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“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. Keep Reading

‘Play It Again, Sam’: Re-selling and Re-watching Hollywood’s Classics, 1946-49.

For most of the studio era in Hollywood, movies were defined by a particular sense of impermanence. Produced in a matter of weeks and circulated only until they failed to earn more than the potential of the new film on deck, the life of most motion pictures in the thirties and forties was decidedly short-lived. In 1931, one moviegoer’s magazine put it simply: “like life itself, the nature of the film play is essentially ephemeral. The vivid spectacle that enchants the world today is tomorrow but a memory.”[1] Significant, then, is how so many films from the 1930s and 1940s overcame their fundamentally fleeting natures to endure as “classics.”

Prior to the proliferation of film on television in the mid-1950s, and perhaps more consequently, the advent of home media in the late-1970s, for most moviegoers, the only opportunity to reflect on Hollywood’s older movies was when studios chose to “reissue” films from years’ past back to theatres. Before the 1940s, this practice remained consistently inconsistent in its employ from the mid-1910s, where perhaps a small handful of old pictures might have made their returns to general cinemas each year. However, by the late-1940s, film reissues inundated American cinemas. Facing unprecedented economic turmoil­—caused by dropping attendance figures and rising production costs—Hollywood studios returned to their archives, pouring hundreds of hits (and flops) from the prior decades back into theatres from late-1946 to 1949. In selling these films the second or third time around, Hollywood often took the opportunity to reframe their past pictures in effort to ascribe a certain significance, warranted or not, for attracting audiences then able to re-watch and re-evaluate movies from the prior two decades; a process, which in turn, allowed for certain films to gain actual enduring significance. Keep Reading

The Emergence of the Modern Blockbuster in the 1970s

"Jaws is No. 1"

As Hollywood prepared to enter the 1970s, its future had never been less assured. Recognizing this, the National Association of Theatre Owners—the leading trade organization for film exhibitors—hosted their November 1969 convention centered around the theme: “The Challenge and Response to the Unconventional ’70s.” The organization’s president, Julian S. Rifkin, in his introduction to the event, declared the challenge of the upcoming decade to be “an all-inclusive, all-important one: the very problem of survival.”[i] Though the decade had not yet arrived, a host of existing challenges from the 1960s seemed poised to carry over and intensify in the coming years. And only industry response to these challenges, Rifkin contended, would “determine the future of the motion picture and motion picture theatre industries.”[ii]

These anxieties, while alarming, were not without reason. Weekly theatre attendance, which had declined in the prior decade, would reach an all-time low in 1971.[iii] Television viewership, meanwhile, was on the rise, and the introduction of “pay TV” presented as a great a perceived external threat as any the industry had yet faced. And overshadowing all of this was an industry-wide recession from 1969-71, the result of rampant overproduction and underperformance, that nearly drove several studios to the point of insolvency, Yet, out of these circumstances, the movie industry would develop itself anew and emerge transformed by decade’s end, no doubt because of the decisions made by executives over the course of the period.

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