U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Blockbuster that Didn’t Bark: The Force Awakens vs. Jurassic World

jurassic-world-super-bowl-13I read a very good thinkpiece a while back which I can’t find now (despite vigorous searching) but which I’m going to reprise here and add some commentary of my own. This piece made the quite wise point that box office numbers and pop-cultural impact are diverging in a very interesting way. New films routinely put up enormous totals without having anything resembling the deep and pervasive salience of the blockbusters of yesteryear. This is particularly true of this year, in which no fewer than FOUR new films entered the all-time top ten worldwide grossing films list: Jurassic World, Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions. I may be insulting some fans of those films, but none of them really felt like an event, a conversation-starter. Yet only a handful of films in the history of the medium have earned more money than they have.

There are, as is well known, certain reasons which could almost be called accounting factors which in part explain this development. Inflation, the rising cost of tickets (even above inflation, I believe), the increasing prominence of premium tickets (IMAX, 3D), and so forth. As the thinkpiece I can’t find pointed out, order is restored once some rudimentary operations are performed to screen out (apologies for the pun) these latter-day corruptions. In the adjusted top ten, we find only one film from the 2000s, let alone from 2015. Instead, we find films that truly did transform conversations about film and about much else: Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, E. T., Doctor Zhivago, Snow White. (A fuller list can be found here, although this list is only domestic U.S. adjusted for inflation, while Wikipedia estimates for the top ten are global.)

Of course, the impetus for considering this phenomenon is precisely the way that The Force Awakens already is both a popular cultural event of enormous magnitude and a box office trampler. But it is also interesting to note that, even taking into account typical studio caution about clamping down on expectations in advance of a film’s release, there was real doubt about whether TFA could actually unseat Jurassic World for the largest opening week ever, and indeed, globally it seems to have missed (though largely due to the decision to delay opening in China). There is a chance that it will not finish (globally) all that far above Jurassic World when all is said and done. And yet how different these two films are in terms of the oxygen they’ve consumed in our culture over the past year. The conventional wisdom is that all of this is merely a product of the new and unchallengeable dominance of sequels and franchises and “cinematic universes,” and indeed, the four films from 2015 which entered the top ten are all sequels.

As is The Force Awakens, though, and unless we want to give up on the premise that TFA is a different kind of cultural event than those other films, I think we ought perhaps to look elsewhere to account for what seems to me a very real divergence between box office and cultural salience. For what we as a culture do not seem to have trouble orchestrating a conversation around is sequential storytelling, as we can see from the gigabytes of thinkpieces on television which are published each year.

Nor does it seem to me that the tired trope of a disconnect between cultural elites and mass audiences seems to account for this phenomenon. For what is so striking is not the popularity of these films but rather their passionless popularity. Many people truly loved Avengers, but getting out to see Age of Ultron seemed to have been a chore even to fans of Marvel films; at least, there seemed to have been plenty of carping about it as a serious letdown. In years past, I feel, a generally negative response like that would have made Age of Ultron a solid but not spectacular box office hit, like Iron Man 2. Similarly, my feeling about the reception of Minions was not that audiences found it better than or even as enjoyable as its predecessor, Despicable Me. There was no word of mouth–go and see this film! It was more, “well, it’ll keep your kids entertained for 90 minutes.” And yet it made over a billion dollars worldwide.The same lack of real enthusiasm can be found, it should be said, even earlier: did anyone, even Tolkien obsessives, really care that there were three Hobbit films?

What is confusing to me, then, is how little it seems to matter in terms of box office results how much a film is built up, how much it is anticipated, how much passion and enthusiasm it engenders. The response, it appears, exceeds the stimulus: films gross higher than one can account for in terms of pent up desire or even interest.

