Blockbuster (entertainment)

Last updated
Queue for Gone with the Wind in Pensacola, Florida (1947) Crowds line up to see "Gone with the Wind" in Pensacola, Florida (1947).jpg
Queue for Gone with the Wind in Pensacola, Florida (1947)

A blockbuster is a work of entertainment—typically used to describe a feature film produced by a major film studio, but also other media—that is highly popular and financially successful. The term has also come to refer to any large-budget production intended for "blockbuster" status, aimed at mass markets with associated merchandising, sometimes on a scale that meant the financial fortunes of a film studio or a distributor could depend on it.



The term began to appear in the American press in the early 1940s, [1] referring to the blockbuster bombs, aerial munitions capable of destroying a whole block of buildings. [2] Its first known use in reference to films was in May 1943, when advertisements in Variety [3] and Motion Picture Herald described the RKO film, Bombardier , as "The block-buster of all action-thrill-service shows!" Another trade advertisement in 1944 boasted that the war documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa , "hits the heart like a two ton blockbuster."

Several theories have been put forward for the origin of the term in a film context. One explanation pertains to the practice of "block booking" whereby a studio would sell a package of films to theaters, rather than permitting them to select which films they wanted to exhibit. However, this practice was outlawed in 1948 before the term became common parlance; while pre-1948 high-grossing big-budget spectacles may be retroactively labelled "blockbusters," this is not how they were known at the time. Another explanation is that trade publications would often advertise the popularity of a film by including illustrations showing long queues often extending around the block, but in reality the term was never used in this way. The term was actually first coined by publicists who drew on readers' familiarity with the blockbuster bombs, drawing an analogy with the bomb's huge impact. The trade press subsequently appropriated the term as short-hand for a film's commercial potential. Throughout 1943 and 1944 the term was applied to films such as Bataan , No Time for Love and Brazil . [4]


Golden Age era

The term fell out of usage in the aftermath of World War II but was revived in 1948 by Variety in an article about big budget films. By the early 1950s the term had become standardised within the film industry and the trade press to denote a film that was large in spectacle, scale and cost, that would go on to achieve a high gross. In December 1950 the Daily Mirror predicted that Samson and Delilah would be "a box office block buster", and in November 1951 Variety described Quo Vadis as "a b.o. blockbuster [...] right up there with Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind for boxoffice performance [...] a super-spectacle in all its meaning". [4]

According to Stephen Prince, Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film Seven Samurai had a "racing, powerful narrative engine, breathtaking pacing, and sense-assaulting visual style" (what he calls a "kinesthetic cinema" approach to "action filmmaking and exciting visual design") that was "the clearest precursor" and became "the model for" the "visceral" Hollywood blockbuster "brand of moviemaking" that emerged in the 1970s. According to Prince, Kurosawa became "a mentor figure" to a generation of emerging American filmmakers who went on to develop the Hollywood blockbuster format in the 1970s, such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. [5]

Blockbuster era


In 1975, the usage of "blockbuster" for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg's Jaws . It was perceived as a new cultural phenomenon: fast-paced, exciting entertainment, inspiring interest and conversation beyond the theatre (which would later be called "buzz"), and repeated viewings. [6] The film is regarded as the first film of the "blockbuster era", and founded the blockbuster film genre. [7] Two years later, Star Wars expanded on the success of Jaws, setting box office records and enjoying a theatrical run that lasted more than a year. [8] After the success of Jaws and Star Wars, many Hollywood producers attempted to create similar "event" films with wide commercial appeal, and film companies began green-lighting increasingly large-budget films, and relying extensively on massive advertising blitzes leading up to their theatrical release. These two films were the prototypes for the "summer blockbuster" trend, [9] in which major film studios and distributors planned their annual marketing strategy around a big release by July 4. [10]


