Manufacturing the Blockbuster: the "Newest Art Form of the Twentieth Century"
Manufacturing the Blockbuster: the "Newest Art Form of the Twentieth Century"
3The "Blockbuster Syndrome": A New Kind of Gambling
Manufacturing the Blockbuster: The "Newest Art Form of the Twentieth Century"
Constructing the Blockbuster Decade
"The Modem Era of Super-Blockbuster Films"
Whatever else [The Godfather, Jaws, and The Exorcist] proved about the dream state of the national psyche, they proved without a shadow of a doubt that a single picture could carry the entire industry for a year and could carry the individual company that produced and distributed it, or the exhibitor who played it, for several years.
Harlan Jacobson, Film Comment, 1980
The industry recession and shakeout of 1969-1971 taught the majors that the regular flow of product was no longer profitable because there was no longer a regular and predictable audience for their films. In 1969, they had seen the low-budget "youth-cult" film Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper) return $19.2 million in domestic rentals, while the expensively produced musicals Hello, Dolly! (Gene Kelly) and Paint Your Wagon (Joshua Logan) lost $14 million between them. In the early seventies, however, several big-budget movies with more or less traditional appeal—Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970), Airport (George Seaton, 1970), and, especially, The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)—unexpectedly earned windfall profits. The conviction grew that the industry had experienced a cataclysmic market shift in which only a few films each year (perhaps one in ten) would make big profits, while the rest would break even or produce losses. History suggested that pictures with big budgets had the best chance of succeeding in a volatile market, but also—very clearly—that there was no way to guarantee a hit. Paramount president Frank Yablans put the new thinking to his colleagues succinctly: "We want one big picture a year. The rest are budgeted to minimize risk."1
Indeed, by 1977 the top six of the 199 major films released accounted for one-third of the year's income, and the top thirteen for half (of those thirteen, all but one were distributed by a major).2 In the absence of any body of professional knowledge to predict a hit, the majors put their faith in aggressive marketing and promotion to create product awareness and sell their movies as special attractions. As Columbia Pictures president David Begelman explained in 1974, "We feel we must put out special event films because no one goes to the movies anymore as a routine exercise."3 If moviegoing had become less a matter of habit than discretionary choice, then each film needed to be sold as a "blockbuster"—a major event that would have the status of a unique experience—and sold on a global scale. This meant providing wide access through saturation booking, once reserved for dubious product only, combined with mass advertising to maximize audiences at the point of sale—a distribution strategy that grew ever more effective as the proliferation of Hollywood-sponsored multiplexes dramatically increased the number of screens available for saturation release.
According to an analysis of the 1971 business year by Lee Beaupre that appeared in Variety for November 30, 1972,4 the "boom-bust" cycle could be traced to divorcement and the end of block-booking in the early 1950s. From that time forward, a relatively small number of blockbusters carried the whole economic float of ongoing filmmaking, resulting in the "hit-or-miss" mentality of the late sixties. Historically, if a film did well in preliminary bookings, the distributor's sales force would back it and create exhibitor demand; if it did poorly, exhibitors and distributors both dumped it as soon as possible—no one stood behind the product and tried to market it.5 Beaupre demonstrates his point by showing that for 1971 only 14 of 185 major pictures (those released by the seven majors and two "instant majors"), or 8 percent, generated 52 percent of the income. Of the rest, 54 (29 percent) earned less than $250,000, and only 71 of the 185—about one-third of the majors' product—could expect to break even by earning $1 million or more in the domestic market. From data like this grew the guiding principal of the "blockbuster syndrome": that seven out of ten films lose money, two out of ten break even, and one will be an enormous success.6 A second rule of thumb, dictated largely by escalating costs of marketing and prints, was that a film must recoup three dollars for every dollar spent on production before it generates a profit. As Suzanne Mary Donahue points out, however, this rule does not apply across the board from lower to higher budget films, since certain costs, like those for prints (which, in the late 1990s, cost $2,000 each), vary little from one film to the next. Thus, whereas a $10-million picture may need $30 million to break even, a $30-million picture can break even for less—another factor that encouraged gambling on blockbusters.
The Quest for "Pre-Sold" Product
The formation of a pervasive "blockbuster mentality" in the seventies ultimately increased the power of the majors, because only they had both the organization to distribute films in domestic and international markets, and the resources to finance production in the context of rapidly escalating costs. On average, the negative cost of a Hollywood feature rose from $2 million in 1972 (when Paramount's The Godfather was a big-budget film at $6 million), to $9 million in 1979—when Fox's Alien (Ridley Scott) cost $11 million to produce and $16 million to promote.7 By 1979, marketing expenses could run three times a film's negative cost and were the single largest cause of budgetary inflation, followed closely by the cost of stars. While stars could not guarantee box-office success, in the volatile post-studio marketplace they at least seemed to offer a dependable hedge against risk. For this reason, throughout the 1970s star fees and profit-sharing arrangements grew in proportion to the stars' perceived "bankability," rising to a million dollars and more per picture for top stars.8 As a result, many stars formed their own companies and became powerful players within the production community.
The same general logic marked a turn toward "pre-sold" properties like best-selling novels or hit plays, whose reach could be extended through publishing tie-ins, sound-track albums, and ancillary merchandise—with the promise of creating a "synergy" in which the film built the book, which built the album, which in turn built the film. (Such thinking was partially a response to a Yankelovich Report on industry marketing practices, which the MPAA commissioned in 1967, and which concluded that prerelease publicity "seems unable to create extensive public awareness" for movies without "a tie-in with a very familiar book or play or music.")9 Book and movie tie-ins became especially valuable as more and more studios were linked with publishers through conglomerate ownership—Paramount with Simon & Schuster through Gulf & Western; Univeral with G. P. Putnam's Sons through MCA; Warner Bros. with Warner Books through Warner Communications—since, by the end of the decade, the price that movie companies would pay for best-seller rights had risen to a record $2.5 million.10
A New Reliance on Genre, Series, and Sequels
The seventies also marked a conscious return to the production of genre films, sequels, and series, which were more typical of classical Hollywood than of the post-studio era, because of their obvious market-tested elements and universal appeal. With so much riding on each film, blockbuster production sought to ensure profitability by relying on what had worked with audiences in the past. Genre movies—whether gangster films (The Godfather ), horror films (The Exorcist [William Friedkin, 1973]), disaster/monster films (Jaws [Steven Spielberg, 1975]), or science fiction films (Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977])—were more easily packaged and marketed on a global scale than other kinds of films, and were easier to replicate as sequels, cycles, or series for pre-existing markets. Advertising, promotion, and ancillary activities for sequels and series could be piggybacked with the original, and were sometimes even planned simultaneously. (For example, Alexander Salkind produced The Three Musketeers [Richard Lester, 1974] in Spain for Fox at the same time as its sequel The Four Musketeers [Richard Lester, 1975]; and in 1978 he shot key scenes for Warner's Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980] during the production of Superman [Richard Donner, 1978]). A reluctance to abandon successful formulas has been a distinguishing feature of the American film industry since its inception, but in the high-stakes crap shoot of blockbuster production the tendency was inflated with the same amplitude as budgets. By the end of the seventies, most hits had been reproduced as big-budget sequels with Roman or Arabic numerals after their titles (The Godfather, Part II [Francis Ford Coppola, 1974], The French Connection II [John Frankenheimer, 1975], That's Entertainment, Part 2 [Gene Kelly, 1976], Exorcist II: The Heretic [John Boorman, 1977], Jaws 2 [Jeannot Szwarc, 1978], Damien—Omen II [Don Taylor, 1978], Rocky II [Sylvester Stallone, 1979], Smokey and the Bandit II [Hal Needham, 1980]); or a succession of new dates (Airport 1975 [Jack Smight, 1974], Airport'77 [Jerry Jameson, 1977], The Concorde—Airport '79 [David Lowell Rich, 1979]).11 Similar phenomena were series films (Dirty Harry [Don Siegel, 1971], Magnum Force [Ted Post, 1973], The Enforcer [James Fargo, 1976]); blockbuster remakes (Farewell My Lovely [Dick Richards, 1975], King Kong [John Guillermin, 1976], A Star Is Born [Frank Pierson, 1976]); reissues (The Exorcist [1973; reissued 1976 and, in a 70mm blowup, 1979]; Jaws [1975; reissued 1976]; Star Wars [1977; reissued 1978]; Close Encounters of the Third Kind [Steven Spielberg, 1977; re-edited and reissued as a "special edition," 1980]), and "prequels" (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days [Richard Lester, 1979]). Whereas sequels and reissues comprised only 4.4 percent of all major product from 1964 to 1968, they would account for 17.6 percent between 1974 and 1978,12 as re-release came to play a crucial role in the launching of sequels. (With the proliferation of new video distribution technologies in the 1980s, re-release was institutionalized as an important component of sequential marketing strategies and the building of film franchises; the Fox/Lucasfilm reissue of a digitally enhanced Star Wars trilogy in 1997 elevated re-release to the status of a premiere event.)
