“The Blockbuster,” a Primary Source Analysis

Note: The following short essay looks at Robert Lindsey’s “All Hollywood Loves a Blockbuster­—And Chips Off the Old Blockbuster,” an article published in the New York Times in May 1976. The analysis was originally submitted for course credit at Queens College in October 2016. I later covered the topic in greater detail here.

It has long been the hallmark of the cineaste to survey Hollywood’s latest offerings and remark, with particular unrestraint, on the alarming state of the American film world. Such criticisms inevitably turn towards the proliferation of blockbusters: films with outsized budgets, superstar casts, and a shared indescribable quality that seems to connect them all. Despite their recurring presence throughout the entirety of the 20th century, the “blockbuster era” to which we presently belong is typically traced only to the 1970s, specifically June 1975 with the release of Jaws. The purpose of this paper is not to explore the significance of the trend but rather to briefly examine how contemporary audiences, particularly critics, understood and reacted to the shift underway in Hollywood at the time.

In May 1976, the New York Times published just one of several articles that would detail the increasing prevalence of the blockbuster. Complete with a large cartoon featuring a shark-infested, money-hungry Hollywood landscape, L.A. correspondent Robert Lindsey’s article, “All Hollywood Loves a Blockbuster—And Chips Off the Old Blockbuster” is replete with interviews of industry executives on both sides of the debate. While his article intended to make sense of the growing trend of “super budgets, super salaries and a superabundance of sequels,” it also did not refrain from passing judgment.[1] Less than a year later, William Paul would provide a far more extensive and scathing critique of the industry in an article for the March/April 1977 issue of Film Comment entitled “Hollywood Harakiri.” While the latter word, Japanese for ritual suicide by disembowelment, may have been unclear, the article’s subtitle “On the Decline of an Industry and an Art” left little doubt to Paul’s intent. Withering in its criticism, his eleven-page rebuke reads not unlike many alarmist articles from recent years. However, for having been written at the cusp of Hollywood’s evolution, it remarkably possesses both reflective and prescient qualities that enable the author to trace both the trend’s causes and its future potential.

Today the very mention of the term “blockbuster” is enough to evoke thoughts of an action-packed and effects-filled popcorn flick, importantly, the same could initially not be said during the seventies when these articles were published. Once “a purely economic term, with no generic preference,” the title of blockbuster was one bestowed upon successful films having proven themselves at the box office.[2] Any film, regardless of subject, could have earned the distinction. Over time, however, the term has shifted from post to pre facto application. Blockbusters are now constructed at the screenplay level, possessing traits of their own, occupying almost a genre unto themselves. This transition, a hugely important one in determining which films studios make, is evident in its early stages in both Lindsey and Paul’s articles. While neither is able to describe exactly what the new blockbuster film will consist of, both astutely observe the trappings of it: Hollywood’s increasing penchant for “spectacle” and its tendency to double down on past successes.

Unsurprisingly, though with a fair degree of foresight, both Lindsey and Paul share a common thesis: Hollywood’s “bet big, win big” approach was a dismaying one and it was largely attributable to an intense and relatively new economic insecurity within the industry. Differences aside—Lindsey writes for a general audience, Paul for the highbrow film enthusiast—both frame their discussions around industry economics; a not surprising choice given Hollywood only recently suffered through perhaps its worst-ever recession from 1969-1971. Those particularly transformative years forced many within the film world to finally recognize that theatre audiences were no longer guaranteed.[3] People no longer went to the movies, they went to a movie.

Despite an early decade revenue rebound, by the time Lindsey’s article hit the press, box office receipts sagged again, dropping 20% from the prior year. Understandably then, Lindsey grounds his piece with the assertion that 1970s “Hollywood is, perhaps more than ever before, running scared.”[4] Paul would similarly use the phrase “running scared” following his brief discussion on the loss of the “regular moviegoer.” However, even with that loss, Paul admits that the changing cinema landscape offered studios the possibility to “net more than ever before.”[5] The runaway financial success of films such as Love Story (1970), The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975) gave studio heads a taste of the highs reachable by a single picture; highs which most would try to replicate in subsequent years. While more money was indeed to be made, the new environment also produced the prospect of flops unlike any seen in history. An entertainment financier for Bank of America at the time declared, “Unless something stops the cycle, I think there’s going to be unquestionable disaster.”[6]

It is important to note that profits had already driven Hollywood prior to the 1970s, with money frequently dictating the smallest of plot and character choices in previous decades. Different in the 1970s, however, was the mass takeover of movie studios by large corporate conglomerates. This further corporatization of Hollywood and the subsequent reassessment of fiscal priorities in many ways mimicked the business-centric thinking made rampant throughout the decade. A not dissimilar shift was also underway in the music industry.[7] New leadership at the very top dictated new marching orders leading “studio executives [to become] quite desperate for any possible guarantees of success at the box office.”[8]

Lindsey provides ample quotes from film producers commenting on the shift. Richard Zanuck, co-producer of The Sting and Jaws and big-budget proponent himself, acknowledges “the trap of thinking you can do it again.”[9] It, of course, being that one huge success. Consequently, as Lindsey, Paul, and others observed, Hollywood turned to the “spectacle,” films described only with strings of grand superlatives, in order to duplicate their successes. Paul derisively characterizes the industry as the “hopelessly hooked junkie Hollywood.”[10] Few, of course, would welcome such a description, but it is one that Paul ceaselessly conjures in his extended takedown of the industry.

Relaying Hollywood’s history over the previous decades, Paul speaks to the effects of television and the film industry’s need to differentiate itself from the fare found on the small screen. Studios, for instance, had attempted to create a “participatory event,” emphasizing things such as wide angles or Cinemascope which sought to maximize the big screen experience.[11] He laments the end of the studio system era and the lingering effects of the anti-trust breakup on film distribution. But more than anything else, he lambasts the corruptive power of money and the effects of profit driven production.

When discussing film from the 1970s, scholars and critics usually divide the decade’s output between the exciting and original New Hollywood productions and the rest of the studio-produced slop of the period. Paul rejects even this distinction, citing the “New Hollywood” as one as restricted by economics as ever. Mind you, he speaks no ill of the Scorceses, Cassevettes, and Copollas of the industry but rather insists that they too ultimately feel the effects of Hollywood’s hyper-focus on creating the next big hit. Lindsey quotes, Peter Bart, an independent producer, who shares a similar sentiment, saying “Since films have gotten so expensive, everything gets tremendously conservative; everything becomes terribly important. The creative people get insecure and paranoid and look around for ways to protect themselves.”[12] The effect of this, as Paul argues, is that studios and artists stop taking risks and instead focus first on safety and the bottom line.

Never mind the fact that the industry shattering Star Wars had yet to hit theatres, Paul ‘s assessment was not far from reality and only waiting to be further proven true. Before the decade let out, most within the New Hollywood movement would feel the dramatic effects of the industry’s shift towards the blockbuster. Following the release of George Lucas’ 1977 intergalactic film, Martin Scorsese would later remark of his generation of filmmakers, “we were finished.” William Friedkin, director of The French Connection (1970) and The Exorcist (1972) would similarly protest, “Stars Wars wiped all the chips off the table.”[13]

No one could have predicted the impact that Stars Wars would have come the latter part of the decade—though Paul does mention its upcoming release—however, both he and Lindsey accurately recognize the dangerous course major studios seemed intent to embark on. It was a course paved by the successes of the past rather than the possibilities of the future. Hollywood, being unable to accurately predict which films would meet financial success, paid little heed to its critics however and continued to spend more money producing their pictures than ever before only there were a whole lot less films from the decade to show for it.

Works Cited

Cook, David A. Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979. New York: C. Scribner, 2000.

Lindsey, Robert. “All Hollywood Loves a Blockbuster­—And Chips Off the Old Blockbuster.” New York Times (New York, NY), May 30, 1976.

Paul, William. “Hollywood Harakiri: William Paul on the Decline of an Industry and an Art.” Film Comment 13, no. 2 (March/April 1977): 40-43, 56-62.

Schulman, Bruce J. The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. New York: Free Press, 2001.

Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Wasser, Frederick. Steven Spielberg’s America. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

[1] Robert Lindsey, “All Hollywood Loves a Blockbuster­—And Chips Off the Old Blockbuster,” New York Times (New York, NY), May 30, 1976.

[2] Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (New York: Free Press, 2004), 28.

[3] David Cook, Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979 (New York: C. Scribner, 2000), 25.

[4] Lindsey.

[5] William Paul, “Hollywood Harikiri,” Film Comment, March/April 1977, 40.

[6] Lindsey.

[7] Bruce Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York: Free Press, 2001), 150.

[8] Lindsey.

[9] Lindsey.

[10] Paul, 57.

[11] Frederick Wasser, Steven Spielberg’s America (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2010), 30.

[12] Lindsey.

[13] Shone, 9.

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