Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (a.k.a. “MGM”) was once the most glamorous of film studios, run with an iron fist by its co-founder, Louis B. Mayer. Today’s film studios are media conglomerates ruthlessly driven by profits and a bottom line – usually by a group of executives halfway across the country, if not halfway around the world. And despite today’s growing trend for film stars to command hefty salaries as well as a percentage of the film’s profits, having a big name fronting a movie doesn’t necessarily guarantee box office gold. In the last of this four-part series, we examine the two ‘B’ words that drive today’s movie studios, the blockbusters and their embarrassing second cousin, the box office bombs.
It was around Louis B. Mayer’s time that the term ‘blockbuster’ came into use by the American media – but in a very different context – referring to aerial bombs capable of destroying a whole block of streets during the Second World War. It was only later that ‘blockbuster’ began to be used in reference to successful theater plays, hit movies and bestselling novels. Some of the blockbusters of this era included classics like Gone with the Wind (1939) starring Vivienne Leigh and Clark Gable, Quo Vadis (1951) starring Robert Taylor, the Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), both starring the venerable Charleton Heston (yesteryear’s superstar equivalent of Harrison Ford). These were considered blockbusters, based purely on the amount of money earned at the box office, and by which all other movie successes were measured – until the summer of 1975. In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s classic, Jaws, hit movie theatres and became an overnight sensation. The public perceived the movie as something new, something exciting – almost a cultural phenomenon. People talked about Jaws long after it was over and many went back to see it over and over again, just for the thrill of it. Exceeding a lofty one hundred million dollars in ticket sales, Jaws put the concept of the modern-day blockbuster on the map.
Although the term ‘blockbuster’ was originally defined by audience response, it eventually came to mean a high-budget production aimed at mass markets, with associated merchandising, on which the financial fortunes of film studios and distributors depended. According to Box Office Mojo, the ten highest domestic grossing films of all time are as follows: Fox’s Avatar (2009) with $760.5 million, Paramount’s Titanic (1997) with $658.7 million, Buena Vista’s Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) with $623.4 million, Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight (2008) with $534.9 million, Fox’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) with $474.5 million, Fox’s Star Wars (1977) with $461.0 million, Buena Vista’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) with $450.8, Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight Rises (2012) with $448.1 million, Universal’s Jurassic World (2015) with $445.8 million, Disney’s Shrek 2 (2004) with $441.2 million.
Now let’s turn our attention to the blockbuster’s embarrassing second cousin, the box office bomb. Box office bombs are movies that cost more to make than they acquire in revenue (both domestic and worldwide). Putting it bluntly, even if a movie makes as much as its production budget, it’s still a bomb since marketing costs haven’t been factored in nor have the theater owners’ share (movie studios split grosses with theater owners). As such, a film often must make almost double its budget to become profitable. Most big box-office bombs are summer blockbusters which are enormously expensive and face stiff competition. There are, of course, many reasons for a film to "bomb" at the box-office - the major causes are lack of studio promotion, heavy competition from other movies released at the same time, exorbitant productions costs difficult to recoup and other production problems, not to mention negative word of mouth (especially in his era of the Internet and social media).
You might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, you win some, you lose some, right? That certainly seems to be the rationale in the case of an actor’s or director’s career when their films fail – just ask George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma, to name just a few. Unfortunately however, the consequences of a major box office bomb in the case of a movie studio are much less forgiving, especially when you consider that Cutthroat Island (1995) starring Geena DavisorHeaven's Gate (1980) starring Kris Kristofferson, both monumental stinkeroos, ended up brankrupting their studios. Wonder what old Louis B. Mayer would have to say about that?