November 01, 2011

The New Blockbuster

Watched Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975) only yesterday. Though I knew what to expect, and I love almost all major films made by him, it left me a little disappointed – there was this certain flavor of a ‘commercial’ movie that spoiled my experience. I must explain here that I love well-made commercial cinema. But when the elements to make a film popular are too apparent and on-the-face, I get a feeling of dishonesty. To add to that, ‘Jaws’, in my opinion, suffers from poor editing (ironically it grabbed an Oscar for that). The edit was spectacular and not true to the dramatic and emotional flow of the film. I could never feel for the characters, despite some gimmicks like the protagonist being slapped in public by the woman who lost her child to the shark. Rising tension, building up of suspense, which are so critical for horror-suspense genre was missing. Even a brilliantly created sequence like the one at the beach where Chief is the only person worried about the shark, and the above-mentioned boy is killed, has the feel of a very deliberate editing. May be I was expecting too much. May be I’m thinking too much. But somehow, I’m always put off by such films where one moment the hero is scared and fighting the villain with stylish valour, and the very next moment he shares a one-line joke and laughs like he has nothing to worry about. So after the climactic ordeal, when the two characters in ‘Jaws’ look at each other and start laughing, I’m sorry – that was just too much for me.

‘Jaws’ however is widely considered as one of the greatest films ever made. And when I read about it, I got something very interesting to share, especially relevant in the context of the most talked-about and widely debated movie playing in the theatres today, our very own ‘Ra. One’. The rest of my post is still about ‘Jaws’ but can be read with the perspective of ‘Ra. One’.

‘Jaws’ was one of the first ‘high-concept’ films – that rely on a brief catchy premise powerful enough to inspire the making, and attract financing. ‘Snakes on a Plane’ – the name itself describes the film and its commercial potential. Such films rely on a fantastic idea – ‘what if we could clone dinosaurs?’ ( ‘Jurassic Park’), so much so that generally the character development suffers. This is not universally true (‘Inception’ is a high-concept film with well-developed characters), but generally, and with ‘Jaws’ I could exactly feel that.

However, the historical significance of ‘Jaws’ is much more than that. It is considered a landmark film for a very special reason. The term ‘blockbuster’ was initially used for films that performed exceptionally well at the box-office. With ‘Jaws’ a new definition came into being. Quoting from Wikipedia: “ …the usage of 'blockbuster' for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, a fast-paced exciting entertainment, almost a genre. Audiences interacted with such films, talked about them afterwards, and went back to see them again just for the thrill.” This is interesting to me – ‘Blockbuster’ as a genre. When ‘Jaws’, made at only $9 million, grossed fifty times its budget at the box-office, it had set a new record, and kick-started the ‘summer blockbuster’ trend. Next summer it was ‘The Omen’ (1976), and then it was ‘Star Wars’ (1977) that forced studios to release a big movie during the summer months for instant revenue. This can easily be likened to the current trend in our country where big movies are released around Diwali, Id, and Christmas and make it big by cashing on the ‘festival blockbuster’ phenomenon.

‘Jaws’ is also an important film in the history of film distribution and marketing, as it was the first to successfully use the ‘wide release’ distribution pattern. Before this film, they relied on slow opening and word-of-mouth. Even a hugely successful film like ‘The Godfather’ had opened in only a handful of theatres. ‘Jaws’ changed that – it was released simultaneously on hundreds of screens, with a big nation-wide marketing campaign. It was the first film to extensively use TV for its promotion. Within the first weekend of its release, it had grossed an amount almost equal to its budget.

Cultural phenomenon, commercial landmark, father of the summer blockbuster, marking the beginning of a new business model – with these terms used to discuss this movie, we are forced to look at it from a different perspective. Its contribution to cinema, the costliest and riskiest form of human expression, is no less. Movies like this ensure at least one thing – the trend of going to movie theatres will continue. If such fantastic festival money-spinners are not made, and we limit ourselves to dramas, theatres will soon be obsolete and the audiences will choose to experience cinema sitting in their drawing rooms. I dread at that thought!

1 comment: