BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's holiday time, and that means blockbuster time. The movieplexes are chockablock with films sporting dazzling stars, special effects, and marketing budgets. You know, blockbusters. If you're too busy, don't worry. There'll be even more this summer. Now, there are critics who yawn or cringe at all of this. The American blockbuster is, after all, an easy thing to hate. Then there is Tom Shone. His new book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, is nothing short of a love letter to the blockbuster, which he says may be the quintessential American art form. Tom, welcome to On the Media.
TOM SHONE: Thank you. Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say in your book that the whole term blockbuster itself has changed. It used to be a measure of success, and now it refers to a genre.
TOM SHONE: That's right. It's a type of movie. I mean originally, it just meant any movie that had sort of scored well financially, and it didn't have any kind of generic preference whatsoever. It could be The Sound of Music, it could be Kramer vs. Kramer, it could be Earthquake. And at some point it has sort of evolved into an actual type of movie which let people know what they'd be expecting. It started to be the name which the studios gave to a film before it had even met its audience; before it had even had a chance to prove itself a success or not. So nowadays you'll hear Variety talk of a blockbuster failing, which would have made no sense whatsoever [LAUGHTER] to somebody from 20 years ago -- like, how could a blockbuster fail? By definition, didn't it mean a successful movie?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You talk about Gone With the Wind sort of creating the idea of a runaway success, but when you talk about a film that creates a blockbuster in both senses of the word -- not just a runaway success -- but a description of a genre, I guess you have to begin with Jaws.
TOM SHONE: Yeah, that's right. Here's some of the things that didn't happen after Gone With the Wind. Nobody did a sequel. Nobody turned it into a toy. Nobody had any idea, really, that they could repeat the success -- even a year later. Gone With the Wind was simply re-issued every decade or so. You know, the American sort of public had their blockbuster and they kind of kept it in a cabinet, and every now and again they'd get it out of the cabinet, [LAUGHTER] to, to look at it, and then they'd put it back again. But Jaws started the idea that you could have these movies sort of every year; that they would be aimed at the younger audience, and they would hit them in the summer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It would hit them in the summer. I was expecting you to say - and it hits them in the viscera.
TOM SHONE: I mean you've hit on it there. A lot of the sort of earlier disaster movies of the '70s had been sort of weighed down with quite a serious sense of civic responsibility. The building goes up in flames, and the, the mayor's on the phone to the architect, and you know, what's going on? Jaws came along, and it just had this kind of barrel full of high spirits, and it's just a very, very funny movie, and it existed purely to scare you and make you laugh, and it did so with sort of no real pretensions beyond that. [CLIP FROM JAWS PLAYS]
MAN 1: The officer asked me to tell you that you're overloading that boat. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE: AH, GO ON]
MAN 2: Well you ain't going, man! What do you care?
MAN 3: Well, then can you tell me if there's a good restaurant or hotel on the island?
MAN 4: Yeah, you walk straight ahead. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]
MAN 2: Ah, they're all gonna die.
MAN 4: [SHOUTING] [unintelligible] on boat the here! [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then Spielberg encounters his first rival, you say, in George Lucas, his friend, and with Star Wars, and you say that it slouched its way to the box office.
TOM SHONE: Everybody expected this movie to fail. It was massively over-budget. They tried to kill the movie several times. And instead, it comes out and kind of rewrites box office history. It wasn't a blockbuster by today's terms at all, in that sense, in that it hadn't been groomed for success. What Lucas effectively did was sped up movies to an extraordinary degree. The blockbusters of the '50s and '60s had been enormous things. They'd been huge, Ten Commandment-sized movies. Star Wars, as much as Jaws, just introduced this kind of new aesthetic. The movie went so quickly that you had to go back again and again to take in all its riches. Normally, you had a sort of sci-fi movie, and somebody takes out a kind of ray gun from the holster, and they spend ten minutes explaining what the gun does. [LAUGHTER] You know, in Star Wars, they just threw this stuff around, as if it were just ordinary garage junk. [CLIP FROM STAR WARS PLAYS]
CARRIE FISHER: What a piece of junk!
HARRISON FORD: She'll make point five past light speed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications myself. [TAPE ENDS]
TOM SHONE: And that was incredibly intoxicating. A really new idea then. Characters who were just so at ease with the environment in which they lived that they just treated it in this incredibly offhand way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's flash forward, then, to the '90s, and this whole notion of speed. Spielberg himself says, you quote him in the book as saying, you know, "now people have no patience, because people like me taught them to have no patience, and now I'm stuck with a lot of people who have no patience," and he was encountering this problem when he made Jurrasic Park.
TOM SHONE: That's right. If you compare Jurrasic Park with Jaws, it's a much more impatient movie. We get to see our first dinosaur in about the first 20 minutes of the movie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you don't see the shark until--
TOM SHONE: Right at the end of Jaws. Same with the UFOs in Close Encounters. It's 40 minutes or so before we even hear the word UFO. Jurrasic Park is, you know, we get talk of the dinosaurs in the first five minutes, and we get to see them within 20 minutes. It's a movie that kind of just hurries to its special effects gold. [CLIP FROM JURRASIC PARK PLAYS]
DINOSAUR MAN: We're going to make a fortune with this place. [DINOSAUR CALLING] [LAUGHS] [TAPE ENDS]
TOM SHONE: Jurrasic Park also was a huge success internationally. I mean, even more so than Jaws, and kind of reconfigured Hollywood's kind of expectations of, of how well blockbusters could do globally. You know, if you want to pick a point at which Hollywood became, effectively, the world's juke box, Jurrasic Park is the point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a tune that a lot of the rest of the world is queasy hearing constantly playing in their backyards, and I know that Jurrasic Park set up a terrible conflict between Spielberg and foreign filmmakers, and particularly in France. There was a joint letter from directors that you quote -- Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders -- who said "Dear Steven, We're trying to defend European cinema from complete annihilation. There'll be no European film industry left by the year 2000," and they lay the blame for that at the feet of Jurrasic Park.
TOM SHONE: Jurrasic Park had the misfortune of sort of terrible timing. It arrived just at the time that the French were trying to put restrictions on the amount of American movies that were opening in French cinemas. I mean by this time the blockbuster had become synonymous with all things American and rapacious. They were seen as these great giant dinosaurs, sort of stomping on everything in their path. But you know, it's also at this point that the American film industry became most internationalized. If ever there was a point at which kind of American movies were least American, it was from that point on, in that they were owned by international conglomerates, financed by the money from those conglomerates, often directed by foreign directors, released globally, and their overseas market far exceeded the domestic revenues. And in a very important sense, you could ask of the blockbuster in the '90s not how did the blockbuster conquer the world, but you know, how did the world invade Hollywood and take it over?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
TOM SHONE: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Shone is author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer.