The evolution of the summer blockbuster

What does it take for a film to become a monster box-office hit?
The Indominus Rex in ‘Jurassic World’

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When asked to forecast how much business the film Jurassic World would do this summer, few industry analysts predicted big things. Most guessed its opening weekend would be somewhere in the $100m range, pocket change for a blockbuster, followed by a fast fall-off from screens. The original Jurassic Park, released in 1993, grossed about $900m worldwide but the sequels The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Jurassic Park III (2001) took $619m and $369m, respectively. A decade and a half after its last outing, the Jurassic franchise was regarded by many in the industry as a faded one; even Universal, and executive producer Steven Spielberg, seemed to be channelling their anxieties about it into the new movie. “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur any more,” says one of the park’s senior executives in the script written by director Colin Trevorrow. “Consumers want them bigger, louder, more teeth.”

Only the internet chatter, particularly on YouTube, where Jurassic World’s trailer was receiving a huge number of views, gave any clue as to what was about to happen. Universal released Jurassic World on June 11, a Thursday rather than the typical Friday night release day, and immediately saw it take $18.5m. By Friday, it was third on the all-time opening weekend chart behind The Avengers ($207.4m) and its sequel Avengers: Age Of Ultron ($191.3m); by Sunday it had beaten both, setting new records for a domestic opening weekend in the US, where it took $208m, and overseas, where it took $315.3m: a combined total that resulted in Hollywood’s first half-a-billion-dollar weekend. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, took to Twitter to congratulate Universal with a post depicting a triumphant T-Rex clutching Thor’s hammer as the Avengers look on helplessly. The film continued to rampage; just 13 days after its release, it became the fastest film to take $1bn.

“If you had talked to anyone, myself included, just a couple of months ago, we would have said, ‘Certainly this is going to be the next movie to open at $100m,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at box office analysts Rentrak. “[But] it’s probably the biggest over-performance I’ve ever witnessed in 22 years of tracking box office. I’ve never seen a movie where we thought it might do more than 120 or 130 [and then] it does $208.8m and, not only that, it becomes the biggest opening of all time.”


Huge infusions of cash are always important data points for Hollywood. Jurassic World’s success will act as a resounding endorsement and accelerant of its blockbuster strategy, first formulated in June 1975, when Spielberg’s Jaws cracked $100m in domestic receipts and offered a much-needed lifeboat to a studio system drowning in red ink. Not for nothing does the trailer for Jurassic World feature a 15-tonne Mosasaurus, rearing up from a SeaWorld-style lagoon to devour a dangling great white shark acting as bait. Today Jaws might only count as a small lunchtime snack: Jurassic World opened in a whopping 4,274 screens in the US, Jaws in just 409. Yet, at the time, its success was seen as synonymous with the idea of wide openings — releasing films nationwide rather than in a few cities. In fact, Lew Wasserman, then chairman of Universal, had actually reduced the number of theatres that Jaws played in, from a proposed 900. “Lew said, ‘I want this picture to play all summer long’,” the film’s producer Richard Zanuck told me before his death in 2012. “‘I don’t want people in Palm Springs to see the picture in Palm Springs. I want them to have to get in their cars and drive to see it in Hollywood.’ He was so clever, because that’s exactly what happened.”

Poster for ‘Jaws’ (1975)

In other words, the original summer blockbuster benefited from the oldest trick in the book: artificially reducing supply to increase demand. The film’s 409 cinemas weren’t even closest to being the widest opening — just one year earlier, Warner Brothers had opened The Trial of Billy Jack on 1,000 screens and watched it take $89m. And while it is true that Universal devoted $700,000 to promoting Jaws (then the largest such expenditure in the studio’s history), Zanuck and partner David Brown’s insistence on using the same image of a shark’s head that adorned author Peter Benchley’s paperback, to cross-promote the film and the book from which it was adapted, was a tactic borrowed from producer Robert Evans, who had done the same with early 1970s films The Godfather and Love Story. As Evans told Time magazine in 1974, “The making of a blockbuster is the newest art-form of the 20th-century.” The modern summer blockbuster owes as much to Ali MacGraw saying, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” as it does Roy Scheider realising: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw in ‘Love Story’ (1970)

According to Ed Epstein, author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, “A lot of times we confuse cause and effect. The success of Jaws was the effect of an economic change in the Hollywood audience. After world war two, there was an audience of approximately 100m people that went [to the cinema] every week. When television, and especially colour television in the 1950s, took hold, that audience dropped to about 18m.” In other words, 80 per cent of the audience was lost. Studios tried many ways to win back this audience, including new technologies such as Cinerama, but none of these worked.

“What did work,” says Epstein, “was to view the entire business as basically an intellectual properties business where they optimised on as many platforms as possible. That’s the business today. That’s the business that Disney is in. Once you’ve consolidated the theatre chains, multiplied the number of screens, had the success of national advertisement, once all this is in place, you were going to begin to have large-scale openings. Not, ‘Oh, Jaws was successful, therefore we’re going to have a big opening for the next movie.’ The time was right for big openings, therefore Jaws happened. Jaws was irrelevant, in my view.”

