Now that was a blockbuster.

Source: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Hollywood's Idea of a Blockbuster Is All Wrong

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The looming Labor Day weekend marks the end of a dismal season at the multiplex. “Hollywood’s blockbuster machine frequently stalled and sputtered this summer,” writes the Associated Press, “leaving behind a steady trail of misbegotten reboots, ill-conceived sequels and questionable remakes.” Even an apparent hit like “Suicide Squad” can be described as a disappointment, because its likely worldwide take in the $700 million range is significantly less than Warner Brothers hoped for. Certainly it will not reach the $1 billion threshold that nowadays is apparently viewed as the definition of a blockbuster.

I don’t have a theory on why the audience is shrinking. But the language maven in me is intrigued by the word blockbuster itself. Why do we define a blockbuster by earnings? Once upon a time Hollywood had a more qualitative definition; maybe it’s time to recover it.

The word served originally as the nickname for the massive bombs dropped by the Royal Air Force during World War II. A blockbuster literally blew things up. So it’s easy to understand how, after the war, journalists began to use the word to show that some event had come as a potent and unwelcome surprise. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1957 ordered du Pont (as it was then known) to divest its holdings in General Motors, Life magazine called the decision a “Judicial Blockbuster.”

In 1946, the New York Times described the upset of Wimbledon tennis champ Yvon Petra as “the blockbuster of the season.” When the Washington Post in 1949 derisively referred to the activities of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in the Middle East as “Bevin’s Blockbuster,” readers understood the implicit argument that his interference could lead to catastrophic results.  Evolution of this sort from the wartime usage is easy to understand. The events in question were (metaphorically) explosive. The effects were disruptive. But when did we start calling hit movies blockbusters?

Eleven years ago, in his “On Language” column in the New York Times, the great wordsmith William Safire disputed the theory found in several sources that Hollywood coined the word in the 1920s. Safire called the notion “speculative,” because “no specific citation is given, and without a citation, you don't have a coinage you can bite on.” He suspected but could not prove that the usage in entertainment postdated the usage in World War II.

Safire was right. And by following his invitation to get specific, we can understand what the word ought to mean. The Online Etymological Dictionary traces the term in its entertainment sense to 1957, but we can easily go back further. In a 1953 interview after he took control of United Artists, Arthur Krim defined the studio’s theory as a “realistic attempt at reaching a balance between block-buster artistic and financial films and the more moderate type of salable program picture.”  Notice that in Krim’s usage, a “block-buster” can be either artistic or financial. In other words, he is not thinking only of box office earnings. He is thinking of something else.  But what?

Let’s go back to 1947, when the writer and critic Leon Gutterman referred to the film “Crossfire” as “that vivid dramatic blockbuster which deals with anti-Semitism.” He could not have been talking about money. True, the film earned a small profit -- just over $1 million -- but by this time any number of films were already earning in the eight figures on minuscule budgets. Similarly, when a 1951 advertisement in the Los Angeles Times for the 1949 Cécile Aubry vehicle “Manon” quoted a critic who called the film “a sex blockbuster,” the reference could not have been to box office.

That made both “Manon” and “Crossfire” important films was their disruptive quality. There was anti-Semitism in “Crossfire.” There was sex in “Manon.” But neither film was a big hit, so they weren’t blockbusters because of their earnings. They were blockbusters because they were moderately successful while dealing with topics the major studios had largely avoided.

Consider the original “Ben Hur.” In his glowing 1959 review, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times defined “the so-called ‘blockbuster’ spectacle film” as one “which generally provokes a sublimation of sensibility to action and pageantry.” But in praising the film for its possession of these qualities, he could not have known how successful it would be. When the Times announced a year later that a “blockbuster” film version of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” novels was on the way, the article referred not to the expected box office earnings, but to the expected scope in time and place, and to the length of the film, estimated at perhaps four hours.

What’s useful about thinking of the word blockbuster this way is that we understand that we mean something other than a hit -- we mean in some sense an achievement. So although a movie can be both a hit and a blockbuster (“Avatar,” for example) it can also be a huge hit without being a blockbuster (the second “Star Wars” trilogy), and vice versa.

The point is that a blockbuster, whether or not a hit, should always be disruptive. It should show us something different and new. If Hollywood wants audiences back in the theaters, surely that's the way to go.

  1. According to Box Office Mojo, even correcting for ticket-price inflation, only eight films in history have earned over $1 billion domestically. As to worldwide gross, Box Office Mojo lists 26 films that have earned over $1 billion in nominal dollars, but does not try to adjust for ticket price inflation, a considerable challenge when dealing with figures from multiple countries. A number of less authoritative sites have tried to do a simple inflation calculation. These tend to place the number of billion-adjusted-dollar films at close to 50 since 1937 (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”). By this measure, we might reasonably conclude that that there have been only about 50 true blockbusters in the history of Hollywood -- a plausible number.

  2. Similarly, one can readily understand how the term “blockbusting” came to refer to the practice of unscrupulous real estate agents who persuade homeowners to sell at a discount by whispering that some disliked minority is about to move into the neighborhood: the idea is that prices will implode.

  3. That same year, a letter-writer complained to the New York Times about the tendency of theater critics to use such words as “honest” and “moving” in their reviews: “The average Broadway theatregoer does not respond to such words. To him a play is a blockbuster or a dud.”

  4. This is as good a place as any to note in passing that from at least 1948 and for a few years following, Box Office magazine carried the occasional advertisement for Blockbuster Popcorn.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net