Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 23, May 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marina Sheppard

 

Hollywood Business:

On Robert Blanchet's _Blockbuster_

 

 

Robert Blanchet

_Blockbuster: Aesthetik, Oekonomie und Geschichte des Postklassischen Hollywoodkinos_

Marburg: Schueren Verlag, 2003

ISBN 3-89472-342-4

271 pp.

 

Robert Blanchet's monograph, _Blockbuster: Aesthetik, Oekonomie und Geschichte des Postklassischen Hollywoodkinos_ ('Blockbuster: Aesthetics, Economics, and History of Postclassical Hollywood Cinema'), is a detailed film study that discusses the aesthetic and economic changes of blockbusters within the last 30 years. Although written from an academic point of view and by a film and media scholar from the Vienna Institute of Philosophy, laymen will find it understandable and enjoyable. Blanchet acts as film theorist, critic, and historian, but most importantly he is interested in business relations and the facts around the business of filmmaking in the second half of the 20th Century.

 

The first part of the book, 'Aesthetics', is a refutation of the common thesis that contemporary Hollywood cinema replaces narration with attraction. Blanchet reasons that the cinema or aesthetic of attraction, which plays a key role in today's Hollywood movies, has been traceable in every era of cinematic production. He bases his theoretical rationale on the work on classical Hollywood cinema by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson and their neoformalist model of narration in fiction film. Although first year film school material for most Anglo-Saxon universities, this model is still underrepresented in German film studies and teaching. Consequently, Blanchet presents and explains the classical principles of staging, editing (the 'continuity' system), and storytelling as elaborated in their _The Classical Hollywood Cinema_ (1985) before giving an account of the basic neoformalist film theory. Bordwell and Thompson's approach, which is always related to film praxis, and sees the spectator as essential, is presented in a textbook-like manner. Film stills, illustrations, book quotations, and numerous film examples make his rationalization easy to follow.

 

Blanchet then continues to explore in which way classical principles are still respected in modern Blockbusters. By the means of the film dimensions (narration, time, and space) Blanchet shows how the classical paradigm of film art has basically survived every era and all cinematic changes. An example is the experimental cinema that was produced in Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s. It created new artistic techniques that initially seemed totally incompatible with classical filmmaking. But Hollywood was quick to assimilate -- and neutralize -- alternative styles, and it did so by selecting those elements from avant-garde movements, in film and other mediums, that could be more easily incorporated into the classical paradigm. Blanchet does recognize minor changes in the style of narration. One of them being an intensification of particular stylistic techniques as progessive self-reflexive media references in Blockbusters like _Shrek_, and another being an acceleration of film narration caused by faster scene editing. In this part of the book, basic structures of Hollywood film aesthetics are identified and thoroughly explained using contemporary film examples. Also, aesthetic conventions are continuously valued against the background of economic circumstances: 'Unambiguous closings and happy endings are evidently not only the result of aesthetic traditions and structural narrative constraints, but far too often the outcome of economic strategies and the fear of the system to miss the spectators' taste' (77).

 

The second part, 'Economics', examines film as a product and the industry that lies behind it. Film studies often leaves the economic foundations of contemporary Hollywood cinema aside. In Hollywood, film is an investment that in most cases is expected to bring a return to the investor. Strategies of investment and business relations are well documented in this chapter. Numerous graphics and tables simplify the complex figures characterizing the multitude of activities, domains, divisions, and subsidiaries of the major film studios. For each film studio (AOLTimeWarner, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, Sony, Tracinda, and DreamWorks) Blanchet summarizes on one page their activities, thus clarifying the macro structure of the American film industry. The so-called 'package-unit-system' and the life cycle of a film (e.g. from cinema release to pay TV to rental DVD to public TV release) are well explained. Thus important questions are answered without redundancy, such as: What defines the production modus of Hollywood films? How do film projects come alive? How are they followed on? How does the American distribution system work? Who gets which part of the profit in which stage of the film production and distribution? Blanchet proves to its full extent what most people know: that the box office is only the first part of film revenues. Such a study is to my knowledge to this date unique in German language film publications. The gap between low and high budget productions (middling projects, meaning films with a budget between 20 and 50 million US dollars) is just as well explained as the cost explosion for blockbusters and event cinema. It is this increase in budget that makes aesthetic experiments within the mainstream nearly impossible: 'Basically, in Hollywood the creative and the financial risk are in an inversely proportional ratio to each other.' (125)

 

The third and longest part, 'History', can be seen as a synthesis of part one and two. Its emphasis lies on the 1980s and 1990s. As the topic is the dream factory and not art cinema, this chapter discusses film history by examining commercial strategies and decisions made by people involved in making it. For Blanchet relevant aesthetic and technical transformations are Hollywood's strategic reaction to economic problems and challenges. The 'high concept' is an example of a notion which dominates film production and therefore film history since the 1980s. Considering the financial pressure on film projects, the 'high concept' seems to be an imperative. 'High concept' describes a film idea that can be summarized in less than 25 words, relates to common narration formulas, and has hooks which by itself will motivate the potential audience to watch it in the cinema (155). Supported by a saturation or wide release that guaranties a third of cinema revenues on the first weekend, this concept is the recipe of success demanded by the investors. In this case the marketing and not the quality of the product counts. Films with higher estimated aesthetic value that are expected to get good critiques and word of mouth advertising may use a cheaper platform release and start off with less copies. According to Blanchet, the 1990s are marked by technical advances in editing, sound, camera, and special effects that define and form the attraction in cinema. This rather theoretical information is again enriched by illustrations and numerous film examples. The discussion about postmodernism and postclassical cinema is not fundamental to the book's argumentation and occupies little space at the end of this section of the book. For Blanchet 'postclassical Hollywood cinema' is a term useful for historical orientation only.

 

The different parts of the book are designed so that they can be read and used independently if necessary. The connection of the main text with the useful glossary and the exhaustive bibliography makes _Blockbuster_ a valuable textbook and work of reference for laymen and film scholars alike. A selective use of the 271 closely printed pages may be advisable as the intensity of facts and figures can be overtaxing, while the two-columned and lexicon-like composition is not always reader friendly. The numbering of the chapters and the use of the comma are also cause for confusion. The Anglo-German language mix needs some getting used to but is probably inevitable considering the book's topic. However, these are only bagatelles in sight of the benefit this publication brings for German language film scholar publications. It is definitely worth its price.

 

University of Cambridge, England

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Marina Sheppard, 'Hollywood Business: On Robert Blanchet's _Blockbuster_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 23, May 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n23sheppard>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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