Recitation began with Jaap going over details for our upcoming midterm essay. He explained the topics we could choose from and further explained what was expected from our essays.
After this, we watched a clip from the film The Sound of Music. When the clip was over, Jaap asked us if we thought the movie should be considered a blockbuster or not. The class’ reaction was mixed. The film does not fit perfectly into the categories that define a blockbuster according to our readings for the week, but it still has some of the elements. For one, the film is based off a musical (which is based off a book), meaning that it already had an audience prior to its release. Second, the film made a lot of money, which seems like the whole point of a blockbuster. In the end, the class could not come up with a clear answer. I think the fact that we were unsure whether The Sound of Music was a blockbuster or not points out that some of the New Hollywood trends had been emerging for some time. Someone later in recitation said he thought new hollywood was a response to a changing American social structure, so maybe the change in Hollywood was natural and inevitable. Because we could not pinpoint an exact answer, we moved on to our student presentation to help shape the meaning of the “blockbuster film.”
The presentation was on Thomas Schatz’s article “The New Hollywood” in which Schatz discusses the emergence of blockbusters and how they changed Hollywood films. The presenter mentioned how television hindered the movie market and the need arose to come up with new strategies to make money. The film Jaws is considered to be the first to set many of the trends that would shape the future of Hollywood. Suddenly, films became marketing ploys which played into advantages such as the rise of mall movie theaters, home video revenue, and the youth culture. There was now more genre-crossing and emphasis on plot rather than characters. Movies became more like an event and cross-media commodities made films into franchises.
When the presentation was finished, Jaap zeroed in on the specific conditions Schatz mentioned which spurred on the Hollywood change: the shift to independent picture production, the changing role of the studios, the emergence of commercial TV and the changes in American lifestyle and patterns on media consumption. Then Jaap called attention to what Schatz thinks are the ingredients that make up a blockbuster movie, which are 1) a big star, 2) a lot of marketing, 3) a pre-sold picture, 4) minimal character complexity and 5) multi-media exposure.
All these characteristics of blockbuster films seem to concern everything but the content of film itself. This brings up another point that Schatz mentioned in his article which says movies must be understood simultaneously as text and commodity. The blockbuster movie became a way to make the most profit possible, profit that often went beyond the movie in the form of toys and other merchandise. Jaap used The Matrix to explain this point, saying that its movie-inspired video games extended the plot of the films. Movies became commercial inter-text, in which the content of the movie grew beyond the screen. Its branches an arm of a money-making machine.
After this, a Steven Spielberg quote was brought up. He essentially said that if a movie could be explained in twenty-five words or less, it was a hit. The example that Jaap gave us of this was how Alien was pitched by claiming to be Jaws in space. This also shows how blockbuster movies sort of fed off each other and demonstrates the way in which these movies were really a device to make profit by using ideas that clearly worked before and just re-inventing them a little to spit out again for more money.
The next thing we did was watch a clip from the James Bond movie Goldfinger. We discussed whether the film could be considered a blockbuster, even though it predates the term. There was a mixed reaction to this question. Overall, it would be safe to say that maybe Goldfinger itself was not a blockbuster, but it at least undoubtedly gave way to a chain of blockbusters. Because the film worked and people liked it, there was reason to continue the series and turn it into a movie franchise since fans would come see it.
Next, we discussed the appeal behind Bond movies, The Sound of Music, and Star Wars. Many people in class mentioned the use of archetypes and themes that are proven to appeal to a variety of audiences. There was also mention of using the combination of suspense and the known, in which, for example, an audience knows a little bit about a world but not enough so that it wants to find out more. Someone else said that some blockbuster films, such as Star Wars were like modern fairytales, which I thought was an interesting concept. Fairytales also have an essence that is timeless and appeals to many different people. Hollywood was trying to achieve that status except not for artistic purpose but for consistent and continued revenue.
To wrap things up, we had another presentation, this time on Pauline Kael’s essay “Why are Movies so Bad? Or, the Numbers.” This summed up Hollywood’s mindset which judged movies on their box office numbers and not their filmic qualities. In her essay, Kael says that because the people who are involved in making a film do not care about anything else but the profit, the movies tend to be bad. According to her, other sources in movie quality decline are how TV deals allowed bad movies to make good profits and how TV was bad so it became easier to accept bad movies as well. Also, people were more prone to use tried-and-true methods, therefore movies depended on past successes. Because of this, original movies were really hard to sell. Movies became worse because there was a concern in conforming to moral standards and avoiding controversial themes to appeal to wider audiences for a bigger profit turnout rather than using film to express something, such as it was used during the movie counterculture movement. Lastly, the presenter showed the trailer for the original Alien and the film Breaking Away. I thought it was interesting that absolutely nothing about the Alien trailer could be taken away regarding its plot since it was just a series of shots. Instead, it seemed like a way to induce curiosity so people would come and see what the movie was about. In the Breaking Away trailer, however, there was an effort to depict a plot for a movie that probably had good character development and intellectual thought behind it.