Opening Shots:Love StoryandThe Godfather
In 1974, Paramount's head of production Robert Evans told Time magazine that "the making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century,"13 and he was in a position to know since he had produced the two megahits that defined the formula: Love Story (1970) and The Godfather (1972). Both films were adapted from manuscripts that became best-selling novels and cast in traditional generic form; both had notable directors and bankable stars; and both were budgeted and heavily marketed to become hits but caused unexpected sensations by becoming enormously popular and reaping windfall profits. Love Story, a romantic melodrama in which a rich Harvard pre-law student falls in love with a poor Radcliffe scholarship student who is dying of leukemia, began as a screenplay by Yale classics professor Erich Segal, which was offered to Paramount by Segal's agent William Morris. Evans, who was the studio's new executive vice president in charge of production,14 thought the film would be an ideal vehicle for his then wife Ali MacGraw, who had recently achieved stardom in his production of Paramount's Goodbye, Columbus (Larry Peerce, 1969). Evans supervised numerous rewrites of the script, which were undertaken to build MacGraw's star persona, and suggested that Segal write a novel based on his screenplay. This motion picture "novelization," the first of its kind to be cross-marketed with the film, was published by Harper & Row on Valentine's Day 1970, in 418,000 hardcover and 4,350,000 paperback copies—the largest first-edition print run in publishing history. The book became a stunning overnight success, selling in the tens of millions and spending nine months on the New York Times best-seller list. By the time the film was released in December 1970, public awareness of its title and sentimental story was very nearly universal. The film itself, expertly directed by Arthur Hiller and produced for $2,260,000, was an immediate success, grossing nearly $100 million in four months and earning $48,700,000 in rentals.15 Its sound-track album of original music composed by Francis Lai quickly became a best-seller, and the film's concluding line of dialogue—"Love means never having to say you're sorry"—became a pop-culture cliché. Although nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Ryan O'Neal), Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (John Marley), Best Original Score, and Best Screenplay, Love Story won only for its music. But its astonishingly high return on investment and its formulaic popularity made it the first blockbuster of the decade. (As certification, Paramount produced a sequel—Oliver's Story [John Korty, 1978]—but the film barely broke even.)
Evans's next project, The Godfather, was consciously conceived as an "event movie," but with the relatively modest budget of $6 million. Paramount had optioned Mario Puzo's novel about the Mafia for $80,000 on the basis of an outline and 100 manuscript pages, giving him an office and a secretary to finish the book on the studio lot. Meanwhile, Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won an Oscar (with Edmund G. North) for Best Original Screenplay for Patton (Franklin Schaffner, 1970), was hired to direct the film version after at least three other directors (Constantin Costa-Gavras, Peter Yates, and Peter Bogdanovich) had turned it down.16 Coppola collaborated with Puzo on the screenplay while the novel was still in galleys, and convinced Paramount to cast the mercurial Marlon Brando in its title role, filling the rest of the cast with relative unknowns who became stars via The Godfather's spectacular success. While the film was in production, the book was published and became an instant best-seller, with one million hardcover and twelve million paperback copies in circulation at the time of the film's release. As with Love Story, a publishing tie-in had created massive public awareness of both the film's title and story. Fueling the high level of anticipation were wellpublicized protests by Italian-American groups about The Godfather's supposed prejudicial content and stories of cost overruns and other problems related to the film's
being shot on location in New York City in midwinter. (In fact, despite real difficulties, Coppola brought the film in a scant $1 million over budget.)
Paramount launched The Godfather in February 1972 with massive trade promotion and saturation booking in 350 first-run theaters, commanding fixed seat prices of $4—at a time when $3 was the standard. With "special event" written all over it, the film was calculated to return its negative cost in days and earn a profit in weeks. No one at Paramount, however, could have predicted that Variety's headline for April 5, 1972, would read "'Godfather' Boon to All Pix," and that the story would report that this "historic smash of unprecedented proportions" was energizing box-office returns across the board.17 By the end of the year The Godfather had earned $86,275,000 in rentals, and became, however briefly, the highest-grossing film in history. (The blockbuster syndrome accelerated so rapidly that by 1980 The Godfather stood as only the fifth highest grosser of the decade, though it remains among the top twenty-five to this day.)
Confirming its triumph, the film won Oscars for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor, as well as Academy Award nominations for direction, three supporting performances, sound, editing, and costumes. A sequel was planned immediately, and Coppola signed to direct it on June 22, 1972. Produced for $13 million, The Godfather, Part II (1974) earned only $30.1 million in rentals, but was in many ways superior to the original, which it both continued and enriched—it won the 1974 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Screenplay from another medium (Coppola and Puzo), Art Direction, and Score.
Disaster and Nostalgia: FromAirporttoThe Sting
The success of The Godfather is generally credited with driving a 20 percent upturn in domestic theater admissions in 1972 over 1971, reversing a seven-year slump and increasing international sales. Furthermore, as Thomas Schatz points out, total box-office receipts for 1972 were up 64 percent (to $1.64 billion) from the $1 billion range they had occupied for the preceding several years.18 While The Godfather accounted for fully 10 percent of the surge, receipts for the top ten box-office hits of 1972 were up 70 percent over 1971, and 1973 revenues continued the trend. Obviously, something was working right again in Hollywood, and it seemed to be the blockbuster strategy. Two other films that helped create this perception were Universal's Airport (George Seaton, 1970) and Fox's The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972). The former was adapted from a best-selling novel by Arthur Hailey about an imperiled transatlantic flight, with an all-star cast headlining Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, and Helen Hayes and featuring numerous cameos. Fairly described by Variety as a "jet age 'Grand Hotel',"19 Airport was shot in 70-mm Todd-AO with state-of-the-art special effects and helped to establish the formula for disaster films. These became a staple of 1970s blockbuster production, with a large cast of well-known performers confronting a catastrophe—manmade or natural—with varying degrees of success, depending on their characters. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Airport won for Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hayes), and earned $45,220,118 in rentals, returning more than four times its substantial investment of $10 million. The Poseidon Adventure, adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a Paul Gallico novel, transposed the Airport scenario to an ocean liner with even more spectacular special effects (for which designers L. B. Abbott and A. D. Flowers won the Academy's Special Achievement Award). The film, which garnered eight Oscar nominations in 1973, had a star-studded cast (including Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters) and a cross-marketed theme song—"The Morning After," sung by Maureen McGovem, which became a number-one gold record for months after winning an Academy Award.
