Godzilla – World Cinema and American Language Barrier [Film]


Chapter 2 – Subtitle Remake

Godzilla is the king of the monsters, but Hollywood is the king of the blockbuster. During the early 90s small screens across America gained access to TBS and TNT via basic cable packages. These two channels routinely aired themed marathons on weekends in one of four ways – the spy weekend centered around James Bond, the war movie weekend centered around Red Dawn (1984) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), the drama weekend centered around The Outsiders (1983), or the monster weekend centered around Godzilla featuring his more playful films of the 1960s and 70s with their iconic dubbing. Godzilla is definitively Japanese with his destruction left purposefully less realistic as men in suits battle and crush miniature cities. Through basic cable, Godzilla became a woven part of the American lexicon despite our current gritty visually realistic take of storytelling through Hollywood blockbusters.

The largest export of the United States is our pop-culture delivered by Hollywood to nations across the world which reciprocate billion of dollars in ticket returns. In 1954, Godzilla was introduced in Japan with great success spawning 27 squeals over a fifty year period from the Toho Company. Hollywood took notice of this Japanese hit release Godzilla, King of the Monster two years later. With access to all the international markets across the oceans the United States home market remains the most profitable for American Studios. From this notion foreign films will not always work in their original form as financial successes within the United States. This is not a question of the quality of storytelling but the audiences’ ability to relate to the work presented. World cinema’s most revered films international rights are thus acquired by American Studios for the purpose of being  remade as Hollywood blockbusters based on American sensibilities with English dialogue.

Gojira_1954_Japanese_posterHollywood and Japan’s first introduction was not Godzilla but four years prior with Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (1950). The film is a Japanese period drama starring Toshiro Mifune based on two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. The film’s characters provide alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions a woman’s rape along with the murder of her samurai husband. Kurosawa intended the film to be an exploration of multiple realities rather than an exposition of a particular truth. Rashomon won the Golden Lion of the Venice Film Festival that year and an honorary Academy Award for most outstanding foreign language film at the 25th Academy Awards. R.K.O. acquired Rashomon for American distribution releasing the film in its original Japaneses with English subtitles. By 1952 the film had only grossed 200,000 dollars. Rashomon was a defining influence on a young Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and other future students of the 1960s USC School of Cinematic Arts but also a financial failure in the United States due to the use of subtitles.

Until the late 1920s film was a silent medium. Warner Brother’s 1927 release of The Jazz Singer  forever changed how film was received. The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man dealing with his Jewish roots and love for Jazz singing. The film features six musical numbers of synchronized singing to filmed performance. This incorporation of sound added unforeseen language barriers to world cinema. The addition of sound made it difficult for studios to export their films to foreign markets. Silent era Charlie Chaplin films were universally received because the audience was able to project their own culture and language directly onto the Chaplin’s silent Tramp character. With talking films a producing country’s cultural and language isolate the work from easy distribution to international audiences.

Across the Atlantic in 1931 Germany, Director Fritz Lang premiered his first talking picture, a thriller entitled M. The film is about criminals taking the law into their own hands in order to find a child murderer. The film did incredibly well in Germany and was sold to Foremco for international distribution in the United States, Foremco premiered M in its original German language with English subtitles. Following an initial two week run the film was pulled from theaters for poor performance attributed to the usage of those subtitles. M was later dubbed by director Eric Hakim with only actor Peter Lorre reprising his role. This dubbing incorporated partial re-shoots with American actors performing select cut away dialogue scenes. This reworking of M was done without Fritz Lang’s involvement in the hopes of gaining wider American returns.

The same year M was recut with American actors the definitive jungle picture King Kong (1933) premiered in New York City simultaneously at the 6,200 seat Radio City Music Hall and the 3,700 seat R.K.O. Roxy Theater across the street. King Kong is the story of a giant ape who lives on Skull Island and whose death is the result of his attempts to possess a beautiful young woman. The special effects spectacle was from Willis H. O’Brien who blended a claymation ape rampaging through jungle and city with live action actors. King Kong sold out the combined two theater’s 9,900 seats for four days straight with ten showing a day grossing just under 90 thousand dollars in 1933 money. Over the film’s initial run, King Kong would take in just over 2 million dollars and tens of millions over subsequent releases in 38, 42, 46, and 1952 – two years before the original Japanese Godzilla (1954). King Kong became the catalyst for the next generation of special effects film makers such as Eiji Tsuburaya of Japan and Ray Harryhausen of the United Sates (20,000 Fathoms Under the Sea – 1953).

