Hollywood is ruled by two mistresses: creativity and money. Back in the 1920s/30s when Hollywood was making the move to sound it found it an expensive exercise, so it turned to Wall Street to raise the cash. The investors were happy to help, but not without moving some of their own in to manage the money. Before long the money moguls ran the studios and most of Hollywood. The artistic side of the business wasn’t totally banished, which is why the two benchmarks are box office and Oscar nominations.
In Blockbuster, Tom Shone follows the rise to dominance of the blockbuster in movie production, from its beginnings with Jaws in 1975 through to Lord of the Rings and Spider-man. Aside from interviews with the filmmakers responsible for bringing the films to the screen, he also tracks down many of the executives who greenlit them. The book is filled with fascinating insights into the history surrounding what have become iconic movies and battles that took place to get them made. This includes how Steven Spielberg was taken to dinner before he started shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind and told, in no uncertain terms, that the whole studio was riding on him and that he better not muck it up. Or how Jon Peters changed the script for Batman while they were filming, meaning Tim Burton had Jack Nicholson walking up the stairs to the bell tower with no idea of what they were going to do when they got there.
The book also looks at why Hollywood has started to favour action effects spectaculars and endless sequels, remakes and spin-offs. Simply put, it’s all about the desire to reduce the chances of failure, while also finding a formula that works consistently. Effects, it seems, are far more predictable than a great story, quality acting and good characterisation. It also charts the slow change in the way Hollywood has exploited a film’s financial potential with the rise of merchandising and the shift in earnings potential away from the box office to DVD and TV sales.
What Blockbuster does it redress the void that most film theory seems to overlook: Hollywood’s primary motivator is money. This drive has had a huge impact not only on what films get made but also how a film looks, from the increase in reliance on audience testing, commercial exploitation and non-stop advertising campaigns.
It’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes movies and is interested see what goes on an industry that is so adept at misinformation and keeping its secrets locked away.
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Reviewed: 6th November 2005