The next fifteen years saw a number of high-quality blockbusters released including the likes of Alien (1979) and its sequel, Aliens (1986), the first three Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984 and 1989), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), the Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989 and 1990), the Steven Spielberg-produced An American Tail (1986), Top Gun (1986), Die Hard (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Batman (1989) and its sequel Batman Returns (1992), The Little Mermaid (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), The Lion King (1994) and Toy Story (1995). [11] [12] [13] [14] [15]

21st century

Some examples of summer blockbusters from the 2000s include Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), The Da Vinci Code (2006), Transformers (2007) and Iron Man (2008) [16] —all of which founded successful franchises—and originals like The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Pixar's Finding Nemo (2003), Wall-E (2008) and Up (2009). [17] The superhero genre saw renewed interest with X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Batman Begins (2005) and its sequel The Dark Knight (2008) all proving to be very popular. [18]

Blockbusters in the 2010s include Inception (2010), Despicable Me (2010), Ted (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Frozen (2013), [19] Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Wonder Woman (2017). Snowpiercer (2014) proved to be the rare example of an international blockbuster that did not perform well in the North American market. Several established franchises continued to spawn successful entries with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) and Pixar's Toy Story 3 (2010) and Incredibles 2 (2018) among the highlights. Several older franchises were successfully resurrected by Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Man of Steel (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and its sequel War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). The most successful franchise of the decade was arguably Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly The Avengers series. [20]

The "intellectual blockbuster" is a collocation that feature plots that are puzzles and/or nonlinear narratives. David Fear, writing for Rolling Stone , considers Christopher Nolan's Inception an example. [21] Novelist D. Harlan Wilson also applied the term to Steven Spielberg's Minority Report . [22] Other examples include Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity , [23] Alex Garland's Civil War [24] and James Mangold's Logan . [25]

Blockbusters in the 2020s include Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse , [26] The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Barbie (each from 2023). [27] [28]


Eventually, the focus on creating blockbusters grew so intense that a backlash occurred, with some critics and film-makers decrying the prevalence of a "blockbuster mentality", [29] lamenting the death of the author-driven, "more artistic" small-scale films of the New Hollywood era. This view is taken, for example, by film journalist Peter Biskind, who wrote that all studios wanted was another Jaws, and as production costs rose, they were less willing to take risks, and therefore based blockbusters on the "lowest common denominators" of the mass market. [30] In his 2006 book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson talks about blockbuster films, stating that a society that is hit-driven, and makes way and room for only those films that are expected to be a hit, is in fact a limited society. [31] In 1998, writer David Foster Wallace posited that films are subject to an inverse cost and quality law. [32]

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Jurassic Park</i> (film) 1993 film by Steven Spielberg

Jurassic Park is a 1993 American science fiction action film directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Gerald R. Molen, and starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Richard Attenborough. It is the first installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, and the first film in the original Jurassic Park trilogy, and is based on Michael Crichton's 1990 novel of the same name, with a screenplay by Crichton and David Koepp. The film is set on the fictional island of Isla Nublar, off Central America's Pacific Coast near Costa Rica, where a wealthy businessman John Hammond (Attenborough), and a team of genetic scientists have created a wildlife park of de-extinct dinosaurs. When industrial sabotage leads to a catastrophic shutdown of the park's power facilities and security precautions, a small group of visitors, including Hammond's grandchildren, struggle to survive and escape the now perilous island.

<i>E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial</i> 1982 film directed by Steven Spielberg

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a 1982 American science fiction film produced and directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Melissa Mathison. It tells the story of Elliott, a boy who befriends an extraterrestrial, dubbed E.T., who is left behind on Earth. Along with his friends and family, Elliott must find a way to help E.T. find his way home. The film stars Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore.