Director Ishiro Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya took inspiration from King Kong for Godzilla (1954) who had captivated their imagination of wonder and mixed that spectacle with the context of Cold War nuclear annihilation. The conclusion of World War II is marked by the dropping of atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. War was turned into occupation as the United Sates forces led by General Douglas A. MacArthur implemented military, political, economic and social reforms upon the Japaneses until 1952. As the world rebuilt, lines were drawn between a capitalist west and a communist east linked through a nuclear arms race as the threat of mutually assured destruction provided the only safe guard to avoiding world annihilation. With the ending of the American occupation of Japan, previous censorship restriction were lifted allowing Japaneses post war film to address the atomic age to which no other country was better suited.

rome open city

Post war cinema became a medium for people to express and deal with their nations’ feelings about the war’s devastation. Rome, Open City is an Italian film released in 1945 from director Roberto Rossellini which deals with the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944. Joseph E. Levine, an American Film Producer involved in the production of over 500 films including the importing of foreign films into the United States, acquired the film’s international rights. Levine initially released Rome, Open City in the States in its original Italian language with English subtitles. Similar to Fritz Lang’s M, with little returns, the film was pulled from screens after two weeks. Levine recognized the fundamental fact American audiences do not like subtitles. Rome, Open City was dubbed over by English voice talent and re-released. The film went on to gross over 1 million dollars being the first foreign film in Hollywood history to do so. Levine followed Rome, Open City with the releases of Paisà (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) each grossing over 1 million dollars themselves.

Director Ishiro Honda opens Godzilla with a sequence depicting a Japaneses fishing boat being obliteration through radiation breath. A slimier real life event became a key inspiration for the film. The United States tested their first Hydrogen Bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Marshal Island six months after the Soviet Union had tested their own Hydrogen Bomb. The real Japanese fishing trawler (Lucky Dragon 5) was fishing for tuna in a predefined safe zone until the area was overwhelmed by the Castle Bravo nuclear test which had yielded a 15 megaton blast rather than its planned six megaton. The crew of Lucky Dragon 5 faced radiation sickness and six months after the event the radio operator succumbed to the Castle Bravo radiation asking the world in his final breaths that he be the last casualty of the Hydrogen Bomb.

Immediately following a showing of Godzilla entrepreneur Edmund Goldman purchased the international rights to the film for 25,000 dollars. At that time 3,000 dollars was considered an average price for film rights. Richard Kay and Harold Ross later became involved with Goldman helping to finance the promotion budget for the American release. The three would show the film to Levine who immediately contributed 100,000 dollars of his own money into the production. Godzilla would not just be another dubbing, Levine would remake the film for American audiences.

godzilla_1956Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) from TransWorld Releasing Corp was the adaptation of Godzilla (1954). This new recut version consisted of numerous new scene centered on the character Steve Marin portrayed by actor Raymond Burr. Director Terry O. Morse with his background in low-budget crime dramas and who was also known in Hollywood as a film doctor was brought in to direct the new scenes. Morse took the Japanese footage and created something new for American audiences. Through clever editing and set imitation Journalist Steve Marin appears to actually interact with the original Japanese cast who had been dubbed over by American voice actors with newly written dialogue.

Today dubbing is consider an insult to film. From the early 1940s through the late 1950s dubbing was considered the highest level of respect one could pay a film because having a film dubbed meant a producer and distributor believed enough in the film they were willing to invest their own money into the picture. Subtitles were cheap, but dubbing cost enormous sums of money. Hollywood took Godzilla and morphed it into an American monster attacking Tokyo. Godzilla, King of the Monsters would break Levine’s previous records of success. Toho also loved the recut version as it gave Godzilla a larger audience. Hollywood in more recent years has taken a different approach to successful foreign films.

Warner Brother’s release of Godzilla in the summer of 2014 is an American remake of the Japanese idea. The original 1954 and the 2014 remake share some similarities to the  monster genre. Both film take recent tragedies fresh in the audiences’ mind and incorporated them into their films but changed just enough to retain the entertainment aspect and not become to documentary. The 2014 film uses the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in addition to the 2004 Indonesia Tsunamis as disasters fresh in the audience’s mind to elicits stronger emotional reactions to Godzilla’s devastation while the 1954 film parallels the dropping of atomic bombs on Japaneses cities and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident.

The two films although differ in the context of the genre. It is obvious what Godzilla (1954) is about – nuclear annihilation. Godzilla is the embodiment of that fear, a radioactive behemoth destroying all human society in his path. The people of Japan can do nothing to stop him with the exception of developing a weapon even greater then atomic weapons but at the cost of throwing the world into an even worse arms race. Godzilla (2014) is not really about anything other then being an American summer blockbuster that places Godzilla into the world in the most realistic way CGI can.

In 1954, the special effects pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya were state of the art and amazed audience in the same way the Lumiere Brothers Train Arriving at Station (1896) caused people to faint. People attend films to see something they have never seen before. People saw Godzilla (1954) to see something they had also never seen before. Film requires elements of the fantastic and wonder. Cinema is the projection of that spectacle. I attend theaters in the pursuit of this awe inspiring wonder and to suspend by disbelief in the never before seen. Godzilla (2014) is a great American blockbuster in this regard. I cheered for the king of the monsters multiple times at my screening and witnessed some amazing visuals. The American blockbuster has in some ways developed into its own genre with specific rules of genres have such as one example – the destruction of a major city. On this new genre Godzilla succeeds. I had a great time watching the film but the fantastic elements or the character moments are not mutually exclusive as new blockbuster would try and claim they are.

Original Nation Title United States Title
Sweden Let The Right One In (2008) Let Me In (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Insomnia (1997 Insomnia (2002)
Japan The 47 Ronin (1942) 47 Ronin (2013)
Ring (1998) The Ring (2002)
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) The Grudge (2004)
Seven Samurai (1954) The Magnificent Seven (1960)
South Korea Oldboy (2003) Oldboy (2013)
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) The Uninvited (2009)
Hong Kong Internal Affairs (2002) The Departed (2006)
Germany Wings of Desire (1987) City of Angles  (1998)

With languages barrier in world cinema from synchronized sound with movement remakes became the logical solution for American Studios. Over 9.6 million tickets were sold in Japan marking Godzilla (1954) the eighth highest attended film in Japan that year earning over 2.25 million dollars (152 million Yen) for Toho Company. The recut version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) was later premiered in Japan. Raymond Burr’s character was subtitled back into Japanese but the original Japanese dialogue was left untouched. The film was recut based on how visual elements came together and not how dialogue worked as the original Japanese lines had been rewritten to fit the new story. I can only image what sitting in a Japanese theater during the summer of 57 watching  Godzilla, King of the Monster and listening to the complete nonsense of non sequitur after non sequitur dialogue must have been like.

Oculus – The Twenty First Century Theater Remake with 40 Dollar Tickets [Film]


Chapter One – The Changing Theater

Every Monday night over eighteen-million televisions turn on with the purpose of watching NBC’s The Blacklist (2013-2014) developed by Sony Pictures. The charismatic wordplay of anti-hero Raymond “Red” Reddington portrayed by James Spader is a shared experience by the audience in general terms although viewer reactions to Reddington remain fundamentally isolated from one another. This isolation is the result of television’s ability to only support single to small viewing groups. Storytelling is bigger than this and exerts very personal reactions from the viewer when left to competent hands. During a theater screening the level of dramatic tension, comedic laughter, or horror filled shock is exponentially amplified through the participation of the audience which collectively feeds off each member’s emotional reactions. The limiting isolation of television is why movie theaters have thrived for the past 120 years. We are social creatures by which our storytelling moments are drastically improved through the sharing of experiences not just in collective terms but rather a required need to experience and share with other people in the same physical space breathing the same tension filled slightly stinking musky muggy recirculated air.

