Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 24, May 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacobia Dahm

 

Lollywood Adventures:

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.

 

In this rich study Robert Blanchet, an Austrian film and media studies scholar and editor of the online film journal _Cinetext_, maps out the long and intimate relationship between storytelling and economic change in the American film industry since the late 1940s. Those major American media corporations that, because of their stylistic conformity and financial capacity are often lumped together under the name of 'Hollywood' -- such as Warner Bros, New Line, Universal, Disney, Touchstone, Miramax, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Columbia TriStar, DreamWorks, or United Artists -- have long been known for their skill in coupling well-established narrative conventions with a keen eye on economic considerations. However, anecdotes aside, the details of the marriage between aesthetics and money have typically not been carefully analyzed.

 

The book, whose title translates as 'Blockbuster: Aesthetics, Economics, and History of Postclassical Hollywood Cinema', takes up the task in three stand-alone chapters ('Aesthetics', 'Economics', and 'History'). 'Aesthetics' outlines the main arguments as well as the terminology (devices, motivation, syuzhet and fabula, style, narration) of the neoformalist school of film criticism as articulated by the American film scholars David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger, which prioritizes the formal advances in film history. The chapter continues in small sub-chapters to examine and elucidate the narrative, spatial, and temporal storytelling principles of classical Hollywood cinema -- such as continuity, split-screen, flashbacks, duration, editing and so on -- and does so with the help of illustrated examples from popular recent films, such as _Aliens_, _Twister_, _Basic Instinct_, and others. Blanchet reminds us that what marks the classical Hollywood style is in fact its seeming seamlessness, the invisibility of the construction of the film to the audience.

 

The second chapter, 'Economics', investigates the sober economic facts of Hollywood film production and reveals a side of blockbuster filmmaking that is too often ignored, if not obscured by more romantic visions of film production. This chapter shows how film production is driven more by financial than by artistic considerations. The chapter details the facts and numbers from the late 1940s right up to the present, paying particular attention to the so-called 'package-unit-system', the system that replaced the old studio system in the late 1950s and that is still functioning today, in which producers, studios, production companies, writers, actors and directors, distributors, and technicians all come together independently rather than as contractees of a monopolizing studio.

 

Blanchet also provides a useful and comprehensive overview of how the different major American media corporations manage their investment diversification (81-88), a strategy which, as Blanchet argues, makes the ever increasing film budgets possible in the first place. The accounting of Hollywood, one gets the feeling when reading this second chapter, follows the absurd logic of high finance, where it comes as a remarkable truth that a popular film such as _Forrest Gump_ (1994) has to this day not produced any profits. It is equally surprising to find that a filmmaker will have a harder time raising 40 million dollars to make a film than 100 million, a fact that -- at a time of exploding marketing efforts and costs -- is due to a belief that one should either make a cheap film that holds very little risk and requires minimum marketing, or a luxuriously expensive one that might be risky but equally promises huge profits through franchise sales, and which eventually might turn out to be a so-called 'tentpole picture' (124-125), one of the few blockbuster films that actually bring in profit and make future investments into other projects possible. Looking at the tremendous costs of these blockbusters, it seems a simple equation that the less risk-averse a company is, the more financial loss is at stake, and that this inevitably leads to conservative storytelling.

 

Blanchet attributes the huge rise in production costs -- from an average 9.4 million in 1980 to 47.7 million in 2001 -- to a higher demand for 'event' movies (such as _Jurassic Park_ and _Twister_) and a great increase in the earnings of Hollywood star actors and actresses (122). Hollywood economics are such that a film has to reap three times its production costs in order to start generating profits, a condition that is usually indicated by how well the film does within the first 72 hours of its run in the theatres. Fatally, a film that does not harvest 50 percent of its production costs within that period is most likely doomed to fail.

 

The third and last chapter of the book is the weightiest and gives a thorough overview of the historical development of Hollywood since the studio era. That era ended abruptly in 1949 with the enforcement of the so-called Paramount Consent Decree, which broke up the monopoly held by the five biggest studios, forcing them to give up control either over distribution or broadcasting (they chose the latter). But the 1950s and 1960s were also a period of other major changes: the rise of pop culture, the spread of television, the Vietnam War, the rise of global liberation and protest movements, and (a fact that many film companies did not realize for a long time) the rise of a younger audience than ever before (135). Simultaneously, as Blanchet describes, European cinema experienced a new generation of young filmmakers and 'auteurs', such as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, and Antonioni, who would start influencing the cinema of the New Hollywood by the mid-1960s, as well as the work of directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Bogdanovich.