The Poseidon Adventure earned $42 million in rentals and was produced by Irwin Allen (1916-1991), a documentary and television producer (Lost in Space), who was also the architect behind The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974), a coproduction of 20th Century-Fox and Warner Bros. This first-ever collaboration by major studios (undertaken when both realized that they had identical projects based on similar novels—Tom Sortia and Frank Robinson's The Glass Inferno and Richard Martin Stem's The Tower—in development at the same time) had its all-star cast (headed by Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Willliam Holden, and Faye Dunaway) trapped inside of a burning skyscraper. The two-and-a-half-hour negative, replete with spectacular stunts and pyrotechnic effects, cost $14 million to produce, and the film earned $48.8 million in rentals to become the year's highest grosser. (The Towering Inferno was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Song: "We May Never Love Like This Again"—which, like "The Morning After," briefly rose to the top of the charts.)
Not far behind, in the number three position with $35,849,994, was another disaster epic, Universal's Earthquake (Mark Robson, 1974), which added an aural dimension to its special effects via a low-frequency sound system called "Sensurround." Sensurround was a proprietary process that dubbed low-frequency rumbles onto the sound track to simulate tremors during the film's eight-minute quake sequence. For playback in theaters, Universal rented a package consisting of an amplifier and special speakers for $500 a week, which was used at about sixty key sites.20 The Sensurround experience generated enough repeat business to justify its use in several other Universal films (Midway [Jack Smight, 1976], Rollercoaster [James Goldstone, 1977], Battlestar: Galactica [Richard A. Colla, 1978]), and Earthquake won an Oscar for Best Sound and a Class II Scientific and Technical Award for the development of the process; it also won a Special Achievement Award for its visual effects. Though a patent gimmick, Sensurround enhanced its films' "event" status and served to focus industry attention on the neglected dimension of theater sound as a potential blockbuster hook.
Like Love Story and The Godfather, early-1970s disaster films clearly fueled the blockbuster juggernaut, and three megabits of the 1973-1974 season helped to push 1974 box-office revenues toward the $2-billion high established in the euphoric postwar year of 1946. Universal's American Graffiti (1973) was a classic sleeper. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola's friend George Lucas, American Graffiti was produced by Gary Kurtz for a little over $775,000 (about 10 percent of which went toward acquiring the rights to the forty-one rock 'n' roll songs from the late fifties and early sixties that make up the film's "score").21 With Coppola as executive producer under the new Lucasfilm Ltd. banner, and Haskell Wexler as cinematographer, this nostalgic re-creation of adolescence in the suburbs of Los Angeles during the early 1960s was shot in twenty-eight days. Full of vintage cars and period music, American Graffiti was hesitantly released by Universal, which spent only $500,000 for advertising, publicity, and prints, refusing even to dupe the prints in stereo. But it struck a chord with the viewing public and went on earn $55,28,175 in domestic rentals, making it the third highest grossing film of 1973. It also won nominations for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (Lucas, Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck), and became the source of several television spinoffs (most notably, Happy Days and Laveme and Shirley), positioning Lucas for the astonishing success of his next project, the now legendary Star Wars (1977).
A few years earlier, American Graffiti might have been seen as another Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), but in context it was the exception that proved the rule. Ranked in first and second place above it were two shrewdly calculated blockbusters: Warner Bros.' The Exorcist (1973) and Universal's The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). The latter reunited the director and stars (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) of the 1969 box-office champion Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a caper film with a period setting that was similar to The Godfather. That Redford and Newman were the number one and number two box-office stars of the year, respectively, ensured a healthy return on the film's $5.5-million investment, but its rental earnings of $78,212,000 and its ten Academy Award nominations helped institutionalize a "hit-flop" mentality that would characterize the rest of decade. The Sting won seven of its ten Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (David S. Ward), Art Direction, Set Decor-ation, Editing, Musical Adaptation, and Costume Design—and its theme song, Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" became a national hit, as did its sound-track album of Joplin rags.
The Exorcist: Courting Exploitation
As a shrewdly contrived and marketed hit based on sensational material, The Exorcist was in a category by itself. Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own best-selling novel (published 1971), produced by Blatty, and directed by William Friedkin (who had just won the Best Director Oscar for The French Connection ), The Exorcist capitalized on what one reviewer called "the perfect mixture of blood, excrement, perverse sexuality, and religious symbolism"22 to earn $89 million in rentals and ten Academy Award nominations. The R-rated horror film, produced without major stars for approximately $9 million, benefited immensely from the controversy surrounding its depiction of a demonically possessed 12-year-old girl urinating, vomiting, and masturbating with a crucifix while spouting obscenities never heard before on a studio motion-picture
sound track. (Controversy didn't hurt the novel, either, spurring sales that exceeded 13 million copies by the end of 1973.)
To open the film, Warners borrowed a distribution tactic begun with wildlife documentary features like The American Wilderness (Arthur Dubs, 1969), and used with startling success by independent producer Tom Laughlin in May 1973 for the re-release of his 1971 film Billy Jack (which Warners had distributed briefly before selling it back to him after he sued them for failing to properly promote it).23 In this practice, known as "four-walling," the distributor rents a theater for a flat fee for several weekends and takes 100 percent of the box-office proceeds, with the exhibitor taking nothing but concession fees.24 Combined with local television ad campaigns, four-wall distribution allows a distributor to completely dominate a regional market for a weekend or two, generating enormous profits (in the case of the Billy Jack reissue, $32.5 million). When the majors ventured into four-walling in late 1973—Warners with The Exorcist and Universal with Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973)—the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) appealed to the Justice Department, claiming that the technique violated the consent decrees, with the result that a ten-year moratorium was placed on the practice in 1976.25 Nonetheless, the experience of four-walling a blockbuster like The Exorcist taught Hollywood the value of saturation release patterns combined with massive television advertising to generate high audience awareness and consumer demand.
The publicity attendant on its graphic, visceral content was another marketing lesson of The Exorcist, and there was a new critical perception of dawning change. In his article entitled "Hollywood's New Sensationalism" and cited above, Stephen Farber concluded: "Colossal budgets are back in fashion, and the studios are marketing a new brand of sensationalism, gaudier and more lurid than at any time in movie history."26 Among the catalogue of horror/disaster films then in preparation, one particularly concerned him—"a movie about a killer shark that the director promises will 'tear your guts out.'"27
Jaws: The Paradigmatic "Event" Film of the Seventies
Universal's Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg, is understood today as a major turning point in the history of postclassical Hollywood. As Thomas Schatz suggests in his seminal essay "The New Hollywood," it emphatically marked the arrival of the New Hollywood by recalibrating the profit potential of the blockbuster and redefining its status as a marketable commodity. In terms of marketing, it was the first "high concept" film—in the sense of a film whose conceptual premise and story is easily reducible to a salient image, which then becomes the basis for an aggressive advertising campaign keyed to merchandising tie-ins and ancillary markets, creating "synergy" between film, products, and related media. (Variously attributed to Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and Peter Guber, high concept is an industry term that was coined in the 1970s to characterize an easily marketed story, idea, or image.28) As a cultural phenomenon, Jaws represented a revival and "implosion" (J. Hoberman's term) of the disaster cycle that had had its real-world correspondence in Vietnam and Watergate.29 But it was also the paradigm for what Schatz calls "the high-cost, high-tech, high-speed" thriller30 that became the major Hollywood genre of the eighties and nineties.
Like other contemporary blockbusters, Jaws was based on a best-selling novel—producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown had shrewdly bought the rights to it for $150,000 while the book was still in galleys.31 The deal was packaged by ICM (International Creative Management), which represented all parties, and paid author Peter Benchley another $100,000 to write a first draft of the script.32 Initially budgeted at $3.5 million, the film was shot on location at Martha's Vineyard by the 26-year-old Spielberg, who then had to his credit only a TV movie entitled Duel (1971) and the unsuccessful theatrical feature The Sugarland Express (1974), also produced for Universal by Zanuck and Brown.33 Trouble with logistics and special effects eventually pushed the negative cost to around $12 million. The promotional budget of over $2.5 million was targeted mainly for television, and some of it had been raised from exhibitors (with Jaws, Universal began the practice of assessing theater owners for a share of a
film's national TV advertising costs).34 Stimulated by publicity about the production and news of the five rewrites that the script had undergone (resulting finally in a collaboration by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, assisted by Howard Sackler and John Milius),35 the book had become an enormous success by the time the film was released, with 7.6 million copies in print, and public awareness of the Jaws phenomenon was already high.
To distribute Jaws, Universal borrowed the saturation release or "wide opening" pattern of Billy Jack, together with a saturation advertising campaign centering on television. It was noted at the time that saturation booking had, with several notable exceptions (including Duel in the Sun [King Vidor, 1946] and The Carpetbaggers [Edward Dmytryk, 1964]), historically been reserved for "stiffs" to make a quick profit from a bad movie before word-of-mouth and reviews killed it.36 But Universal determined that the same pattern could be used to maximize profits on an eagerly anticipated product, and suddenly what had been a means of throwing a movie away (opening it everywhere at once) became of way of signaling its importance.37
To build a national audience and promote what Universal called "Jaws-consciousness," the studio had Brown, Zanuck, Benchley, and production personnel like Verna Fields—the film's editor—on the talk-show circuit for eight months before the film's release. Three days before June 20th, when the film was scheduled to open at 464 North American sites (407 in the United States, 55 in Canada),38 Universal unleashed a saturation advertising blitz via all media outlets within signal range of the theaters, exploiting John Williams's ominous theme music and coordinating it with a print campaign organized around the striking graphic image of a huge open-mouthed shark rising underwater toward a naked female swimmer. The promotion was a stunning success. By the end of summer, the movie, the book, and hundreds of product tie-ins (T-shirts, beach bags, toys) had raised sharks to the level of a national fetish, 25 million tickets had been sold, and the film had earned nearly $100 million in domestic rentals. It would ultimately earn $129.5 million and become, until 1977, the top-grossing film of all time; and it would win three Academy Awards: Best Sound, Best Original Score (John Williams), and Best Editing.39
The success of Jaws and the merchandising sub-industry it spawned brought a dramatic conclusion to the post-1969 recession that had proceeded from the late-sixties frenzy of diversification and conglomeration. It also permanently hooked the film industry on blockbuster windfalls—coproducer Richard Zanuck, for example, made more money on his share the film's profits than his father Darryl F. Zanuck had made in his entire career. But as Michael Pye and Lynda Myles point out in The Hollywood Brats, the single most salient feature of Jaws was "the transformation of film into event through clever manipulation of the media."40 Indeed, if Justin Wyatt is correct, the media campaign for Jaws shaped the direction of film marketing for the considerable future. Henceforth, the industry would rely on "strong, reproducible images, the saturation campaign, and widespread product tie-ins" as standard marketing practice.41 Wyatt, in fact, suggests that Jaws and its successors led the industry increasingly to conceive of its product as the modular narrative reducible to a singular image and marketing approach—a narrative of generic character; that is, compatible with an advertising-oriented, or "high concept," style. This actually seems to be what Spielberg was talking about in a 1978 American Film "Dialogue on Film" interview when he said of his work: "What interests me is the idea. If a person can tell me the idea in twenty-five words or less, it's going to make a pretty good movie. I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand."42 Jaws also proved the value of saturation booking for high-quality studio releases, initiating a marketing strategy for blockbusters that placed increased importance on their performance in the first few weeks of release. As Schatz suggests, this practice not only maximized a film's status as a special event, but protected it from negative word of mouth and bad reviews—fulfilling the original intent of saturation booking as an exploitation strategy. In fact, Jaws proved above all else that a multi-million-dollar blockbuster could be distributed and marketed as if it were exploitation product—hyped for a quick weekend's profit (Jaws grossed $7.061 million in its opening weekend)43 and sold on the basis of a single sensational image as if it were pornography.
A New "Cinema of Attractions"
Jaws and the 1970s blockbuster generally represented a return to a kind of performative spectacle that had characterized the cinema's primitive period, enhanced by state-of-the-art, pre-digital special effects and, after 1977, high-quality Dolby stereophonic sound. This earlier presentational mode—the cinema of attractions, is Tom Gunning's useful term—dominated the medium's first decade (1895-1906), after which narrative emerged as the dominant form. Elements of the cinema of attractions remained as components of certain narrative genres like the musical and the horror film, where direct sensory stimulation (the delivery of spectacle and shock) became a key element of spectatorial pleasure, but the overwhelming burden of classical Hollywood cinema was to provide conceptually integrated narratives. By the 1970s, the collapse of the studio system, with its vertical and horizontal monopolies on all three industry tiers, produced a return to the original industry structure in which production, distribution, and exhibition were all separated, but financial and marketing power was concentrated in the distributors (or, as they were still called, the major studios). The example of Jaws clearly illustrates this phenomenon: though financed by Universal, the film was essentially an independent production of the Zanuck-Brown/Benchley-Spielberg team packaged by ICM; as a film Jaws had much intrinsic worth, but its astounding success was largely a function of Universal's distribution and marketing strategies, from which independent exhibitors reaped ticket sales of historic proportions, even as they were assessed a share of Universal's marketing costs. Given this reversion to its pre-World War I industrial configuration, it is no anomaly that the American film industry would revisit the cinema of attractions as its economic mainstay. As Stephen Farber wrote in 1974 of the new wave of big-budget disaster and horror films, "Movies were a form of circus spectacle long before they began to tell stories—and long before they were considered an art….[A]nd that is the backwards direction they seem to be taking in the seventies."44
Blockbusters Built to Order: King KongandThe Deep
Two films that attempted to capitalize immediately on the Jaws phenomenon were King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976) and The Deep (Peter Yates, 1977). Produced by Dino De Laurentiis for Paramount, King Kong began the cycle of blockbuster remakes of classics that marked the latter half of the decade. Pre-sold through the cult status of the original and closely associated with Jaws as a high-tech monster film, Kong featured impressive special effects designed by Rick Baker (makeup) and Carlo Rambaldi (visual effects, for which Rambaldi won a Special Achievement Award from the Academy) but was encumbered with a campy script (by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.) that its attractive young stars—Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, in her film debut—could do little to improve. (Kong was also recorded with a Sensurround track, which was played back only in foreign markets.) Paramount orchestrated a sophisticated marketing campaign designed around the image of Kong astride the World Trade Center and opened the film in a saturation pattern that, with 961 sites, nearly doubled the reach of Jaws. De Laurentiis himself negotiated King Kong merchandising tie-ins with Jim Beam Distilling, 7-Eleven, GAF, Sedgefield Sportswear, Schrafft Candy, and several other companies whose products were emblazoned with high-profile ape imagery. Despite a near record-breaking opening week at Christmas time (of which a Variety headline proclaimed "'Kong' Wants 'Jaws" Box-office Crown" [12/22/76]), the $24 million production returned "only" $36,915,000 in domestic rentals, to become the third highest grossing film of 1976, standing behind United Artists' Rocky ($56,524,972) and another remake, Warner Bros.' A Star Is Born ($37,100,000). Although it ultimately earned $80 million in rentals worldwide, King Kong was widely perceived as a flop in the post-Jaws environment (a perception promoted by the film's advertising, which stridently predicted that it would outgross Spielberg's film).
The Deep (Peter Yates, 1977), produced by Peter Guber for Columbia, represented blockbuster-building at its most cynically manipulative. Guber talked Columbia president David Begelman into buying the rights to Peter Benchley's first post-Jaws novel,The Deep, in manuscript for $500,000 and proceeded to turn it into a $8.9-million movie that was pre-sold through hardback publication of the novel and widespread magazine condensation.45 The film—a confused action story about a vacationing couple (Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset) who stumble onto a secret cache of drugs and Spanish treasure and become the target of criminals—was shot on location in the British Virgin Islands and Bermuda in 151 days, with about 40 percent of its principal photography underwater.46 Guber invited hundreds of journalists to the set and himself wrote a behind-the-scenes account of the production entitled Inside "The Deep," whose publication was timed to coincide with the film's release, as was publication of the paperback edition of the novel. With an advertising budget of nearly $3 million, Guber personally orchestrated every detail of The Deep's marketing and distribution campaign. He created a vertical poster design reminiscent of that for Jaws, with a nearly naked female diver in deep blue water bubbling up toward a horizontal surface logo, and he relentlessly exploited fetishistic production stills of Bisset in a scuba mask and wet T-shirt (Guber: "That T-shirt made me a rich man").47 He merged his production company, Casablanca Filmworks, with Neil Bogart's record company (becoming Casablanca Records and Filmworks) to release the film's theme song, "Down Deep
Inside" by Donna Summer, on a see-through blue vinyl sound-track album.48 He negotiated product tie-ins with boat, watch, sportswear, and cosmetic companies, and organized a national treasure hunt contest through supermarket chains and shopping malls. Finally, he directed a $1.3-million television blitz into the nation's top fifty markets. The goal, according to Columbia's marketing department, was to saturate those markets with 2.5-billion visual images of the film before its June 17 nationwide opening in 800 theaters.49 Guber calibrated that opening very specifically to urban pay cycles, as he explained to the New York Times: "The maids and the blue-collars and much of industry get paid twice a month. They put their checks in the bank on the 15th, have them clear on the 16th and they're ready to spend by the 17th."50 Such precision paid off: The Deep broke industry records by grossing $8.124 million in its three-day opening weekend, eventually earning $31.2 million in domestic rentals to become the sixth highest money-maker in a year that included both Fox#x0027;s Star Wars (in first place with $193.8 million) and Columbia's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (in second place with $82.8 million).
Racist, violent, and mildly titillating, The Deep nevertheless contains some extraordinary underwater sequences and is tightly directed by Peter Yates, yet was a manufactured hit if there ever was one. Peter Guber had raised the marketing of event movies to a level of perfection that all Hollywood admired. He had, according to his own research, exposed every potential audience member to at least fifteen different images of The Deep before its extremely wide release,51 and on opening day had stopped just short of actually putting his hand into the audience's pocket and taking its money out. In the process, the film itself became largely irrelevant.
Close Encounters: The Blockbuster As Epiphany
Such ferocity of marketing became the chief distinguishing feature of late seventies Hollywood, which took to selling its blockbusters as if they were the second coming of Christ. "Events," in short, were no longer enough—films had to offer something approaching a mystical experience. This, at least, was how Columbia marketed Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with special effects of UFO landings by Douglas Trumbull that were rumored to exceed even those of Star Wars (see below), released six months before. The studio, which had typically been raising 40-50 percent of its production capital from recently outlawed domestic tax shelters, had invested $19.4 million in the negative against outside investment of only $6.75 million and badly needed the film to be a hit. It had no pre-sold elements except the post-Jaws reputation of its director.52 Therefore, Columbia allocated $9 million to saturation advertising intended burn the film's "expectant-skies" logo into the consciousness of every sentient American; then attempted to recoup both marketing and negative costs by demanding unusually high advance guarantees from exhibitors—from $150,000 in New York to $50,000 elsewhere, plus a $2,000 surcharge for promotion—for a twelve-week, non-exclusive run.53 Though the film's release was extremely wide, in some markets (Chicago, for example) Columbia attempted to bid up the guarantee by making it competitive, suggesting that theater owners should be honored to show a film of such power and distinction.
The hype worked. Not only did the studio collect about $24 million in advance payments, putting Close Encounters $2 million over costs before release, but anticipation that it had a blockbuster sent its stock soaring from a year's low of 4 ½ to a high of 20 ⅞ (from about $7 to $18 a share) on November 14, 1977, a day before the film's premiere, touching off a wave of furious speculation on Wall Street.54 Although the stock dropped five points later that year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind earned $82,750,000 in domestic rentals to become the second most profitable movie of the year. (The film also received eight Academy Award nominations and took one Oscar, for Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography.)
Star Wars: From "Event" to Mass Market Franchise
The film that led both 1977 and the decade in profitability (and, in 1999, was still the fourth highest earner in history, after E.T. [Steven Spielberg, 1982], Jurassic Park [Steven Spielberg, 1993], and Titanic [James Cameron, 1997] was George Lucas's Star Wars. Although it was three years in development and had been turned down by several other studios (Universal and United Artists) before Alan Ladd, Jr. optioned the screenplay for Fox, Star Wars was in many ways as carefully manufactured a product as The Deep. Lucas did extensive research on the story, special effects, and audience for the film, which as generic science fiction had no clear model except Stanley Kubrick's ten-year-old 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the Star Trek television series.55 Lucas calculated that a hardcore market of science fiction buffs and children would generate a domestic box office of $16 million, with $25 million at the outside, and could therefore generate a profit on a $9-million investment.56 The deal with Fox provided $9.5 million in production capital to Lucas's recently formed (1973) Lucasfilm Ltd. and a modest $150,000 fee to Lucas himself for writing and directing.
In a move that would have historic implications, Lucas eschewed extra salary and a personal share of the gross to retain the merchandising and sequel rights. Star Wars Productions, a corporation formed by Lucas and his producer Gary Kurtz, was granted 40 percent of the film's net profits, some of which were passed on as "points" to the cast and crew. For his participation, Sir Alec Guinness was given 2.25 percent in a separate deal. The rest of the profits went to Fox, after subtracting their 30-percent distribution fee.57 Control of the licenses, including music and publication, would by 1999 be worth more than $4 billion as Star Wars became the most lucrative franchise in motion picture history. Fox retained copyright and distribution rights to subsequent films, as well as a percentage of merchandising profits, but Lucas controlled both the story and the brand. Neither party expected Star Wars to become to a megahit, much less a cultural phenomenon of seismic proportions. Lucas did, however, design the film with an eye toward merchandising tie-ins. According to Michael Pye and Linda Myles, in fact, "the film was written for toys," and Lucas had a whole line of T-shirts, posters, models, books, records, and action figures in mind from the start.58 This seemed perfectly appropriate
to a "space fantasy" whose inspiration was comic books and cliff-hanging Saturday afternoon serials as much as it was traditional science fiction.
To counterpoint the fairy-tale quality its narrative, hyper-realistic special effects for Star Wars were produced at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a subsidiary of Lucasfilm founded in Van Nuys in 1975 (but moved north to San Rafael, Marin County, in 1978) specifically for this purpose. At ILM, F/X director John Dykstra, who had worked as Douglas Trumbull's assistant on Silent Running (1972), perfected a computerized motion-control system for traveling matte photography that made the process uniquely cost-effective, enabling Lucas to create hundreds of complicated stop-motion miniature sequences for Star Wars at a fraction of their cost for earlier films ($2.5 million for 365 traveling matte shots, for example, as compared with $6.5 million for fewer than 30 in 2001: A Space Odyssey). With live-action sequences shot in Tunisia, Death Valley, and EMI-Elstree Studios in England, Star Wars also became the first film both recorded and released in four-track Dolby stereophonic sound. Nonetheless, it was produced for the relatively modest sum of $11.5 million, and no one expected it to earn back more than twice that in domestic rentals, because of the traditionally hard-sell market for science fiction and the film's own somewhat confused identity. (Chris Kalabokes, a financial analyst at Fox in the mid-1970s, projected that $35 million would constitute a "windfall.")59
Fox cautiously decided against saturation booking and opened the film on May 25, 1977, in only forty-two theaters in twenty-eight cities, with 70mm and Dolby stereo prints for major markets, together with a carefully coordinated advertising campaign targeted at 12-24-year-olds (and secondarily at the 25-35-year-old bracket).60 The date was not optimal, since school was still in session for much of the target audience, but it was calculated to avoid head-to-head competition with such major June releases as Columbia's The Deep.61 The industry was stunned when Star Wars earned nearly $3 million in its first week and by the end of August had grossed $100 million; it played continuously throughout 1977-1978, and was officially re-released in 1978 and 1979, by the end of which it had earned $262 million in rentals worldwide to become the top-grossing film of all time—a position it would maintain until surpassed by Universal's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in January 1983. Star Wars Productions' 40-percent share of profits ($55.7 million), combined with the tie-in merchandising bonanza, quickly made Lucas a multimillionaire and turned Lucasfilm Ltd. into a $30-million company. (By 1997, Lucas's net worth was estimated at $2 billion and Lucasfilm's corporate holdings at $5 billion.)62 In the short term, Fox didn't fare badly either—by 1980, it had made a profit of $88.5 million on top of its $75-million distribution fee (a flat 30 percent of rentals). Star Wars itself was nominated for ten Academy Awards and received seven (including Art Direction, Sound, Original Score, Film Editing, Costumes, and Visual Effects), as well as a special achievement award for sound effects editing; it also won two Los Angeles Critics Awards and three Grammies for its score.
The most significant phenomenon of Star Wars lay in the creation and nurturing of the first true film franchise. Before Star Wars, it was not uncommon for studios to give merchandising rights away for free publicity (as Fox had done with fast food tie-ins in the early 1970s); even when licensed for profit, as in the case of Jaws and King Kong, product tie-ins like T-shirts, jewelry, and candy had little life or value apart from the film once its run was completed. But with Star Wars—known to industry analysts as "the Holy Grail of licensing"63—merchandising became an industry unto itself, and tie-in product marketing began to drive the conception and selling of motion pictures rather than vice versa. By the 1980s, some movies were used primarily to launch product lines (The Care Bears Movie , My Little Pony ), and film series like the Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Paramount's Star Trek (1979-present), and Warner Bros.' Batman (1989-present) became huge product franchises whose branded merchandise is worth literally billions of dollars in excess of box-office sales. For the original unenhanced Star Wars trilogy, total box-office sales had reached $1.3 billion by 1997 (which helped to finance the growth of Industrial Light and Magic first into Hollywood's most profitable special-effects house and then into the premiere digital-imaging studio in the world), while video sales and rentals accounted for $500 million, CD-ROM and video games sales for $300 million, clothes and accessories for $300 million, books and comics for $300 million, and toys and playing cards for $1.21 billion.64
As James Sterngold points out, however, "franchises have life cycles that must be carefully tended and shrewdly planned."65 The value of the Star Wars brand declined during the late eighties from lack of novelty and nurture, but it accelerated rapidly after 1991 when Timothy Zahn's next-generation sequel Heirs to the Empire was published by Bantam and became a hardcover best-seller, generating multiple best-selling sequels and introducing the franchise to a new generation who would not see the Star Wars trilogy in theaters until the digitally enhanced reissue of 1997. This reissue, "The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition," which itself earned hundred of millions of dollars in box-office and merchandise revenues, was a bridge to the launching of a new Star Wars trilogy at the millennium whose licensing strategy was described by the New York Times as "one of the most impressive and tautly engineered pieces of marketing prowess ever conceived, as well as an example of what the movie industry has become: art in service of a huge commercial superstructure that needs constant feeding."66 By the 1990s, merchandising had risen from the category of ancillary income to become an important studio revenue stream, and all of the majors operated large consumer-product divisions.67
Over time, Star Wars would change both the film industry and films themselves in fundamental ways. Most immediately, however, it changed the calculus by which blockbuster success was measured in 1970s Hollywood, ushering in what A. D. Murphy calls "the modern era of super-blockbuster films,"68 or super-grossers, as William Bates described them in 1978—films manufactured to reach the level of "a national obsession."69 At Fox, the revenues from Star Wars were accruing at the rate of $1.2 million per day, and its stock—which one Wall Street securities analyst had characterized in the summer of 1976 as not of "investment quality"70—quadrupled in value (rising from $6 to $25 per share between June 1976 and June 1977). Already invested in Coca Cola Bottling Midwest, the company was able to further diversify by buying Aspen Skiing Corp. and Pebble Beach Corp. and still declare excess profits. According to Fox CEO Dennis Stanfill, Star Wars gave the corporation "five years of growth in one."71 Yet this magnitude of success was entirely unpredicted. Head of production Alan Ladd, Jr. had supported the film on the strength of American Graffiti's performance, but pinned his hopes for a megahit on the barely profitable (and completely forgotten) $9-million Damnation Alley (Jack Smight, 1977).72 Lucas himself had anticipated only modest box-office returns, which his merchandising deals would supplement. All of a sudden, the recently constructed formula for manufacturing a blockbuster seemed out of date. Pre-selling and marketing were still the order of the day, but now there was a wild card element to which none of the conventional rules seemed to apply. As Michael Eisner, then head of production at Paramount, said of this Brave New World in 1978: "The only rule is that there are no rules. The super-grossers are things that become cultural phenomena. There is no way you can work out on paper what a cultural phenomenon should be."73
The result was widespread panic among studio executives and a turn toward what exploitation producer Sam Arkoff wryly called "real gambling."74 This meant high-stakes investment in projects over which the studios often had little control because they owned less than 50 percent of the package but were exposed to 100 percent of the risk (e.g., whereas Paramount had initiated the Godfather project and owned 84 percent of it, Columbia owned less than 50 percent of the agent-packaged Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had to bring the studio $51 million in rentals just to break even).75 Another form of gambling was the attempt to produce modestly budgeted sleepers on the order of American Graffiti (1973)—small films that would strike a psychic nerve in the mass audience and become overnight sensations. In addition to Graffiti, the industry had the recent examples of United Artists' Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)—produced for less than $1 million and earning $56.5 million in rentals, and Universal's Smokey and the Bandit (Hal Needham, 1977)—produced for $3 million and earning $59 million in rentals. These two hits—one an inspirational urban boxing film with blue-collar ethnic appeal, and the other a southern rural chase comedy that exploited the Citizen's Band radio craze—were conceived as fringe market films, yet they became the first- and fourth-highest grossers of their respective years and generated multiple sequels. Moreover, while Smokey and the Bandit starred Burt Reynolds, Rocky didn't have a single name performer.76 In the volatile context of late-seventies Hollywood, their unforeseen success—though obviously welcome—was both puzzling and unnerving.
In the midst of such uncertainty, some producers and studios turned to popular music as a source of mass appeal.77 Already used to pre-sell films like American Graffiti and Paramount's Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972), pop music provided the fundamental concept for such hits as A Star Is Born (Frank
Pierson, 1976), Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), and Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), whose sound-track albums were aggressively marketed across a variety of media in a "buy the record, see the film" strategy that became an industry mainstay in the 1980s.78 (According to Peter Guralnick, the formula may have been invented twenty years earlier by Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's business manager, for the sound-track albums of Presley's 1960s films.)79 The potential for such cross-media marketing was greatly enhanced by the conversion of theaters to high-quality Dolby sound in the wake of Star Wars. Although at least twenty films had been released with some form of Dolby encoding before it, the clear role that Dolby stereo played in Star Wars' unprecedented success caused a rush to install Dolby reproduction equipment, and by 1979 there were approximately 1,200 theaters in the United States equipped for Dolby stereo playback.80 In addition to its novel high-tech sound effects, much of Star Wars' sonic impact was provided by John Williams' Academy-Award winning neo-Wagnerian score.
By 1977 symphonic scoring had become a regular feature of blockbusters—a shift away from the realism of the late 1960s—and Williams himself (b. 1932) had become the paragon of blockbuster composers, writing the scores for such landmark "event" movies as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Towering Inferno (1974), as well as winning an Oscar for the relentlessly nerve-wracking music of Jaws. His association with epic romanticism in the late nineteenth-century Germanic vein continued through Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman (1978), Jaws 2 (Jeannot Szwarc, 1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) and all of the post-1970s Jaws, Star Wars, and "Indiana Jones" sequels. By his own admission, however, Williams recognized the 1970s as "a regressive, and in many ways, decadent period in movie scoring" in which the audience wanted to be overwhelmed or "wiped out" by full-scale orchestral power,81 and, when opportunity allowed, he also composed some of the era's most distinctively modernist scores, such as those for Robert Altman's Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973), Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976), and Brian De Palma's The Fury (1978).