The Longview Theater was a second-run single-screen theater constructed in Longview Washington during the early 1930s of the Classic Hollywood Period. Years later the theater found itself located under a mile from the west coast multiplex chain Regal Theater the linked changing landscape of theaters during the late 80s and early 90s. The Longview Theater is a reminder of Americana romanticized by the old and forgotten by the youth. As so many other theaters across the United States have closed succumbing to the financial forces of those larger big screen chains so eventually did the Longview Theater. But back in November of ‘94 the Longview Theater was still open and I was a ten year old boy excited to see aliens, wormholes, and James Spader (I only appreciated Kurt Russell A.K.A. Colonel Jack O’Neill much later in life) star in the Sci-Fi classic Stargate.

Five steps behind by father and losing ground we rushed inside the Longview Theater’s lobby wet and cold from a torrential winter downpour. My father loved his popcorn served with extra butter along with an equally large Pepsi to counter the food’s lingering salty taste. Slightly burnt popcorn filled the air. Not losing a step from the entryway, we rushed right up to the usher working concession and who was also selling tickets. We shared the largest popcorn available along with two Cokes despite my father’s constant complaints to the young man behind the display case as to why he needed to carry Pepsi instead. My father eventually finished, we took our food and made our way to the balcony.

Longview TheaterHalfway through Stargate the storm knocked the power out leaving us sitting in the pitch black auditorium with twenty other people. After a few moments shouts from down below began. “Start the movie!” and “Where’s the picture?!” echoed off the screen along with the flinging of popcorn or rather off of the back of me. One person would make a joke and everyone would laugh followed by another person making a similar joke and everyone again would laugh. We kept this up for what I remember as being twenty minutes with never a response from the theater staff probably due to that usher, concession worker, ticket seller and projectionist being a single person working that night. Eventually the power returned, the film started up again, and the movie finished.

Twenty years later I saw the low-budget WWE supernatural horror film Oculus at the Vancouver Mall Cinetopia Movie Parlor. Cinetopia’s website describes the experiences as “Ultra luxurious seating, unique suite-level amenities, in-theater restaurant service available, Digital 7.1 Sound, Super HD 30 foot screen with an additional 18 LED screens creating an immersive movie environment.” With a maximum capacity of thirty people the chairs resemble couches furnished with pillows and feature autumns for putting feet up onto. The Movie Parlor is as different from the Longview Theater as Adam West’s batman (1966-68) is to Christian Bale’s batman series (2005, 2008, 2012). In order to understand the difference between Cinetopia and the Longview Theater we must understand what home theater is in the twenty-first century and The Blacklist’s weekly eighteen-million televisions.

A person can walk into an electronics store and purchase a 70 Inch High Definition (HD) television with a 7.2 surround sound system for under five-thousand dollars. A JVC 4K projector can be purchased for eight-thousand dollars while 4K 65 Inch televisions have dropped in price to as low as three-thousand dollars. These improvements in technology coincide with the rise of Video On Demand (VOD) services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. During the same time period as my experience of watching Stargate with my father, he was also building his own home theater system for VHS rentals and the upcoming DVD Players. Surround Sound had also become a practical home option which men purchased in droves.

LG-Cinetopia-Vancouver-Mall-architecture-07In this context the Cinetopia Movie Parlor’s 2K projection and 7.2 Surround Sound no longer imitates the theater experience but rather attempts an imitation of the home theater experience. This is a drastic paradigm shift in the approach of getting people out of their home theaters and into their theaters. With the rise of affordable 4K displays the question of the future of the theater has legitimacy not experienced  since the failure of 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963). In the beginning of moving images the motion picture was still new, exciting, and wielded awe and wonder which brought audiences together in shared rooms. If the theater is going to continue, that shared experience must remain at its core.

The world experienced its first collective movie experience in Lyon, France. The Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, wanted to show movies not to a single person looking through a box as had been the practice for traveling attraction and sideshows, but instead to large groups of people. Film had to be bigger if it was going to succeed. The dream of the big screen was made true on December 28th, 1895 when the Lumière brothers projected their documentary film Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) out to the world. Arrival at La Ciotat (1896) followed a year later depicting trains arriving at station. It is said this imagery caused a great unsettledness for the audience with some fainting.

Up until the 1930s most people did not move more than twenty miles from where they were born to where they would pass. The United States in its coast to coast vastness was still composed of isolated smaller communities. Nickelodeons became the window out to the rest of the world. The nation’s first theater was opened by Harry Davis and John P. Harris on June 19th, 1906. These theaters seated less than 200 people on wooden chairs with a screen hung on a back wall. A piano was set to the side of the screen for accompanying musical soundtracks. The first of these theaters were store fronts which had be transitioned.

