James Cameron has done it again — 13 years after the release of Avatarsand 26 since Titanic gave us Leonardo DiCaprio tragically dying holding onto a wooden door, Avatar: The Way of Water cracked the top 5 highest grossing movies of all time. The sequel is third only to the first Avatarswhich came out in 2009, and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Cameron has proven himself to be a true blockbuster king, a title that once belonged to filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. But what does this title mean, blockbuster king? What even is a blockbuster? And when did we start calling high-grossing, crowd-pleasing pictures such as Avatars and Avengers blockbusters?
For the modern cinema-goer, the term has become synonymous with big franchise films, and there is no doubt about its meaning: a blockbuster is a movie that has people queuing around the block to watch it, buying tickets in advance and camping in lines to make sure that they will be able to get a good seat. It’s a sight that is becoming rarer and rarer in our current age of streaming, but that still lives on in our imagination. However, pinpointing exactly when the first blockbuster movie came out can be a little tricky. Many claim that it was in 1975, when Spielberg released a killer shark in our collective consciousness with Jaws. However, the actual history behind the blockbuster is a bit more complex than that…
The Term Blockbuster First Appeared in the 1940s
According to media studies professor Charles R. Aclandthe term blockbuster originated in World War II. At the time, newspapers used it to refer to “the new, large, 4,000-pound bombs dropped by Allied forces on enemy cities.” Following the end of the war, the word became a descriptor for movies with “outsized production budgets, elaborate promotional campaigns, and significant box-office results.” Only one of these elements is necessary for a film to be considered a blockbuster, Acland claims, which is why we often hear about low-budget blockbusters and would-be blockbusters turned box-office bombs.
Still, according to Acland, many researchers point to the religious epic boom of the 1950s as the origin of the term blockbuster as it is used today. The professor highlights a 1951 review of Mervyn LeRoy‘s Quo Vadis? published by Variety that dubbed the film a “box-office blockbuster.” However, the term began to appear in the entertainment industry as early as the 1940s. But, at least as far as we know, the first piece of media to be referred to as a blockbuster was not a movie, but a book: a print advertisement for The Air Offensive Against Germany described it as “a blockbuster of a book.” This was a joke, according to Acland, with the fact that the book dedicated some of its pages to the military use of blockbuster bombs. In the film industry, the term appeared for the first time in 1943, when a Boxoffice piece described Mitchell Leisen‘s No Time for Love as “a comedy blockbuster.”
This, Acland says, indicates that not all blockbusters of the time were spectacular productions such as the religious epics that usually come to mind when we think of the commercial hits of the ’50s. As a matter of fact, the usage of the term was much more common in the advertisement for smaller, genre films, such as 1952’s The Atomic City. Indeed, Variety itself claims that the real blockbusters of the 50s were not technicolor spectacles of biblical proportions, such as Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandmentsbut monster flicks like Godzilla, Them!and, most importantly, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Released in 1953, The Beast was a low-budget film that ushered in a new era of film distribution with its overwhelming usage of radio and television ads. The film, which cost merely $210,000, made $5 million and kickstarted the age of monster movies in the US
How ‘Jaws’ Became the So-Called First Blockbuster
But even with all this rich history behind the term, there are many who still claim that Spielberg’s Jaws was the first film to bust the blocks around American movie theaters. This isn’t without reason. Released in the summer of 1975, Jaws was the first movie to gross over $235 million at the box-office. By the end of its original run, it had made $260 million in the US, and $470 million worldwide. The story of the small beach town terrorized by a bloodthirsty shark, also spent 14 consecutive weeks at No. 1.
Jaws also made history due to its advertising strategy. At the time of the film’s original release, Universal hyped it up with 30-second spots on prime-time TV, to which the distributor devoted a huge chunk of its $2 million marketing budget. The campaign Also featured talk show tours, marketing tie-ins, and numerous test screenings. Prospective viewers were encouraged to read the original Peter Benchley novel on which Carl Gottlieb based the movie’s screenplay. This all-encompassing, million-dollar strategy is mimicked by distributors to this day. Spielberg’s first big hit also heralded the beginning of the era of the franchise through its multiple sequels, and cemented the months of summer as the perfect time for the release of big-budget movie spectaculars. Thus, while it isn’t exactly right to call Jaws the first Hollywood blockbuster, the film still has its place in the history of the “genre” as the first summer blockbuster.
Furthermore, back in the 1970s, Hollywood was facing one of its many crises, unprepared that it was to compete with television and to meet the expectations of the hordes of young viewers that were born 20 years prior, during the baby boom. the case whenever an industry goes through a crisis, this allowed for a lot of experimentation and eventually led to market consolidation. The ’70s were a time for directors inspired by the European auteurs, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppolato develop their style and create more highbrow American classics such as Raging Bull and The GodfatherHowever, they were also a time for studios looking for new ways to make money, which they found in big-budget blockbusters such as Jaws and, of course, Star Wars. By the end of the decade, in the battle between auteurs and studio spectacles, it was clear who had won. Though The Godfather eventually got a third sequel in 1990, it was big, flashy moneymakers, with a huge potential for toy lines, that became the new face of Hollywood. In that sense, Jaws may not be the first American blockbuster, but it is certainly the most important.