Indeed, often the film famous for instigating change is merely a bellwether for trends set in motion by leaner, less high-profile hits. Star Wars, for example, is often credited with inaugurating the modern movie-merchandising business but, for a time after its release in 1977, studios found it difficult to successfully merchandise films that weren’t Star Wars films. Superman (1978) did well, but the merchandising for E.T (1982) triggered a backlash and a flurry of copycat lawsuits; a promising deal with Atari video games consoles ended with truckloads of cartridges being buried in a desert in New Mexico.


Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in ‘A Star is Born’ (1976)

A more reliable merchandising path was, arguably, forged by Barbra Streisand singing “Love, soft as an easy chair / Love fresh as the morning air” on the soundtrack album for A Star Is Born, her film with Kris Kristofferson, which was released a year before Star Wars. Producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber had watched the success of Simon and Garfunkel’s soundtrack album for The Graduate (1968) and, taking a further tip from Colonel Tom Parker’s strategy with Elvis, released the album for A Star is Born in November 1976, just two weeks before the movie — ensuring that the two helped drive each other up the charts in one of the first instances of blockbuster synergy. It was a template that was to prove wildly successful in the 1980s with films such as Flashdance and Footloose, not to mention the producer pair’s own Batman in 1989, with its soundtrack by Prince.

“[Soundtrack albums] became the first recognisable merchandising product that came out of films in a big way,” says Guber. “The concept of blockbuster results — the idea that film could generate enormous revenue — was still being tested. It had been tested with Star Wars and several other films but it wasn’t yet the concept of a franchise picture: the idea that you could build a series of pictures out of it. Batman really tested the boundaries of how enormous merchandising could be. It helped promote the film, which helped promote the merchandising, which helped promote the sequel. It became very important [but] got a little out of hand with the Burger Kings and McDonald’s [tie-ins]— it began to look as if people were making product films. It imploded.”

A similar pattern emerges again and again when looking at studios’ blockbuster strategies. An innovation is introduced and lingers for a while, unnoticed, until a profitable picture makes it famous, then the rest of Hollywood moves in to capitalise on it, grabs the toy and breaks it. There is a backlash, the trend crashes, before returning in more modest, modified form. This cycle seems to take between five and 10 years.

“Hollywood is a lumbering supertanker,” says Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Look how long it’s taking [it] to catch up on grabbing the female audience. Five years ago, everyone could see it, and now studios are realising that and really trying to capitalise on that. But Hollywood is a slow-moving ship; it takes a while for it to catch up.”

Wesley Snipes in ‘Blade’ (1998)

For example, Batman is believed to have also paved the way for today’s onslaught of comic-book adaptations — except that it didn’t, not immediately. Throughout the 1990s the only comic- book movie Hollywood really knew how to make was more Batman movies — of which it made three that decade, in descending order of artistic merit. “The conventional wisdom was that you could only make films with a handful of top-tier characters,” says David Goyer, who wrote the 1998 film Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as a vampire hunter. Blade took $131m, helped pull Marvel out of bankruptcy and paved the way for Spider-Man, Iron Man and the multiple Marvel franchises to follow. “I remember before Blade coming out, people were laughing, saying it was going to be a complete disaster,” he says. “We were flying under the radar. And of course, once it was successful, I don’t know how many characters Marvel had at the time — 7,000 to 8,000 — they started thinking, ‘We can make franchises out of all of them.’ It wasn’t designed that way but it was the beginning of the Marvel brand.”

In turn, the Blade trilogy’s dark, gritty tone made possible later scripts for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). “Hollywood loves to lean in to the curve,” says Goyer. “After The Dark Knight, I was told so many times, ‘We want you to do for this what you did for The Dark Knight. Hollywood saw that it worked and, for a while, all superhero movies had to be grim and gritty.” Goyer believes this is why people were caught off-guard by Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s freewheeling sci-fi sleeper hit from the summer of 2014. “I found that film incredibly refreshing,” he says. “It was so defiantly un-Hollywood in its rhythms. There were so many little detours in that film that a regular studio system would have cleaned out.”

And so it goes. Today’s received wisdom is tomorrow’s shattered shibboleth. Jurassic World’s success, like all the major cash bonanzas of the past few decades will, rightly or wrongly, further entrench the studio thinking that was seen to contribute to that success: the value of Thursday night openings; the wisdom of entrusting well-known franchises to relatively untested directors such as Trevorrow, whose previous 2012 film, Safety Not Guaranteed, was a small Sundance Film Festival favourite shot on a budget of $750,000; the strength of 1990s nostalgia for a generation now hitting their thirties and forties, to be further tested by next year’s Independence Day 2; and, above all else, the commitment to long-term sequel-isation.

Universal is being unusually old-fashioned about announcing its plans for Jurassic World sequels — “They have me for, I think, 38 movies or something,” joked star Chris Pratt — but the joke was not far off. Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise, already up to seven films, is no longer being discussed one movie at a time, but one trilogy at a time. Marvel recently unveiled its slate of films up to and including 2019, and Disney plans a Star Wars movie every year at least through 2020.

“Now we have the new Star Wars coming up at the end of the year and that’s kind of interesting because if Jurassic World can do these kinds of numbers, think of what Star Wars can do,” says Contrino. “I think there is something to be said for the amount of time that has passed before a movie is rebooted. It’s been so long since the last one in 2005.

“People are definitely ready. You can just feel it in the air.”

Photographs: Universal; Allstar

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