Attendees would slap their nickel onto the ticket booth counter and walk inside to see glimpses of the outside world. Paris, London, Tokyo, the far off mysterious lands were brought back to small-town U.S.A. These films also brought back with them the latest fashions and social trends. The Nickelodeons although became victims of their own success. The new American studios Famous Players (Paramount), Warner Brothers, MGM, etc… were producing over seven hundred films a years for display in over fifteen-thousand theaters across the county. The rise of feature films over shorts and documentaries was also a contributing factor in the Nickelodeons’ decline through the tremendous success of such films as The Birth of a Nation (1915) from D. W. Griffith. Simply growing attendance required larger auditoriums.

In 1914 New York City the first of the million dollar Movie Palaces was built. The  Mark Strand Theater at 47th Street and Broadway opened by Mitchell Mark became the archetype for the Movie Palace featuring a single auditorium with rows of seats, a box office, concessions, balcony and washrooms. Movie Palace boasted luxury, giant screens and lavish architectural designs. Innovations such as seats with pivoting backs that allowed people to remain seated while others could pass in front of the rows was only one example. Talking pictures soon took over the silent era with sound movies out selling silent film by ten million tickets. Movie Palaces were forced to rewire their theaters to support the new sound format such as the monster classic Frankenstein (1931) by Director James Whales. Frankenstein from Universal was an American defining film for the horror genre.

The Elgin Theater in Ottawa Canada was the first theater to offer two screen capable of showing two different movies simultaneously in 1957. In the United States, Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema (AMC Theaters) pioneered multiplexes in the early 1960s. These new designs allowed for a theater to operate several auditoriums with minimum staff through a centralized box office and snack bar area. This new Multiplex was built in Kansas City Missouri. A Multiplex featuring over twenty screens is known as a Megaplex which was first built by AMC for Dallas Texas in 1995. By the late ‘90s a Regal Theater would replace a single-screen Classic Hollywood Period theater in Longview Washington.

The horror genre had existed before sound as one of the first genre most notably and best done from German and Northern Europe films. This genre is about the dread of the unseen and above all others genres gets the closest to an audiences’ nervous system making the viewers sweet in cold rooms. Eighty-three years after FrankensteinOculus (2014) by Mike Flanagan continues this horror genre motif through supernatural sub-genre.

Oculus 2Oculus premiered on September 8th, 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival based on an earlier short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan. The film received a wide theatrical release on April 11th, 2014. Told through linked parallel stories of the present and 11 years ago the film follows Tim (Brenton Thwaites) a young man just discharged from state psychiatric care. Tim had shot and killed his father 11 year prior and now believes he had created an elaborate supernatural story of a mirror’s evil demonic effect on his father in order to protect his psyche from truth of  his father simply being an evil man. Tim’s sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent her past 11 years researching the mirror’s history becoming obsessed with proving her family’s innocents while also trying to kill the force residing within its glass. The realist and super-naturalist perspectives purpose an interesting question for the audience to ponder.  (Hint – Low-budget WWE supernatural horror film). The results of this answer sets up an interesting progression of illusion built upon deeper illusions which eventually culminating in the overlapping the parallel narratives as to confuse the audience in where reality had gone.

By 2013 the average price for a movie tickets in the United States was eight dollars and thirteen cents. Seeing Oculus for two people at the Vancouver Mall Cinetopia Movie Parlor cost over forty-dollars without buying slightly burnt popcorn. Forty-dollars was spent for the imitation of the home theater experiences. If people can share a great time in the Movie Parlor by all means they should attend the Movie Parlor as often as they can. For me, the Movie Parlor gave me a sense of excitement this first go around but in retrospect I feel the theater misses the context of the previous 120 years of auditoriums. Big Screen, CinemaScope, UltraScope, the road show presentations, 600 people sitting together in the same space sharing the same experiences. To quote my good friend Michael Holmgren during the quiet after moment that followed an immensely tense scene in the third act of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Bastards (2009) “Holy Fuck!!!” – the whole audience erupted in laughter over Holmgren’s remark serving to lighten the room’s intensity from the previous scene. That was an experience I will always remember having shared with Ron Trembath, Adam Matson, Michael Holmgren, Tyler Averett and the 50 other moviegoers I will never know the name of in that theater.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The Summer Movie Spillover of the American Blockbuster [Film]