I don’t really know how to make sense of this phenomenon, although I want to caution you that I offer these observations not as a condemnation or as a plaint for a purer form of moviegoing. I don’t want to attribute this to some nefarious potency of advertising or publicity, as Hollywood certainly makes its share of bombs. And I feel reflexively skeptical of attributing the phenomenon to an increasingly herd-like approach to moviegoing: if everyone else is seeing it, then I should too. For the real reason to watch or read or attend something that everyone else is seeing is that you will be able to talk to “everyone” about it; mass culture is meant to lubricate social interaction, not to make your consumer choices for you. But that is what I don’t really see about the new blockbusters: talk, the kind of iconic “water-cooler” conversations that make blockbusters into popular or mass culture.

Perhaps, as Ray intimated in his post, the blockbuster as a cultural form has definitively changed. Perhaps the blockbuster is no longer popular culture, but rather, one might almost say, unpopular culture.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m a bit nonplussed Avatar is nowhere to be seen in this post. That is the textbook example of a blockbuster that had zero impact on the popular imagination. I’m not sure if this is the piece you had in mind, but Slate did pubish one a couple of years ago on how quickly Avatar faded from the popular consicousness despite being the highest grossing film of all time. It’s an anti-Star Wars in that respect.

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/08/05/avatar_sequels_three_no_one_cares_here_s_why.html

    That cavil aside, this is a fine post and highlights a definite phenomenon in the contemporary moviegoing experience. Also, I think the comparison of Jurassic World and The Force Awakens is appropriate for more than just the reason discussed here.

    • Hi Varad,
      Thanks for your comment! I left out Avatar on purpose because I think it did have a significant impact on the popular imagination, albeit only in terms of technology. It sequels, on the other hand, I totally agree with you, no one cares two 3D lenses about. It will be interesting, in that regard, to see whether they actually succeed at the box office. I suspect they won’t, and therefore may not be part of the phenomenon of high-grossing but shrugworthy films.

  2. Andy, I have similar questions. If we look back at the origins of blockbuster history, critics (those mediators of conversations about movies!) had by the early 1980s come to understand that blockbusters were manufactured by multinational corporations to be similar to the release of new car, gadget, or washing machine. Pauline Kael argued in her great essay What Are the Movies So Bad? that at least with the old moguls there was some passion for making, you know, movies. By the 1980s there was passion for making money in a market whose audience were shareholders not moviegoers. I see the latest Star Wars as the perfect culmination of this trend–the latest blockbuster shares technical history with something like Gone with the Wind, but its the social history that has changed remarkably and finally.

    • Hi Ray,
      Is it okay if I say that hindsight suggests that those critics were overreacting? I mean, it’s possible that I too am overreacting and in 30 years time, Minions and Jurassic World and Age of Ultron will come to seem like they really mattered culturally, but my feeling is that both over time and at the moment they were released, the blockbusters of the 80s were much bigger deals. I mean, look at the top ten for the 1980s: E.T., the two Star Wars films, Batman, the three Indiana Jones films, Back to the Future. These launched more than lines of merchandise–they embedded themselves in our everyday language. How many lines or catchphrases or even memes come from the blockbusters of this year? I just don’t think they register, whereas those 80s blockbusters truly did.

      Perhaps The Force Awakens will turn out to generate no new memes or catchphrases either, but I think that makes it not the culmination of a process begun in the late 1970s, but a process begun in the late 2000s, with maybe the Transformers films. Who wanted those? Would the broader culture be any different without them? Those seem to me the first unpopular blockbusters.

      • HAHA! Kael over-react?! never. Yes, I agree with you, Andy. The thing is that each period in which critics say something along those lines–that it is the end of movie love or whatever–suggests a transition of some kind. While I accept that the blockbusters of the 1980s gave us some catchy lines there were plenty of others that did not. The other point that Kael and some of her…minions…were making was about the make up of the industry itself and how that mattered to the production and reception of movies. There is still a great deal to be done on how the blockbuster changed not merely the model for making these huge multi-million dollar films, but how that model also sparked the independent film boom that operated underneath, in direct opposition artistically to these films and with the financial assistance provided by blockbusters. Another stream to follow is the network that sought to produce the next Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, you know that gang–all men, all wearing ball caps. That is where I think J. Hoberman’s criticism comes in because he often works in the social history of movies, including blockbusters, and plays with ideas I have find most interesting–the intersection of democratic culture, popular art, and mass marketing.