Film/Music Cross-Marketing: A Star Is Born, Saturday Night Fever, AND Grease
The standard for film-music cross-marketing in the 1970s was established by producer Jon Peters's promotional campaign for Warner Bros.' A Star Is Born (1976), which involved extensive national airplay of both the sound-track album and the single "Evergreen" just two weeks before the film's saturation-pattern release, creating extensive free advertising that overlapped with the opening and, according to Peters, contributed to its high initial grosses.82 "Evergreen" reached the top of the Billboard charts in March 1977, winning several Grammies and an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and A Star Is Born became the second most profitable film of 1976 with total rentals of $37 million. For Paramount's Saturday Night Fever (1977), producer Robert Stigwood and RSO Records president Al Coury arranged for release of the Bee Gees' sound-track album six weeks before the film's opening to allow time for the concurrently released single "How Deep Is Your Love" to become a hit, which it promptly did. After Saturday Night Fever's wide opening at 726 theaters, where it broke The Deep's domestic box-office record by earning $9.3 million in its first three days, Coury was able to release other cuts from the sound-track, stimulating the sale of both records and film tickets. Thus, the album rose to occupy Billboard's number one position for the next twenty-six weeks, selling 35 million copies worldwide (making it the best-selling record of all time), and the movie took in $74.1 million in domestic rentals to become the third-highest earner of 1977.83
Like Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever generated multiple repeat viewing among young people;84 and market research revealed that they tended to consume the film not as a narrative but as a rock concert. John Travolta, the film's star, was among the first to notice this phenomenon: "When you talk to kids who've seen it many times, you discover they don't even like the story," he told an interviewer, because "[t]o them, the movie is a concert."85 As J. Hoberman points out, Saturday Night Fever was also the first postsixties youth film with a contemporary setting,86 and it appealed to a new youth mar ket—a generation removed from the front-end baby boomers, but co-extensive with them in terms of composing a new mass audience.87 In fact, a 1977 study commissioned by the MPAA ("Incidences of Motion Picture Attendances," prepared by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, N.J.) indicated that 57 percent of the nation's moviegoers were 12 to 24 years old,88 which meant that a large portion of the target audience for Saturday Night Fever was excluded due to its R-rated sex scenes and language. To correct this marketing error and capitalize on the intervening success of the PG-rated Grease (1978), Paramount withdrew Saturday Night Fever and re-edited it for a 1979 PG-rated re-release and a whole new box-office bonanza.
Grease confirmed the existence of the post-sixties youth market as a new industry profit base, and it also signaled a newly symbiotic relationship with television in terms of both content (fifties nostalgia à la the Happy Days series, itself inspired by American Graffiti) and personnel. John Travolta was a crossover from the popular weekly series Welcome Back, Kotter, where he appeared as the character Vinnie Barbarino, and Stigwood had him under a three-film contract. When Saturday Night Fever made Travolta a star, Stigwood cast him opposite Australian recording artist Olivia Newton-John in Paramount's production of Grease, the decade's ultimate pop music blockbuster. (Travoltas third film for Stigwood was Paramount's Urban Cowboy .) Adapted from a long-running Broadway musical, which had opened in 1972 and would complete 3,388 performances through 1979,89 this spoof of 1950s rock films and early-1960s beach-party movies contained seventeen elaborate production numbers, supplemented by period music and songs written specifically for the film. The RSO sound-track album and single "You're the One That I Want" were released before the film in a launch pattern similar to that of Saturday Night Fever but with even greater success for the movie, which opened at 902 theaters, immediately broke The Deep's three-day domestic earning record with $9.3 million, and went on to become the box-office champ of 1978, earning
$96.3 million in rentals while the album sold twenty-four million copies. (Guber's Casablanca Records and Filmworks was less successful in its own 1978 effort to create synergy between sound-track album and film—its disco musical Thank God It's Friday [Robert Klane], featuring Donna Summer and the Commodores and coproduced with Motown Records, earned only $7.8 million in rentals and generated modest album sales, even though its hit single "Last Dance" won an Oscar for Best Original Song.)
Looking for an Edge: National Lampoon's Animal HouseandSuperman
Two other hits of 1978 illustrate different approaches to the industry's post-Star Wars volatility—Universal's National Lampoon's Animal House (John Landis) and Warner Bros.' Superman (Richard Donner). Animal House, directed by the 27-year-old John Landis, was a low-budget effort with a cast of unknowns, except for John Belushi in his first cross-over from television's Saturday Night Live, and Donald Sutherland. Directly appealing to generational nostalgia, the film is a satire on college fraternity life circa 1962.—not coincidentally the same year in which American Graffiti is set, a film which is otherwise invoked (and pilfered from) at various points in the narrative. In contrast to Lucas's film, however, the humor in Animal House is broad and low, constituting what has come to be called "gross-out" comedy or, in John Landis's more clinical phrase, "behavioral humor of outrage."90 Despite, or perhaps because of this, Animal House unexpectedly returned $70.9 million in rentals to become the third-highest earner of the year, inaugurating a national vogue in toga parties, food fights, and other sophomoric activities depicted in the film. As Universal president Ned Tanen remarked of the film: "When movies like this happen, they sort of take on a life of their own," underscoring the new awareness in Hollywood that the blockbuster had been redefined by Star Wars less as a new kind of movie than as a catalyst for nationwide social phenomena.91
This was precisely the status Warner Bros. sought for its $55 million production of Superman, whose pre-sold title character had been known to every generation of sentient Americans since 1938, either through comic books, cartoons, Saturday afternoon serials, or weekly syndicated television shows. In addition to its identification with "one of the largest folk heroes in American history" (per Andrew Fogelson, Warner's vice president in charge of the film's worldwide promotion), the film was packaged with several other pre-sold elements from recent blockbusters—a Mario Puzo story and screenplay, the star of The Godfather (Marlon Brando), a John Williams score, and a multitude of special visual effects.92 Additionally, a sequel (Superman II, 1980) was conceived by the film's executive producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, at the same time as the original, and key scenes for it were shot as part of a two-film package.93 (As much as 80 percent of this footage had to be reshot because legal wrangling by Brando prevented his scenes from being used.) To market the film, Warner Bros.' parent company, the entertainment conglomerate Warner Communications Inc. (WCI), launched what one executive described as a "mega-million-dollar campaign to sell Superman through every medium in every market in United States."94 Naturally this included massive (and now-standard) television, radio, and print advertising campaigns just prior to release, and saturation booking to maximize early box-office revenues. But it also involved a highly integrated corporate effort to create synergy among the sound-track album produced by Warner's record division, eight Superman-related books published by Warner Books, and over 100 products licensed to use the Superman character and logo, which were owned by DC Comics, itself a division of WCI. This coordinated campaign succeeded in making Superman the second-highest earner of 1978, with total domestic rentals of $82.8 million, which would have been disappointing relative to its $55 million costs were it not for its lucrative ancillary markets. These, together with the film, helped to secure the "Superman" franchise through three successful sequels in the 1980s.