Captain America

PREFACE (2014)

Years ago summer began late in June with the sounding of 11 am public school bell ringing. For me now, the idea of summer has long been shattered by adulthood, although I still romanticized that period feeling an echo of Americana for what has become known as the summer movie blockbuster. The 90s were pivotal in defining this season with the crowning of Will Smith as the summer’s first king of blockbusters with his Fourth of July releases of Independence Day (1996), Men In Black (1997) and Wild Wild West (1999). At that time, for both the studios and the audience, the Fourth of July was the most important weekend of the summer season fueled by the returns of those previously mentioned freshly-out-of-school teenagers buying tickets with their parent’s money. Smith’s Fourth of July returns equaling over 1.6 billion dollars from three films. By the late 2000s summer movies had expanded beyond late June  bell ringing overtaking Memorial Day weekend as the season’s new official beginning, and for a time, connecting the starting and ending of summer blockbusters with huge appliance day sales.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a summer movie by all definitions of size, budget, gravitas and scope – but curiously had an April 4th, 2012 release date. Captain America will not be alone this summer with the releases of The Amazing Spider Man 2 on May 2nd, Godzilla May 16th and X-Men: Days of Future Past on May 23rd – all weeks earlier than Memorial Day weekend. Only two years ago on April 3rd, 2012 Universal released Battleship as its own summer movie proxy blockbuster. Battleship would go on to gross only a return of 65 million dollar domestically with a 209 million dollar production budget while Captain America has made over 600 million dollars after its initial two-and-a-half weeks run in theaters on a 170 million dollar budget. Battleship and Captain America both exist within a new summer paradigm were inflated budgets represent an immense risk to the success of blockbusters through studio competition.

Over the last ten years the scope of the blockbuster budget has grown with nearly no restrictions to the point where a once 50 million dollar budget was consider a large amount of money for a movie has morphed into the current 200 million dollar standard. Budgets are not the only issue. The summer movie season is also over saturated with studio releases potentially forcing opening weekend slit-returns via a limited amount of ticket buying moviegoers. These budgets typically do not take into account marketing and distributions costs meaning a film sometimes needs to make double its production budget in order to just break even. These ultra-budgets have created an all-or-nothing mentality for the season – a film will live or die by its opening weekend return so competition is a very bad thing. Substantial sized studio investments with mass saturation releases between Memorial and Labor Day has led the blockbuster season no longer able to support ultra-budgets films competing directly against one another and thus we have summer blockbuster premieres in rainy April.

Blockbuster BombThe origins of the word blockbuster has a significantly different context then we use today. In 1941 Nazi occupied Europe pressed the knife against England’s neck to paraphrase Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort portrayed by actor John Wayne from the World War II epic, The Longest Day (1962). The RAF (Royal Air Force) was the only offensive option against a German Army dug in across the English Channel. Blockbuster had a very literal meaning describing the deployment of 4000 lb and larger HC bombs dropped on German military targets. The Mark I or “Cookie” was a a single bomb capable of obliterating an entire city block. One of earliest recorded uses of the word was printed in the Guardian Newspaper – “Quantities of some additional military supplies that have been or are being furnished by the British to our troops as reciprocal aid by Britain include 15,000 bombs, from 250lb. incendiaries to one-ton ‘blockbusters’…”(Manchester Guardian, 25 January 1943, 5). Prior to the coining of the word blockbuster in movie terms alternatives such as “spectacular” (Wall Street Journal), “super-grosser” (New York Times), and “super-blockbuster” (Variety) were highly used. Today, blockbuster is a slang expression for a successful film speaking to the works’ spectacle, scope of story and size of budget, or rather the line of moviegoers wrapping down the block.

Old Hollywood had existed for 50 years until eventually fracturing by financial failure culminating with 20th Century Fox’s release of Cleopatra (1963). The once proven star system of old Hollywood epics had faltered as privately owned studios were being sold to corporations. American audience turned to lower-budget genre alternatives. Bob Rafelson, a founding B in BBC, produced Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Rafelson is a key figure of the New Hollywood Movement inspired by the films of European and Asian New Wave Form. These low-budgets genre movies took in enormous amounts of returns for producers who risked little actual capital on productions. By 1975, audiences had returned to the theater coalesced around Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Without a home video market, audiences frequented the theater over and over again creating a cultural impact around, at the time, a very new style of fast paced action entertainment. Audiences were once again talking about the movies.