<i>Jaws</i> (film) 1975 thriller film by Steven Spielberg

Jaws is a 1975 American thriller film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. It stars Roy Scheider as police chief Martin Brody, who, with the help of a marine biologist and a professional shark hunter, hunts a man-eating great white shark that attacks beachgoers at a summer resort town. Murray Hamilton plays the mayor, and Lorraine Gary portrays Brody's wife. The screenplay is credited to Benchley, who wrote the first drafts, and actor-writer Carl Gottlieb, who rewrote the script during principal photography.

The decade of the 1980s in Western cinema saw the return of studio-driven pictures, coming from the filmmaker-driven New Hollywood era of the 1970s. The period was when the "high concept" picture was created by producer Don Simpson, where films were expected to be easily marketable and understandable. Therefore, they had short cinematic plots that could be summarized in one or two sentences. Since its implementation, this method has become the most popular formula for modern Hollywood blockbusters. At the same time in Eastern cinema, the Hong Kong film industry entered a boom period that significantly elevated its prominence in the international market.

Modern animation in the United States from the late 1980s to the early 2000s is frequently referred to as the renaissance age of American animation. During this period, many large American entertainment companies reformed and reinvigorated their animation departments, following the dark age, and the United States had an overall profound effect on animation globally.

The decade of the 1970s in film involved many significant developments in world cinema.

<i>Toy Story 2</i> 1999 Pixar film

Toy Story 2 is an American animated adventure comedy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures. The second installment in the Toy Story franchise and the first sequel to Toy Story (1995), it was directed by John Lasseter, co-directed by Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, and produced by Helene Plotkin and Karen Robert Jackson, from a screenplay written by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin, and Chris Webb, and a story conceived by Lasseter, Stanton, Brannon, and Pete Docter. In the film, Woody is stolen by a toy collector, prompting Buzz Lightyear and his friends to rescue him, but Woody is then tempted by the idea of immortality in a museum. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, R. Lee Ermey, John Morris, and Laurie Metcalf reprise their roles from the first Toy Story film and they are joined by Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Estelle Harris, Wayne Knight, and Jodi Benson, who play the new characters introduced in this film.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brad Bird</span> American filmmaker (born 1957)

Phillip Bradley Bird is an American writer, director and producer. He has had a career spanning forty years in both animation and live-action.

<i>Toy Story 3</i> 2010 Pixar film

Toy Story 3 is a 2010 American animated comedy-drama film produced by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures. It is the third installment in the Toy Story series and the sequel to Toy Story 2 (1999). It was directed by Lee Unkrich, the editor of the first two films and the co-director of Toy Story 2, produced by Darla K. Anderson, and written by Michael Arndt, while Unkrich wrote the story along with John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, respectively, director and co-writer of the first two films. The film's ensemble voice cast includes Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, Jeff Pidgeon, Jodi Benson, John Morris, Laurie Metcalf and R. Lee Ermey, reprising their roles from previous films. Jim Varney, who voiced Slinky Dog in the first two films, died in 2000, 10 years before the release of the third film, so the role of Slinky was passed down to Blake Clark. The returning cast is joined by Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg, Timothy Dalton, Kristen Schaal, Bonnie Hunt, and Jeff Garlin, who voice the new characters introduced in this film. In Toy Story 3, Andy Davis (Morris), now 17 years old, is going to college. Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen), and the other toys are accidentally donated to Sunnyside Daycare, a daycare center, by Andy's mother (Metcalf), and the toys must decide where their loyalties lie.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Superhero film</span> Film genre

A superhero film is a film that focuses on superheroes and their actions. Superheroes are individuals who usually possess superhuman abilities and are dedicated to protecting the public. These films typically feature action, adventure, fantasy, or science fiction elements. The first film about a particular character often focuses on the hero's origin story. It also frequently introduces the hero's nemesis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Steven Spielberg filmography</span> Filmography of American filmmaker Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is an American director, producer and writer. He is considered one of the founding pioneers of the New Hollywood era, as well as one of the most popular directors and producers in film history. He is also one of the co-founders of Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks Pictures, and DreamWorks Animation.

