godfather instead opened in hundreds of theatres across the country simultaneously, achieving huge commercial success. Jaws replicated this strategy and the results were even more impressive (Jaws: MAH 2013). The horror picture quickly surpassed The Godfather’s profits and became the highest-grossing film of all time up to that point (Avila 2010; Jaws: MAH 2013).
Other changes in film-distribution practice done by the studios for Jaws including releasing the film in the summer, a time of the year long considered to be a dumping ground for poor films (Avila 2010; Jaws: MAH 2013; Rise of the Blockbuster 2013). The concept of a “summer blockbuster” was just beginning to crystalize in 1975 with the advent of air-conditioned theatres and the success of several other influential summer films released in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, including Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and American Graffiti (1973) (Jaws: MAH 2013). Like with the strategy of saturation-booking (i.e. wide-release), Jaws imitated earlier pioneers of the summer season and capitalized on the trend to immense success. This impact on the filming industry, combined with the later even bigger success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, introduced an era in which movies targeted to teens dominated the Hollywood summer lineup. Nowadays movies released between Memorial Day and Labor Day make up nearly 40% of the annual box office revenue for Hollywood films (Jaws: MAH 2013).
Much how Jaws replicated the marketing and distribution techniques of earlier successful films to even greater commercial success, so too did Star Wars finish what Jaws started in fully transitioning Hollywood into the blockbuster-fixated culture it is today. Star Wars’s success was immense, displacing Jaws as the highest grossing film to date a mere two years after the shark horror story was released (Avila 2010; Rise of the Blockbuster 2013). With the massive success of two much hyped, heavily marketed summer films aimed at a wide audience, the resulting box office dollars quickly convinced studio executives of Tinseltown that the future of the movie business lay in the big releases of summer “event” movies, movies that saturated the market through television advertising, merchandise, and wide releases (Biskind 1998; Shone 2004; Lewis 2008; Avila 2010; Jaws:MAH 2013; Rise of the Blockbuster 2013).
Something every bit as interesting as the change in marketing and distribution of films in Hollywood was the change in the content and style of most films released after Jaws and Star Wars left the box office stunned. Unlike many contemporary films of the 1960’s and ‘70’s auteur renaissance, Jaws and Star Wars were both genre films that didn’t so much deconstruct or challenge the framework of established film genres as they gentrified and reasserted once discredited formulas (Biskind 1998). Jaws was a straightforward, unbridled horror picture, something that many film critics have since held against it. Star Wars is perhaps an even more interesting case study because it represents a vast, varied collection of pieces from many different Hollywood genres all wrapped up in the outer coating of a science-fantasy film. What’s more, many of these genre allusions are conventions tied up in the classical filmmaking style of Hollywood’s Golden Age before the New Hollywood era (Greydanus 2006). Star Wars has long been recognized as a modern day homage to the classic adventure serials and westerns of the past, utilizing classic character archetypes such as the young hero (Luke Skywlker/Mark Hamill), the damsel in distress (Princess Leia/Carrie Fisher), the wise old sage and mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi/Alec Guinness), the adventurous rogue (Han Solo/Harrison Ford), and gay robots (C-3PO/Anthony Daniels)! The storytelling structure of Lucas’ space opera is straightforward, not ironic, and unambiguous. The narrative is classical in the sense that it tells a standard tale of good vs. evil, and sports clearly defined moral themes (Biskind 1998; Greydanus 2006).
The larger cultural context and cultural impact of Star Wars are also important to consider. Released at a contentious time in US history following the long, unpopular, and bloody conflict that was the Vietnam War, the disillusioning effects of the Nixon presidency, and amidst a general environment of clashing cultures and a thriving, controversial youth counterculture, Star Wars became one of the first modern Hollywood blockbuster events by becoming Americans’ escape from reality. Its blockbuster appeal reached all audiences and returned the nation to a simpler arena where heroes were heroes and villains were villains. The nature of good and evil was clear cut, and that unambiguous dynamic was seen as refreshing after years of morally ambiguous, depressing auteur pictures that painted life much more like it was, with dour themes, shades of grey, and frequent unhappy endings (Shone 2004). Star Wars (and to a lesser extent, Jaws) supplied the happy ending that had been missing for years amidst the Hollywood Renaissance and allowed an anxious, confused, and conflicted nation to celebrate its original identity and the circumstances of its creation. Author Tom Shone stated that the modern mythology of the American Revolution is something that is now ingrained in the narrative DNA of Hollywood, and nowhere else is this clearer than with Lucas’s tale, saying, “Star Wars may be as close to a direct and head-on distillation of this founding myth (of America) as Hollywood has ever come.”