Jaws changed the Hollywood format by beginning the summer trend of major studios planning marketing strategies around a Fourth of July summer release schedule. Producers, executives, and studios scrambled to create a feelings of “event” in their own film releases for stronger commercial appeal. The blockbuster was quickly coined as a marketing effort and the summer movie season had begun.

Cleopatra 44 Million 58 Million June 12, 1963
Easy Rider 360 Thousand 41 Million July 14, 1969
Jaws 9 Million 86 Million June 20, 1975
Independence Day 75 Million 817 Million July 02, 1996
Avatar 250 Million 2.8 Billion December 18, 2009
Battleship 209 Million 302 Million April 03, 2012
Paranormal Activity 15 Thousand 194 Million September 25, 2009
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 170 Million 600 Million (04/24/14) April 04, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a turning point for the Marvel Universe and the ninth overall installment of the Marvel venture. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely the film stars Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson. In the film, Captain America, Black Widow and Sam Wilson join forces as a conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D is revealed. The comic book superhero film is a new genre but the movie spends a great deal of time playing instead as an older gritty 1970s political thriller such as The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and Marathon Man (1976). Director of Photography Trent Opalock retains the overall clean look of the Marvel Universe’s past eight films but still manages to capture elements of the those previously stated inspirational films using classic framing and naturalistic light choices. It is this mixing of genres that pushes Captain America beyond other Marvel releases as a more memorable stand alone film. The actions sequence (which there are still many) retain a blurred hand-held style mixed with quick cutting. If Captain America: The Winter Soldier is to be the standard for the 2014 summer movie releases, 2014 began on a very positive note.

Captain America stillThe announced sequel will feature the return of Anthony and Joe Russo as directors and a May 6th, 2016 release which as of this posting will place Captain America 3 directly against Batman Vs. Superman. The financial demands of the summer movie blockbuster have risen such in the last decade that films must earn considerably more in returns than its budget would indicate in order to generate a profit. For this reason, films such as Superman Returns (2006), The Last Airbender (2010), Battleship (2012), Lone Ranger (2013), etc.. are considered failures despite each grossing over 300 million dollars worldwide. The built in audiences of Marvel and Superman combined with an assumed 200 million dollar plus marking costs for each film must guarantee a split-return on this future opening weekend. This is how a studio goes bankrupt, although my money would be on Captain America 3 because those past Marvel movies made an Uncle Scrooge Mcduck’s money bin worth of cash while the DC universe is still very young in the big screen format.

Some studios have returned to lower-budget genre filmmaking known as sleeper hits. These films are meant to create a larger percentage in returns on smaller investments over the all-or-nothing ultra-budgets high risk productions. Paranormal Activity (2009) is the most recent well known of these films costing 15 thousand dollars while making over 196 million dollars worldwide. Robert Rodriguez’s over-the-top action film Desperado (1995) made 25 million on a 7 million dollar budget for Columbia and Gareth Evans’s The Raid (2012) 1 million dollar budget made 15 million for Sony Picture Classics. Since Jaws and Easy Rider smaller films continue to have a place in summer releases.

The era of the ultra-budget summer movie blockbuster is not over but the current model of budget and release schedule cannot continue to be supported similar to the 1960s Cleopatra example.  Hollywood has always been slow to respond, so for the time being, I will continue to enjoy my 250 million dollar blockbusters movie going with a smile on my face, a big bag of popcorn in my lap, and beer in my hand (Because I live in a city with an uncountable number of beer theaters). But, we might find many more gems of filmmaking in the form of those low-budget sleeper hits in the future. Spielberg and Soderberg (The Bergs of Hollywood) have all spoken publicly on the inability for the industry to support blockbuster failures.  The 2016 season could represent that paradigm shift if indeed Captain America 3 and Batman Vs Superman actually *Face/Off (1997).

*Face/Off – Budget 80 million dollars with a return of 250 million. Now that was a summer blockbuster.