Wagging the Dog: Two "Hits" Fail
The last two calculated blockbusters of the seventies were both science fiction films, each in its own way demonstrating a major downside of the syndrome. Paramount's Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979) and Fox's Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) were both hits by the logic of standard accounting, standing at the end of the year as the second and fifth highest grossing films respectively. Yet both films disappointed their producers because of the extraordinary expenses now integral to blockbuster production and marketing. Star Trek was adapted from the television series that ran on NBC from 1966 to 1969 and became an object of adoration to its long-time fans. Paramount held the copyright to the show and planned a modestly budgeted film as early as 1975, but was dissuaded by then-conventional industry wisdom that science fiction was not a mass-market genre. When Star Wars proved the contrary, was Star Trek was rushed into production with a $15 million budget, which ultimately rose to $44 million owing to delays and cost overruns when the contracted-for special effects were not delivered. The completed film was released in a saturation pattern to 857 sites two weeks before Christmas and attracted nearly 30 percent of the national audience during that fourteen-day period, but ultimately earned only $56 million in rentals—enough to inaugurate a series of five sequels, but not to produce much profit for Paramount after deducting marketing costs. Those costs nearly swamped Alien, which was produced for $11 million with superb visual effects by Carlo Rambaldi (for which he won his second Academy Award, after King Kong), but had a massive advertising campaign budgeted at $16 million, including $3 million for television. (The campaign's tag line, "In space, no one can hear you scream," was so widely diffused that it had become a cliché before the film was even released.) Only in the summer of 1980, after it had earned $40.3 million in domestic rentals, was Alien able to declare a $4-million profit. Thus it took one of 1979's most popular films almost a year to show a modest gain, a situation that was to become increasingly typical.
Media spending by the majors had been escalating at an alarming rate since Star Wars, with a 40 percent increase from 1977 to 1978, and an increasingly heavy commitment to television.95 According to Broadcast Advertsing Reports, a record $175,416,000 was spent to hype 452 films on television in 1979, a 34-percent increase over the previous year's $131,000,000 for 474 films.96 More striking still, the average advertising budget per 1979 film was $2.5 million, with total advertising expenditures ($514 million, including print media) equaling 23 percent of domestic rentals—a 5-percent increase over 1978.97
Calamity: Apocalypse NowandHeaven's Gate
With nearly a quarter of all domestic earnings allocated to advertising at the decade's end, many industry observers thought that the tail was wagging the dog, and two United Artists films of the era—Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) and Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)—seemed to prove it. Originally budgeted at $12 million, the production of Coppola's film was plagued by illness in the cast and crew, natural disasters, and other logistical problems that nearly tripled its costs. The result was a flawed, if brilliant, version of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" transposed to post-Tet Vietnam, whose first two-thirds may be one of the greatest war films ever made, but whose conclusion bogs down in a morass of pomposity and metaphysics. Heavily marketed by United Artists in print, spot TV, and national network advertising as a "multi-level film" with broad audience appeal, Apocalypse Now was widely viewed by the press as a symptom of an industry out of control.98 When it earned $37.9 million in rentals to become the year's sixth-highest earner, yet barely returned its negative cost, the industry tended to agree. Yet the film became a succès d'estime, receiving eight Academy Award nominations (winning for Best Cinematography and Sound) and sharing the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum (1979).
Heaven's Gate, on the other hand, was a disaster that nearly destroyed United Artists. The film was based on the 1892 Johnson County cattle wars and directed by Michael Cimino, whose box-office and critical triumph The Deer Hunter (1978) had just earned five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The project had been pitched as a Western action-adventure epic and was budgeted at $11.6 million, but Cimino (and United Artists, by giving him complete authority) let it go wildly out of control during shooting and produced instead a $36-million critique of frontier capitalism, whose splendid cinematography, locations, and sets could not redeem its dirge-like melancholy. Released to hostile reviews at 219 minutes, then recut and reissued at 149 minutes, Heaven's Gate produced a net loss of nearly $44 million and caused Transamerica to sell off United Artists to MGM. Though fallout from this debacle helped to foster a new measure of restraint in budgeting and production control (as well as calling into question the system of advance exhibitor guarantees to underwrite the cost of production), many in Hollywood thought they saw the boom and bust cycle of late sixties looming on the horizon again."99
In fact, it had never disappeared. What industry economist Lee Beaupre demonstrated in his previously noted analysis of the 1971 boom-bust cycle100—that a few huge hits carried a multitude of misses—was true of the entire decade (and, basically, the whole post-divestiture era). The period 1969 through 1974 was one of real fiscal depression, in which all of the major studios posted large write-offs or write-downs and budgetary restraint was enforced by circumstance. By contrast, the period 1975 through 1979 witnessed a reversal of fortune as the limited production of big-budget, heavily marketed "event movies" became the order of the day, and by the decade's end thirteen such films earned over $50 million, to become "super-grossers." In the absence of any body of professional knowledge that could guarantee success, the studios relied on formula, replication, and exploitation to produce hits. Often they failed, and a large number of the decade's intended blockbusters sank beneath their own weight, encountering widespread public indifference. These include (followed by figures for negative cost/domestic rentals) Lost Horizon (Charles Jarrott, 1973—$12 million/$3.8 million), Lucky Lady (Stanley Donen, 1975—$13 million/$12.7 million), Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977—$22 million/$5.9 million), A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977— $24 million/$2i million), The Wiz (Sidney Lumet, 1978—$24 million/$13.6 million), The Hurricane (Jan Troell, 1979—$22 million/$4.5 million), Meteor (Ronald Neame, 1979—$21 million/$4.2 million), 1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979—$26.5 milllion/$23.3 million), Raise the Titanic! (Jerry Jameson, 1980—$29.2 million/$ 6.8 million); others (e.g., The Hindenburg [Robert Wise, 1975]; Black Sunday [John Frankenheimer, 1977]; Exorcist II: The Heretic [John Boorman, 1977]; Black Hole [Gary Nelson, 1979]) barely broke even. As the Warner's vice president in charge of worldwide promotion for Superman said of the film-going public, "[S]ometimes when we think we've done everything right, when we've met our own list of criteria for what a blockbuster is, they tell us we're not even close."101 Nevertheless, the studios had discovered with Jaws that saturation booking and heavy television advertising—strategies borrowed from independent exploitation producers and the 1973 reissue of Billy Jack—could transform a potentially popular film into a megahit. This shift in marketing and distribution strategies resulted in significant increases in weekly ticket sales in all seasons of the year, particularly during summer and Christmas, reversing their decline from an all-time low in 1971.102 During the last half of the seventies, the boom-bust pattern continued, but flops were amortized as never before by the colossal profits of the super-grossers, which were themselves fueled by a newly generated young audience given to multiple repeat viewings of its favorite films. Assisted by an artificially created "product shortage" so extreme that some theater circuits were forced into bankruptcy (for example, the Walter Reade Organization, which went under in 1977) and the rest were forced to accept disadvantageous terms, super-grosser profits continued to escalate into the eighties.
Remarking on this phenomenon in 1978, Steven Spielberg said, "I wouldn't be surprised if by 1984 Star Wars were number two."103 He was right: in 1982, his own E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial earned $228.4 million, leaving Star Wars in second place. Between 1975 and 1985, ten films grossed more than $100 million. There were only four such films over the next decade, but there has been a steady rise in the number of films earning $50 million or more ever since. With the explosion of ancillary markets in the eighties, box-office revenues came to comprise an ever-smaller percentage of the majors' total income, and the risk of production was greatly reduced. (In 1986, for example, domestic box-office returns accounted for just 28 percent of total income—down from 54 percent in 1978—with another 12 percent from pay cable and 40 percent from home video, which had contributed only a combined 4 percent in 1978.)104 As early as 1978, industry analysts had forecast an improvement in the risk-reward ratio based on several factors, including advance guarantees by theaters owners, pre-sale agreements with television networks for broadcast rights, and the soaring value of merchandising tie-ins. By 1980, 20th Century-Fox was so confident of the security of film investment that it offered equity positions in its production for the first time.105 In retrospect, it is clear that the period 1975-1980 was one of restabilization that marked the beginning of what A. D. Murphy called "the modern era of super-blockbuster films."106 Looming video competition, once predicted to inhibit this trend, in fact reinforced it, as feature films rapidly became the basic programming content of both home video and cable TV. Far from declining in the eighties and nineties, the "blockbuster syndrome" accelerated to become the mainstay of the industry, essential to both domestic and foreign markets. In nearly every respect, the great "event movies" of the 1970s, with their continuing franchises, constitute the high-water mark toward which the American film industry still aspires.