Anatomy of a Blockbuster

May 18, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Calling a movie a "blockbuster" attributes it with a special distinction. Traditionally, blockbusters aren't just successful motion pictures, they are mega-successful motion pictures. Once upon a time, a movie's gross had to cross the magic $100 million mark for it to be considered for that hallowed category. But that was back in the day when $100 million movies were rare and the average prime time ticket price was around $2.00. Today, the definition has changed. In 2007, to be considered for blockbuster status, the $100 million number comes into play - at least that much must be earned during the opening weekend. The total domestic gross has to be at least $300 million. Films that fit both criteria can be considered blockbusters.

There's no correlation between blockbuster status and cinematic quality. Movie-goers tend to flock to blockbusters irrespective of whether the movie is good or bad. As long as it avoids epic horribleness, it will generally perform close to industry expectations. This realization can be a little dispiriting since it raises the question of whether there's motivation for filmmakers to strive to make a great movie. While I don't think anyone is out there trying to achieve mediocrity, the overwhelming adherence to formula and spectacle often limits the ability of a movie to satisfy on all levels. The path of least resistance is a shoddy road and too many summer films lead in that direction.

Generally, there are two methods that can lead blockbuster status. The first is to court a family audience. The second is to appeal to males in the age range of 13-25. Would-be blockbusters must have a PG or PG-13 rating, since an R eliminates too much of the potential consumer base. Most blockbusters are entries in well-established franchises. It helps immeasurably to have die-hard fans out there to spread the word and generate anticipation. It should come as no surprise that a high percentage of blockbusters are sequels.

Family films, especially those featuring beloved characters, can achieve blockbuster status if marketed correctly. It's important that they appeal not only to kids but to teenagers and adults. There must be a desire on the part of everyone in the family to see the movie, and a willingness on the part of the parents to take their younger offspring back to see the movie multiple times. Repeat viewing is a key. No movie can attain blockbuster status if it's a "one-and-done" kind of thing. Blockbusters don't just need a splashy first weekend; they have to keep afloat in green for at least a month. A movie won't be making $20 million during its fourth weekend unless people are seeing it a second or third or fourth time.

Hollywood has long targeted teenage boys. Actually, the term "teenage" is misleading, since the target audience is really males between the ages of 13 and 25 - high school, college, and just out of college. There's a reason for this. Males in this age range go to more movies than their female counterparts, boys can become obsessive about films, and repeat viewing is almost mandatory. It's not unusual to find a Spider-Man fan who will admit to having seen the first movie 20 times and the second one 25. In all likelihood, such an individual will be a male in his teens or twenties. One curious thing: boys in this category will often be ruthlessly critical of a film, but that doesn't stop them from becoming repeat viewers. I remember talking to a 16-year old shortly after the release of The Phantom Menace. "That movie sucks," he said, then admitted to having seen it 15 times.

What about teenage girls? It has been notoriously difficult for Hollywood to tap into this target audience, probably because they're not as predictable as boys when it comes to movies. For the most part, girls lack the same degree of fanaticism and they are less likely to become repeat viewers. Movies targeted for females between the ages of 13 and 25 may be financially successful but they're unlikely to be blockbusters. It's a sort of Catch-22. Hollywood doesn't target girls because they're not as profitable as boys, and because there aren't many films targeting girls, they don't have much chance to prove their financial clout.

Titanic represents the holy grail of blockbusters. Not only did it hit gold with males 13-25, but it was just as popular with similarly aged females and older viewers. And, in an unprecedented occurrence, this movie got repeat viewings from girls. It's easy enough to understand why Titanic made $600 million (domestic), but knowing is not repeating. While ticket prices remain at their current levels, Titanic's gross will almost certainly remain unchallenged. Ten years from now, with $15 seats, who knows?

There are likely five blockbuster candidates for 2007. Spider-Man 3 is close enough that it's safe to call it a slam-dunk (as of this writing, it's less than $50 million short of $300 million, and it should have no trouble bridging that gap). Shrek 3 will have an uphill battle. The first-weekend $100 million should be attainable, but the $300 total may be beyond its reach. Pirates of the Caribbean 3 will shock analysts (and me) if it misses either goal. The question is whether or not it will top Spider-Man 3. (My guess: yes.) Transformers has a loyal fan base, but it's a bit of a dark horse. It may have trouble with both the $100 million first weekend and the $300 million total. Finally, there's my predicted 2007 box office champion: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The Harry Potter films have always been reliable earners, but none has been better placed than this one. Not only is it arriving when the kids are out of school, but it's being dumped into the middle of Potter-mania, with book seven of the series hitting bookstores a week after the movie's release. (One could argue that this will depress viewership, but any dip should be temporary. Still, it will be interesting to watch revenue patterns during the film's second weekend.) Some might argue that Ratatouille should be included in the list of possible blockbusters but, despite the Pixar/Disney imprint, it's hard to believe that this production will meet the criteria. Finally, while Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer should do well, I can't see it coming close to $300 million.

We know all of these candidates are going to deliver plenty in the way of eye candy, and the studios responsible for releasing them will reap the rewards of well-run marketing campaigns. Everyone will see these movies, and many will go back multiple times. But one question lingers: Will they be fun? That's all anyone can reasonably ask of a blockbuster, but they don't always deliver.