 

The crisis of these years also prepares the landscape of American film companies for the first takeovers and the rise of what would later be the big media conglomerates. But what eventually rejuvenates Hollywood are the blockbusters of the 1970s: Coppola's _The Godfather_, Spielberg's _Jaws_, and Lucas's _Star Wars_ -- the latter ultimately becoming the prototype of what Blanchet has termed the 'postclassical' film, a film that comes with its own brand of merchandise (148).

 

The radical commercialization of Hollywood films creates the formula of the so-called 'High Concept' film, a film that dominates the 1980s and whose story line is so straightforward it can be summed up in 25 words or less (153-155). But since too much recognition ultimately leads to boredom, those stories need something surprising to bring the old and the new elements into equilibrium. What follows from that is a cinematic landscape that produces films in which the basic conflict can be immediately grasped by the audience, and where this repetition is counterbalanced by something spectacular and something new. To see the logic, compare for example _Ghostbusters_ with _Men in Black_ (163). It seems inevitable, then, that remakes and sequels of popular stories flourish in this climate, and still do. And this combination of recognized and spectacular elements that the industry focuses on, are, interestingly, the genres that formerly made up the B-movies, whose trademarks are the thrill guised in old cloaks: action, adventure, fantasy, and horror stories (149). It is in the 1990s that the successful 'High Concept' strategies are turned into the blockbuster as we know it, a film that belongs to the 'Cinema of Attractions' as the American film scholar Tom Gunning has coined it, with films like _Batman_ and _Jurassic Park_, _Independence Day_ and _Titanic_, _The Lord of the Rings_ and _Harry Potter_ (184-185).

 

Blanchet's overall claim -- drawing on Tom Gunning and Umberto Eco -- is that the development that culminates in the spectacle films of the last decade is not so much a new way of storytelling as it is cinema's return to its roots: the cinema of vaudeville, amusement fairs, Melies, and Edison, etc. which made up the cinematic entertainment of the very beginning of the 20th century. It is the modes of production that have changed rather than storytelling itself. However, Blanchet argues, the cinema of the 1990s is very conscious of its countless storytelling repetitions, and happily turns itself into a cinema with a postmodern double coding (226 ff.), both affirming and ironicizing conventional cinematic codes; in neoformalist terms, it aims to please all possible audiences.

 

Blanchet observes that the pillars of classical Hollywood storytelling still hold: unambiguous storylines, which manage to balance action and romance ridiculously well, and heroes that are still at the center of the story. Now, as in the past, storytelling devices such as foreshadowing are favored over surprises, and apart from a few ironic and reflexive asides, as Blanchet shows, the classical narrative still keeps the apparatus of filmmaking out of sight, since 'realism' has always been and still is one of the major aims of Hollywood storytelling. Thus the overall crisis of current blockbuster storytelling is not so much due to a new mode of narration, but instead to the rising financial stakes in those productions that need to target the largest possible audience by attracting everyone and upsetting no-one.

 

Blanchet's enlightening study answers in great detail some of the questions that have recently been raised about blockbuster storytelling and it convincingly provides a methodical and detailed argument for a historical continuation of Hollywood techniques. The breadth of this work is stunning: Blanchet covers visual effects, digital filmmaking, and postmodern storytelling, as well as Quentin Tarantino's postmodern work in relation to Hollywood. Moreover, the book is a solid study written in comprehensible language, which even makes the various technological excursions highly enjoyable to read, and which aims at the interested rather than the exclusively academic reader. It also provides the reader with a solid bibliography as well as a reader-friendly glossary at the end of the text. An English translation of the book would certainly find many fascinated readers.

 

University of Mainz, Germany

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Jacobia Dahm, 'Lollywood Adventures: On Robert Blanchet's _Blockbuster_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 24, May 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n24dahm>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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