<i>Cars 2</i> 2011 American computer-animated film

Cars 2 is a 2011 American animated spy comedy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures. It is the sequel to Cars (2006), the second film in the Cars franchise, and the 12th animated film from the studio. The film was directed by John Lasseter, co-directed by Brad Lewis, produced by Denise Ream, and written by Ben Queen, Lasseter, Lewis, and Dan Fogelman. In the film's ensemble voice cast, Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Tony Shalhoub, Guido Quaroni, Bonnie Hunt, and John Ratzenberger reprise their roles from the first film. George Carlin, who previously voiced Fillmore, died in 2008, and his role was passed to Lloyd Sherr. They are joined by newcomers Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard, and Thomas Kretschmann. In the film, Lightning McQueen and Mater head overseas to compete in the World Grand Prix which promotes a new alternative fuel called Allinol, but Mater accidentally becomes involved in international espionage that could determine both his and Lightning's fate.

<i>Jaws</i> (franchise) American film franchise

Jaws is an American thriller film series that started with a 1975 film that expanded into three sequels, a theme park ride, and other tie-in merchandise, based on a 1974 novel. The main subject of the saga is a great white shark and its attacks on people in specific areas of the United States and The Bahamas. The Brody family is featured in all of the films as the primary antithesis to the shark. The original film was based on a novel written by Peter Benchley, which itself was inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916. Benchley adapted his novel, along with help from Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, into the 1975 film Jaws, which was directed by Steven Spielberg. Although Gottlieb went on to pen two of the three sequels, neither Benchley nor Spielberg returned to the film series in any capacity.

<i>Toy Story</i> (franchise) Disney media franchise created by Pixar

Toy Story is an American media franchise owned by The Walt Disney Company. It centers on toys that, unknown to humans, are secretly living, sentient creatures. It began in 1995 with the release of the animated feature film of the same name, which focuses on a diverse group of toys featuring a classic cowboy doll named Sheriff Woody and a modern spaceman action figure named Buzz Lightyear.

An event film or event movie is a blockbuster film whose release itself is considered a major event.

<i>Incredibles 2</i> 2018 film by Brad Bird

Incredibles 2 is a 2018 American animated superhero film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Written and directed by Brad Bird, it is the sequel to The Incredibles (2004) and the second full-length installment of the franchise. The story follows the Incredibles as they try to restore the public's trust in superheroes while balancing their family life, only to combat a new opponent who seeks to turn the populace against all supers. Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell and Samuel L. Jackson reprise their roles from the first film; newcomers to the cast include Huckleberry Milner, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener and Jonathan Banks. Michael Giacchino returned to compose the score.

<i>Toy Story 4</i> 2019 Pixar film

Toy Story 4 is a 2019 American animated comedy-drama film produced by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures. It is the fourth installment in Pixar's Toy Story series and the sequel to Toy Story 3 (2010). It was directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom; the three also conceived the story alongside John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Valerie LaPointe, and Martin Hynes. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, Blake Clark, Jeff Pidgeon, Bonnie Hunt, Jeff Garlin, Kristen Schaal, and Timothy Dalton reprise their character roles from the first three films, and are joined by Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, and Ally Maki, who voice new characters introduced in this film. Set after the third film, Toy Story 4 follows Woody (Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Allen) as the pair and the other toys go on a road trip with Bonnie, who creates Forky (Hale), a spork made with recycled materials from her school. Meanwhile, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Potts), and must decide where his loyalties lie.


