Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
by Tom Shone
A review by Chris Bolton
Tom Shone's Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Summer is a direct rebuttal of Peter Biskind's magnificent Easy
Riders, Raging Bulls, an ode to the first (and to some, including Biskind,
the last) truly independent period of American film: the 1970s. Biskind details
the decade that simultaneously allowed brilliant filmmakers to express their personal
vision and enabled drug-addled narcissists to wallow in their masturbatory excess.
Shone took exception to Biskind's vilification of two filmmakers in particular.
I quote from my own review of the Biskind book:
While the directors themselves can be blamed for their spectacular collapse
in the latter half of the decade, amidst drugs and sex scandals and inflated
budgets (and egos), the industry also turned against them. The blame for that
rests primarily on the shoulders of the two least likely auteurs: a couple
of nerdy, antisocial boys in the ill-fitting bodies of grown men, named Steven
Blockbuster takes up the story where Biskind left off, at the dawn of
the '80s, the era of the blockbuster film, arguing that the self-styled auteurs
of the '70s had managed to alienate mass audiences with relentlessly downbeat,
self-aggrandizing films that felt like homework to sit through, while Spielberg
and Lucas told personal stories in a compelling, entertaining way that brought
moviegoers back to theaters.
Which side of the argument you land on has everything to do, I'm sure, with
whether you embrace or reject the zeitgeist. If the prevailing taste of the
American public is anathema to you, you're likely to dismiss Shone's argument.
But, if you believe people flocked to Star Wars and E.T. because
of relentless media and marketing campaigns, then you really should read Blockbuster,
because Shone does a terrific job of dispelling this theory.
For one thing, the present-day marketing machines were nowhere in place. Twentieth
Century Fox was so certain Star Wars was pure folly that the studio handed
Lucas the sequel and merchandising rights without another thought. The Christmas
following the film's release, Kenner Toys sold certificates that could be redeemed
for a Star Wars action figure once they'd actually gotten around to making
them. A few years later, Universal was so unprepared for the phenomenal success
of E.T. -- the executives' response to the very sight of E.T. was a simple
"Ugh" -- that initially the only merchandising came from a wave of
What drew the masses, argues Shone, wasn't the marketing or some form of mass
hysteria induced by gigantic corporate monoliths (in fact, Columbia Pictures
needed the success of Close Encounters just to keep from going bankrupt),
but the overwhelming power of entertainment. People saw Jaws for
the first time because of the shark, and they were duly scared. But you can
only be jolted by surprise once; what brought them back again and again were
the characters, the sense of adventure, the satisfaction of great storytelling,
and the feeling of communion they shared with the strangers in the theater.
To his credit, Shone doesn't shy away from criticizing the assembly-line mentality
of money-hungry, blockbuster-happy studios churning out lousy product. In fact,
it could be argued that Shone and Biskind are actually putting forth the same,
pro-auteur thesis, albeit on a very different scale. The films Shone champions
-- Spielberg's output from Jaws to E.T., minus 1941; Star
Wars; Back to the Future; and the James Cameron oeuvre -- are guided
by the overriding vision of a single artist (or a pair, in the case of Back
to the Future, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and directed by Zemeckis).
Meanwhile, those would-be blockbusters that are cynically cobbled together
from well-worn commercial elements by a committee largely consisting of studio
executives receive their due scorn. The most notorious example may be the 1998
Godzilla remake, which was rushed through production by Sony executives
eager for a cash cow on par with Independence Day, whose director and
screenwriter reteamed to out-dinosaur Jurassic Park. They made their
first splash in May of 1997, attaching a teaser trailer to Spielberg's The
Lost World, in which the skeleton of a tyrannosaur is crushed by the giant,
green foot of a much larger lizard, followed by the slogan, "Size Matters."
The tagline earned laughs and built anticipation. Sony proceeded to run its
own hype into the ground over the course of a year, and then delivered a bottom-feeding
spectacle that thrilled no one (not even the filmmakers), leaving retailers
overloaded with worthless toys and other unwanted merchandise.
While perceived as a failure, Godzilla grossed $376 million worldwide,
which makes it difficult to deem it an outright disaster; Shone calls it the
"Flop That Wasn't."
How bad do these things have to be to properly fail, anymore? A lot worse than
Godzilla evidently....When movies that critics hate make money, you just
put it down to grumpy critics, or the madness of crowds....But when movies that
nobody likes -- not even its creators -- make $375 million, then something is
seriously wrong with the art of popular moviemaking.
Ultimately Shone's lament isn't all that different from Biskind's: They don't
make 'em like they used to. Shone has a perfect opportunity to illustrate the
deficiencies of popular moviemaking with a side-by-side comparison of Jaws
and Jurassic Park, of which Spielberg admits, "[W]ith Jurassic
I was really just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws. On land."
Shone's dissection of Jurassic's flaws is a precise and perceptive one,
all the more so because Shone seems to be one of the few who wasn't mesmerized
by the awe-inspiring sight of dinosaurs brought to life -- or the cinematic
semblance of it. I sheepishly admit I was awestruck by the splendor of those
CGI creations, but Shone makes a more-than-credible point that Spielberg was
lazy about the whole affair, even the first appearance of the dinosaurs:
The cast dutifully adopt their regulation-issue shock-and-awe expressions,
although how [the dinosaur] crept up on them, given that it is as large as a
house, standing in a field so wide and open you expect to see people practicing
their golf swings, is anyone's guess....[David] Koepp's script had [the protagonists]
walking in a forest, coming across a tree trunk, then three more, the trunks
turning out to be legs -- a much more Spielbergian alternative to the version
Spielberg gives us...
And so the man who essentially created the blockbuster falls victim to its
many traps, turning in an inferior product, made in a slapdash manner, that
nonetheless dazzled enough people to make it one of the all-time top-grossing
films. Compared to the dizzying, head-spinning thrill ride of Jaws, Jurassic
Park is the kiddie coaster that rolls back and forth on the same length
of track, never building enough momentum to carry its passengers anywhere. Then
again, compared to some of the more recent spectacles unleashed on the moviegoing
public -- Van Helsing, Armageddon, Wild Wild West, the
Star Wars prequels -- Jurassic Park looks positively masterful.
In a bit of uncanny serendipity, Blockbuster has been published in the
midst of a box-office slump that has lasted all year. Even the dynamos of Batman
Begins, Lucas's Revenge of the Sith, and Spielberg's War of the
Worlds can't stop the landslide, thus far making 2005 the first year to
not out-gross the previous year's earnings in... who can remember? Are we on
the crux of some cinematic uprising, wherein audiences stay home and force the
studios to put more artistry into their products? Or is the next Titanic
right around the corner waiting to rake in a billion dollars and save the entire
Regardless of its timing and the validity of its argument, Blockbuster is
spellbinding. For film lovers, this kind of book is its own allure: Easy
Riders, Raging Bulls and its follow-up, Down and Dirty Pictures,
were as thrilling to me as the finest cinematic cliffhanger, and even Sharon
Waxman's comparably slight, poorly edited Rebels on the Backlot provided
a fast, pleasurable read. Writing in a personable style similar to Biskind's,
Shone has crafted a book that is so addictive it required forcible restraint
to make me put it down. He packs in the anecdotes -- from Zemeckis replacing
Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox as the lead in Back to the Future, forcing
him to reshoot almost half the movie, to James Cameron using three separate
desks to simultaneously write Rambo and Aliens while revising
The Terminator, each in rotating four-hour shifts -- and like the best
concession snacks, one makes you crave more.
When Blockbuster had ended, I was only disappointed that it wasn't longer,
covering even more movies. Shone expertly encompasses the extremes of the blockbuster
spectrum, from the highs of Jaws and Star Wars to the pitiful
lows of Last Action Hero and Godzilla, and somehow makes the exhilaration
of the highs as enticing as the gossipy thrill of the lows.