The concept of the blockbuster film is a staple of modern movie culture, but the idea is actually a lot older than you might think. The term “blockbuster” was originally used to describe the 1943 motion picture Bombardier, and both The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) were referred to as blockbusters in retrospect; in essence, a blockbuster could be best described as a motion picture extravaganza that wows audiences and typically earns back its budget several times over. Prior to 1975, however, these films were the exception and not the rule. Hollywood loved great box office returns, but it had yet to develop the focus on action and extravagant special effects that would become staples of modern movies. It took a series of revolutionary films to enable the industry to create a formula for success that continues to endure to this day. Here are just a few of those early blockbusters that set the standard for the industry.
Jaws (1975), opens a new window -- The original killer shark movie, Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking film did more than make cautious moviegoers reconsider their summer trip to the beach. It was also the first modern blockbuster movie, earning $470.7 million at the box office as well as lasting critical acclaim. The film was praised for its minimalist approach to suspense, using the power of suggestion, coupled with John Williams’s iconic theme, to generate tension. While a series of sequels followed, none were as critically and commercially successful as the first film, which was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2001.
Star Wars (1977), opens a new window – While it’s hard to imagine Star Wars as anything but a success today, at the time it was very difficult for George Lucas to find anyone willing to give this daring film a chance. Theaters ended up having to be forced to show the film, receiving it as part of a package deal, but Lucas ended up having the last laugh. The story of adventure in a galaxy far, far away enthralled moviegoers, and Star Wars was an instant hit, going on to gross $775.4 million at the box office and birth one of the most successful franchises of all time. With landmark achievements in visual and sound effects, it was one of the first films chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1989.
Alien (1979), opens a new window – Ridley Scott’s epic sci-fi horror film received mixed reviews from critics upon its initial release, but was adored by the public and has since been recognized as one of the landmark films in its genre. Alien was a different sort of sci-fi in that it was a darker, grittier film that aimed to present itself as realistically as possible; that realism contributed to the horror, creating a grim and suspenseful atmosphere that continues to chill audiences. Unusually, the film was almost written off as a complete failure despite its popularity and financial success; it took a lot of legal maneuvering before Fox was willing to greenlight a sequel. Alien was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2002. This film also has a local claim to fame: one of its initial preview screenings took place here in St. Louis!
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), opens a new window – Another Lucasfilm project, this time with Steven Spielberg at the helm, this exciting adventure film introduced the iconic character of Indiana Jones and made kids all over the world want to become an archaeologist when they grew up. The studios had apparently learned nothing from the success of Star Wars, however; this was yet another film that Lucas had to fight to get made. Nevertheless, with returns of $389.9 million and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Raiders was and remains a strong favorite among film fans, and it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1999.
Ghostbusters (1984), opens a new window – Who you gonna call? The classic comedy about three parapsychologists who become paranormal investigators/exterminators was an instant hit upon its release, grossing $295.2 million at the box office; a number that ranks it as one of the highest-grossing comedies ever made. It received Academy Award nominations for its amazing visual effects and its catchy theme song, and became a pop culture phenomenon which is still going strong over thirty years later. It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2015.