  1. "Google Ngram Viewer". Retrieved 2018-01-09.
  2. "blockbuster | Definition of blockbuster in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries | English. Archived from the original on July 30, 2012. Retrieved 2018-01-09.
  3. "Advertisement for the film "Bombardier"". Variety. May 12, 1943. pp. 14–15.
  4. 1 2 Hall, Sheldon (2014). "Pass the ammunition : a short etymology of "Blockbuster"" (PDF). Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  5. Prince, Stephen (6 November 2015). "Kurosawa's international legacy". In Davis, Blair; Anderson, Robert; Walls, Jan (eds.). Rashomon Effects: Kurosawa, Rashomon and their legacies. Routledge. p. 132. ISBN   978-1-317-57464-4 . Retrieved 21 April 2022.
  6. Tom Shone: Blockbuster (2004). London, Simon & Schuster UK. ISBN   0-7432-6838-5. See pp. 27–40.
  7. Neale, Steve. "Hollywood Blockbusters: Historical Dimensions." Ed. Julien Stinger. Hollywood Blockbusters. London: Routeledge, 2003. pp. 48–50. Print.
  8. "Celebrating the Original STAR WARS on its 35th Anniversary". Retrieved 2018-01-09.
  9. Gray, Tim (2015-06-18). "'Jaws' 40th Anniversary: How Steven Spielberg's Movie Created the Summer Blockbuster". Variety. Retrieved 2018-01-09.
  10. Shone (2004), Chapter 1.
  11. "Did 'Jaws' and 'Star Wars' Ruin Hollywood?". Ross Douthat. 22 June 2010. Retrieved 2018-01-09.
  12. The Circle Of Life: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Lion King (1994)|Screen Rant
  13. Toys Are the Story on Holiday Weekend:Disney’s ‘Toy Story’ is Thanksgiving’s big moneymaker. The animated film could propel the five days to a record $152 million in ticket sales. - Los Angeles Times
  14. Who Framed Roger Rabbit - Museum of the Moving Image
  15. A Fievel Revival: The 35th Anniversary of "An American Tail"|Cartoon Research
  16. Don't Blame Barbie and Ken for Killing the Movies - And Don't Blame IP -
  17. Summer Blockbusters from the 2000s: 'Gladiator', 'Pirates of the Caribbean', 'Spidr-Man' and More|A.Frame
  18. "Summer Blockbusters That Defined the 2000s". CBR. July 22, 2020.
  19. 10 Harsh Realities Of Rewatching Frozen, 10 Years Later - ScreenRant
  20. "Our 25 Favourite Blockbusters of the 2010s". Gizmodo Australia. July 13, 2020.
  21. Fear, David (July 18, 2020). "'Inception' at 10: Is It the Ultimate Christopher Nolan Movie?". Rolling Stone . Retrieved April 8, 2024.
  22. Wilson, D. Harlan. "Minority Report". Retrieved April 8, 2024.
  23. Sachs, Ben (October 2, 2013). "In Gravity, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are lost in space". Chicago Reader . Retrieved April 8, 2024.
  24. Civil War Review:Alex Garland’s Electrifying War Story Is An Intellectual Blockbuster Triumph|CINEMABLEND
  25. Bui, Hoai-Tran (June 26, 2017). "'War For The Planet Of The Apes' Is A Brilliant Blockbuster Limited By Its Worship Of Genre". /Film . Retrieved April 8, 2024.
  26. Weekend Animated Box-Office Battle: It’s Sony’s ‘Spider-Verse’ versus Pixar’s ‘Elemental’|Animation Magazine
  27. Super Mario Bros. Wonder designers first Mario game since its blockbuster movie - WBUR
  28. ‘Barbie’ Becomes Top-Grossing Movie of 2023 Domestically, Global to Soon Follow - The Hollywood Reporter
  29. Stringer, Julian (June 15, 2003). Movie Blockbusters. Psychology Press. p. 108. ISBN   9780415256087 via Google Books.
  30. Peter Biskind: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock 'N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood . Simon and Schuster, 1998.
  31. Anderson, Chris. "The Long Tail" (PDF). Chris Anderson. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 5, 2010. Retrieved April 20, 2011.
  32. Foster Wallace, David (November 6, 2012). Both Flesh and Not. New York: Little Brown & Company. ISBN   978-0316182379.