The End of Hollywood Auteurism
A result of the subsequent shift in Hollywood’s mindset to high-concept, high-profit movies was the swift end to the studios’ reliance on auteur films, projects in which the now matured “movie brat” generation of film school-educated directors (e.g. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper, Woody Allen, William Friedkin) were allowed extensive control over their films’ creative design and the studio’s resources. That all changed with the success of Lucas’s and Spielberg’s smash hits. Combined with the production fiascoes of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), the incredible commercial success of Jaws and Stars Wars showcased that massive box office profits were available outside the movie brats’ artistic power (Biskind 1998; Lewis 2008). The Hollywood studio executives realized they no longer need be dependent on the desires of assertive prima donna-directors who, in many cases, were demanding, insubordinate, and prone to going overschedule and over budget with their films (Lewis 1998). In other words, the risks associated with allocating total director control over a film were no longer justifiable in light of the massive profits available through other avenues, namely blockbusters. Control of movie production from then on largely shifted back to the studios once they realized they no longer needed the high-maintenance movie brats.
Many film critics and historians have lamented this shift in industry mindset, no voice more pronounced than film historian Peter Biskind in his book, Easy Riders, Ranging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998). Biskind says that Jaws and Star Wars changed the movie business forever, and that Spielberg was, in a sense, “the Trojan horse through which the studios began to reassert their power.” With the success of those two revolutionary blockbusters, massive changes in marketing trends (such as strategies in advertising and distribution described above) came about, along with higher expectations for movie payoffs at the box office. Jaws and Star Wars whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, and studio executives now wanted every film to be a Jaws or a Star Wars. The influence of these changing corporate expectations led to a widespread production of films that mirrored Lucas’s and Spielberg’s films in both frame and scope, attempting to replicate the commercial success of those films by replicating the blockbuster mass-appeal in every feature.
Biskind notes that though Lucas and Spielberg are about the same age as and are often lumped in the same “auteur category” of ‘60’s and ‘70’s filmmakers, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper, Arthur Penn, and Woody Allen, the inventors of the modern day blockbuster are altogether a different breed of filmmaker. Spielberg and Lucas are more visual filmmakers, focused on and fascinated by the spectacle of filmmaking, the “wow” factor of cinema that can inspire awe in its viewers. These two auteurs emphasize emotion and how movies make one feel, rather than analyzing complex moral themes or further challenging cinematographic and editing conventions as someone like Coppola often does. They are advocates of pure cinema, emotion over ideas, and de-emphasis on the spoken word and dialogue. As a consequence, Spielberg and Lucas make much different films than their movie-brat peers, such as Coppola or Scorsese. Jaws and Star Wars and other films by them since possess far more classical Hollywood traits than postclassical. Their movies embody straightforward storytelling, accessible, archetypal characters, clear moral values, and most important of all, happy endings.
Biskind echoes the sentiments of many film scholars’ and filmmakers’ dissatisfied with the direction Hollywood has taken since the success of Jaws and Star Wars and the rise of the blockbuster mentality. “Lucas and Spielberg returned the ‘70’s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-‘60’s Golden Age of movies… they marched backward through the looking glass, producing pictures that were the mirror opposite of the New Hollywood films of their peers.” Biskind goes on to elaborate that the kinds of movies someone like Scorsese made were replaced by the kinds of movies Lucas and Spielberg made. The film historian is not alone in his assertion that American cinema has gone downhill since the rise of the blockbuster. Scorsese himself stated in Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, that, “Star Wars was in. Spielberg was in. We were finished.” Film and television producer Bert Schneider put it, “It all changed with Lucas and Spielberg. No more 2001 (A Space Odyssey) (1968), now it was Star Wars.” Fellow auteur director Robert Altman said of the Hollywood transition, “It’s become one big amusement park. It’s the death of film.” And perhaps the most amusing remark comes from director William Friedkin, saying “Star Wars swept all the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars was like when McDonald’s got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. Now we’re in a period of devolution. Everything has gone backward toward a big sucking hole.”
In summary, what I like to call “the Biskind Theory” views the debuts of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s breakthrough films as a sort of crossroads in the history of American film. The opinions of those who share Biskind’s view believe that the course Hollywood has taken since then was not for the better. Lucas’ most bitter critics charge his space opera film with nothing less than “ruining” Hollywood by turning it from the gritty, “relevant” sophistication of films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver (1976), and Annie Hall (1977) toward juvenile fantasy, spectacle, and romanticism (Greydanus 2006).
While it is without doubt that these two films helped usher in the current blockbuster mentality of Hollywood, and that American cinema has indeed changed substantially since their release, there have been notable rebuttals to the negative aspects of this view and reappraisal of the legacy of Jaws and Star Wars. Author Lester Friedman has responded to Biskind’s accusations in his book, Citizen Spielberg (2006), by stating that such opinions make for good polemics, but they rarely hold up under careful scrutiny. Friedman argues how the evolution of television advertisements and the youth market that supported Jaws had already been identified with earlier auteur pictures (Bonnie and Clyde , The Graduate , Easy Rider ), and that while Spielberg’s film may have redefined the youth movie culture, it certainly had not created it. Friedman summarizes by saying that, to argue that Spielberg invented the blockbuster mentality is to ignore the decades of filmmaking that preceded it and which set the scene for the success of Jaws (and then later Star Wars). Furthermore, Friedman points out how filmmaking, particularly that of mainstream Hollywood, has always been a struggle, a balancing act if you will, between art and commerce — one might ask, when were blockbusters not a part of Hollywood life (e.g. the massive cultural events that were the releases of Gone with the Wind  and Birth of a Nation , both released long before Spielberg’s and Lucas’ time)? And moreover, is Spielberg really responsible for all the lessor imitators that followed his work? Friedman says that films like Jaws deserves immunity from prosecution for the crimes of present-day Hollywood, and that, “The creator cannot be held accountable for the illegitimate offspring of his original creation.”
Another response to Biskind and his supporters comes from author Tom Shone. In his book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Shone implies that perhaps people like Biskind hold too romantic and idealistic views of the New Hollywood era, and that the gravely serious “death of cinema” arguments may in fact be snobbish, elitist, and more than a little melodramatic. Shone argues that much of what made the American New Wave films so appealing was in fact their spectacle appeal, their emotional cores, and their more hidden connections to Old Hollywood virtues that have gone unacknowledged by critics such as Biskind. Shone goes on to point out how people lamenting the death of “sophisticated” cinema from the auteur period of Hollywood history are in fact recycling many of the hyperbolic sentiments of those who predicted the death of cinema with the rise of narrative film, and then later again with the coming of sound. A large part of Shone’s argument seems to be that the rise in dominance of the Hollywood blockbuster is yet another transition in American film history, one that will continue to bring new, unanticipated changes in filmmaking, and one that will probably, most likely, not bring about the complete destruction of cinema as we know it. Shone ends with an observation that the rise of blockbusters has returned to the forefront of cinema the concept of movie spectacle, the idea of motion pictures as carnival sideshows and magic acts that “punched through the fourth wall”… the idea of the cinema of attractions (Gunning 1986). In that sense, Spielberg and Lucas didn’t betray cinema at all, but rather returned it to its roots. It all depends on how one defines “cinema.”
Perhaps the best summary of the whole criticism of Jaws, Star Wars, and all quality blockbusters since the 1970’s can be adequately summed up by this encapsulating exchange between two of Star Wars’s main characters (Shone 2004). When Luke Skywalker first sees the Millennium Falcon and finds it is not up to his expectations, he exclaims, “What a piece of junk!” To which Han Solo replies, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
In the end, the debut of Jaws and Star Wars left an impact on Hollywood culture that is still playing out to this day. Countless big-budget, high-concept blockbusters have been released every summer since and will no doubt continue to be released for some time, while directors who wish to wield more complete control over their films in the manner of studio-backed auteurs of the ‘60’s and ‘70s’ will most likely continue to work outside the major studio system (Lewis 2008). Much of today’s Hollywood’s landscape was shaped by the success of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s breakthrough pictures, and there is little doubt that auteur dominance of the New Hollywood era would have been extended if Jaws and Star Wars had not become such smash hits (Biskind 1998). How long the auteur movie brats would have remained in control of the studio system’s productions in lieu of the rise of the blockbuster is anyone’s guess.
In any case, it is important to acknowledge the influence of both Spielberg’s shark attack sensationalist narrative and Lucas’ space-western fantasy opera, as both films helped cement the current marketing and distribution practices of today’s American film culture. What Jaws started, Star Wars soon finished, and Hollywood has been forever changed (Biskind 1998; Shone 2004; Avila 2010; Jaws: MAH 2013). Whether it has been changed for the better appears to depend on how you view different types of films and storytelling. One side may view the opposite as snobs, while the “snobs” may view the opposite as the popcorn-eating dimwitted masses. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
One thing that is for sure, though, is that Spielberg and Lucas have played major parts in establishing one of the great modern American pastimes in celebrating the annual summer blockbuster season. If Tom Shone is correct that the “mythology” surrounding America’s founding and identity is indeed written into the narrative DNA of its film industry, then perhaps the modern summer blockbuster is our purest, most original art form, and is one that should be celebrated rather than condemned.
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Biskind, P. (1998). Easy riders, raging bulls. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Friedman, L. (2006). Citizen spielberg. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Greydanus, S. (2006, “An american mythology: Why star wars still matters”
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Gunning, T. (1986). “The cinema of attractions: Early film, its spectator and the avant-garde”. Wide Angle, 8(3 and 4)
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