50 Years of Blockbusters: From Marketing Genius to a Numbers Game

Many cinema lovers may not know that the phenomenon we now consider the benchmark for any successful film emerged as late as 1975. We’re talking about the concept of the ‘Blockbuster,’ a mere word with immense potential to draw audiences to theatres. Today, in 2024, the term signifies success and often defines a filmmaker’s and actor’s worth!

But where did it come from? And how did the word become such an important measure to mark the success or failure of a movie?

It was in the summer of 1975 when Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ hit theatres, quickly becoming a nationwide sensation and filling cinema halls in large numbers. The audience at the time did not know that they were becoming a part of history that would dominate the film industry for decades. With such a massive response from all regions, ‘Jaws’ became the first-ever summer blockbuster. Earlier, movies were typically released in major cities first and then gradually spread across over several weeks.

However, ‘Jaws’ was the turning point in cinematic history. Its ground-breaking success, with its innovative marketing, extensive advertising, and simultaneous theatrical release strategies, broke existing norms. It further opened new avenues that were soon followed by studios worldwide.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of “Jaws,” it’s important to reflect on how this seminal film not only marked the birth of an era but also shaped modern filmmaking. What began as a clever strategy to boost commercial success has now, unfortunately, evolved into a relentless pursuit of box office domination. This shift has given rise to a culture that is fixated on numbers.

While the pursuit of blockbusters allowed the film industry to reach the masses, the damage it did to the creative process has been immense. Like with all good things, come its perils, Blockbusters are no different. The lack of experimentation in filmmaking reduces the once revered art form to a mere money-minting business.

Since its inception, the term ‘Blockbusters’ has evolved into many forms, such as the multi-crore club, opening day, and opening weekend collections. Although these titles ensure eyeballs, the problem arises when these iterations take center stage, and every discussion about the film revolves around the numbers rather than the content. The film with the highest number is considered a hit and its leading force becomes stars, further fuelling the already dominating ‘star’culture.

As soon as these stars become aware of their newfound status, they begin to dictate the rules of the game and demand a significant portion of the movie’s budget. Technically, they are justified in their wants. With their growing influence, they are the ones drawing the audience to theatres. However, for the industry, this practice disturbs the equilibrium, leading to an unequal distribution of funds. With the lion’s share going to one man, there is only a limited budget available for departments like writing, editing, and cinematography, resulting in compromised and undervalued services. 

Moreover, with stars at the center of the game, everything revolves around them. Their films are often tailored to cater to their personas and established markets, giving rise to formulaic and repetitive films. This is evident in the abundance of franchise films and remakes of popular films being released each year.

Overall, filmmakers and producers today prioritize obtaining a blockbuster label for their films by any means possible. As a result, decision-making is driven by profit rather than creativity. While this mindset is prevalent in almost every film industry, its impact on the Hindi film industry is particularly disheartening. For example, in Hollywood, while the pursuit of blockbusters is intense, there is simultaneous support for indie films and filmmakers too. However, such encouragement is absent in our industry. This absence deprives the audience of alternative viewpoints, leaving little to no room for innovative ideas and out-of-the-box thinking.

Still from a Hindi Film ‘Joram

Amidst all of this, if a film with relatively less popular actors manages to see the light of day, it is frequently overshadowed by the sensationalism and hype surrounding blockbusters. And in this cacophony, original ideas and content-driven films are often overlooked. While economic sustainability is crucial for the industry’s survival, the loss of originality, which is the soul of any creative process, jeopardizes the entire art form and raises concerns about the industry’s long-term viability.

While learning from the success of films like Jaws, it’s unfortunate that we only embraced the business aspects of the film and ignored its originality and creativity. But today, as we near the culmination of five decades in the blockbuster era, it’s an opportune moment for reflection, for both the makers and the viewers. This is because if any change has to come, it will stem from the audience’s collective influence. It is important to recognize that stories serve as the mirror for any society and a celebration of its culture. Therefore, it becomes one’s duty to demand stories that will represent them and preserve their culture for generations to follow. Similarly, as a filmmaker, we must strive for a better balance between commercialism and creativity with the hope of reviving the art form while maintaining its economic sustainability.

Pankaj Madaan

A filmmaker and a screenwriter known for his comprehensive knowledge of world cinema and insightful commentary on the Hindi film industry.

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