  3. Ray,
    I totally see what you mean about how these moments in which people throw their hands up in the air and decry the State That Things Are Coming To is truly indicative of a transition. And I certainly agree that the period of the late 1970s to the early 1980s was one of those shifts. But I think we’re just periodizing differently–or maybe not, maybe I’m just misreading you.

    I’m trying to argue that something has happened fairly recently which marks not the culmination of a longish trend dating back to Jaws and Star Wars, but rather the beginning of a quite new development in the blockbuster, where there is no real goal in making these films (exemplified, perhaps, by the Transformers, Hobbit, and Fast and Furious franchises, as well as Jurassic World) of leaving an imprint on the broader cultural environment. In addition to making money, I take it that making memorable images and lines of dialogue was the goal that Cameron and Lucas and Spielberg and Ridley Scott and Robert Zemeckis actually were aiming at. They wanted to make new fairy tales, as you quoted Lucas as saying, they wanted to give us new catchphrases and new icons, scenes to reminisce about and deconstruct in everyday conversation. I just can’t see that as the goal of Colin Trevorrow or Justin Lin or even Michael Bay or Peter Jackson now.

    In fact, those two directors are pretty good examples of the transition I’m trying to identify. Say what you want about the crassness of all of Bay’s work, there seems to me a pretty clear delineation between something like The Rock or even Armageddon and the Transformer films. Same for the LOTR trilogy and the Hobbit trilogy. They seem to me to be very different kinds of blockbusters. And I don’t think that’s just a way of saying that the former are pretty good and the latter pretty bad–at least I hope that’s not all I’m saying. What I mean is that there seems to be a different kind of logic at work about what blockbusters are for, what place they are supposed to have in the broader culture, what kinds of contributions they make to our everyday conversations and interactions.

  4. Andy,

    Sorry, I misread you. I tried to make a similar point in my post to the one you are making here. But I think we both, if I might stretch a bit, are not hitting the point hard enough. What is it that we are seeing in these new blockbusters? Your write: “For the real reason to watch or read or attend something that everyone else is seeing is that you will be able to talk to “everyone” about it; mass culture is meant to lubricate social interaction, not to make your consumer choices for you. But that is what I don’t really see about the new blockbusters: talk, the kind of iconic “water-cooler” conversations that make blockbusters into popular or mass culture.” Indeed mass culture and consumer culture did not completely change the way people interacted to create cultural moments or narratives, but you are suggesting that these latest contributions just might exist outside of this tradition, is that correct? If so, I find a similar process at work and what I think is different is that there are two spheres of culture operating independently of each other. In one, there exists these movies that garner hundreds of millions of dollars before any conversation about the actual work CAN take place. And in the other, are discussions like the one we are having on this blog and all over FB in which genuine thought seems to be spun about a cultural moment that might as well be totally disconnected from these discussions. For me, this kind of development has particular resonance because I have spent most of my academic life, from my dissertation to now, studying debates that exist in that nebulous area of public culture. And so, I think like you, I get very curious when a cultural tradition such as the blockbuster seems to exist independent of public culture. The terms I assumed governed that culture have changed.

  5. I wonder if this is specific only to film blockbusters and if perhaps it may apply to the production of mass culture in general. Beyond being repeated ad nauseam in the radio and shopping mall stores, do pop music blockbusters such as Taylor Swift’s 1989 have the same popular hold as the pop blockbusters of yesteryear?

    Beyond the issue of aesthetic “quality,” which is always potentially problematic because the idea of aesthetic value and hierarchy is and should not be thought as a static phenomenon, I think we are facing another dilemma: aesthetic consumption. The hyperconsumerist culture of today–the constant drive to consume what is the next “new” thing, blockbuster or not–affects how people direct their energy towards the new Avengers movie…or the Hunger Games franchise for that matter.

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