The blockbuster phenomenon – Mac Nguyen
17 Mar 2021

Thomas Elsaesser suggests that in the blockbuster film ‘everything connects’. Define the blockbuster and investigate its cross media promotion in relation to its ‘horizontal’ (entertainment and leisure cultures) and ‘vertical’ (technological and industrial) links.

The blockbuster phenomenon was a result of an epiphany in the entertainment industry in 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws “forever altered the Hollywood film landscape” (Gomery 1998, 51). It demonstrated to the industry a simple new marketing technique that would return unprecedented financial success: cross media promotion. Films could become “marketing events in themselves” (Sklar 1993, 460), in that they would draw on an iconic aspect and expand it into other forms of media for audience consumption. The phenomenon itself can be attributed to a ‘horizontal’ link, related to the audience and their desire to consume, as well as a ‘vertical’ link, related to the industry’s desire to capitalise on the audience’s vulnerability to consumption (Elsaesser 2001, 11).

The term blockbuster is nebulous. It is greatly debated whether a blockbuster film is one that garners enormous financial success, or one that is merely expensive to produce. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the blockbuster as “something such as a film or book, that sustains widespread popularity and achieves enormous sales”—not in fact mentioning the capacity it takes to be made. The reality is that both financial input and financial success are required, to some degree, for a film to strictly be considered a blockbuster, especially since meeting only one of these criteria hardly ever sees a film be considered a ‘blockbuster’.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the threshold total gross for a film to be considered a noteworthy box office success is $US 100 million domestic and $200 million worldwide. Several films made on enormous budgets, such as Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island, Michael Cimino’s Heaven Gate and Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld,performed dismally at the box office (Waterworld did however manage to recover in the foreign market). Consequently, rather than labelled ‘blockbusters’, they are now synonymous with such derogatory terms as box office bombs, flops or turkeys.

Likewise, films that are made on a modest budget but experience tremendous financial success, such as Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral or Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty, are not usually considered blockbusters. Even though they saw massive profit margins (largely on account of their inexpensive budgets), their cultural impact has been minimal in that they were not cinematic representations that could spawn tie-in products or other significant cross media promotion—as Alexandra Keller states, “there is no Four Weddings and a Funeral culture, no Full Monty ethos” (1999, 137). Although it is generally misconstrued that a blockbuster merely has to be a financial success, it is in fact the cultural phenomenon of the means in which it gathered that success which truly defines it as a blockbuster.

Thomas Schatz suggests that blockbuster films are “those multi-purpose entertainment machines that breed music videos and soundtrack albums, TV series and videocassettes, video games and theme park rides, novelizations and comic books” (1993, 9-10). The reason blockbusters become so accessorised among the broader scope of media relates to the relationship between the audience and the film. If done right, a film evokes a powerful sense of attachment within the audience through pleasure and catharsis (the ‘horizontal’), and those emerging from the cinema will have a lingering yearning, a desire, to elongate that sensation, which is where consumption comes in. Much like an art exhibition, “you go to see water lilies, but you do not leave until you are wearing the water lilies on a tie” (Keller 1999, 141).

The film industry realised the moneymaking potential behind this post-cinematic film-going experience, especially among young audiences, so they bid to profiteer from it. ‘Vertically’, the motion picture industry decided to expand and encompass more than just the film in their marketing. The ‘before’and ‘after’ timeframes in the context of seeing a film are just as significant to an industry keen on capitalist endeavours as the film itself. As mentioned by Schatz, film industries now invest a lot more in peripheral activities. The easiest way by which film companies achieve this is through simply acquiring the smaller companies that specialise in each of these media outlets; that way giving the company far greater control over the process of cross media promotion. As Robert Sklar puts it, “Under the same corporate umbrella subsidiaries could turn one product into many—a movie, a book, a soundtrack; and newspapers and magazines owned by the same corporation could review them all.” (1993, 461)

The most common example of an ‘after’ piece of cross media promotion is the film soundtrack. Although the soundtrack itself is not a characteristic exclusive to blockbusters, there is an obvious greater emphasis on its significance as a promotional tool in blockbuster marketing. In a ‘horizontal’ sense, soundtracks aim to epitomise for the viewer the feelings and emotions conveyed in the film through sound and music. In some ways, the soundtrack is the perfect nostalgic device as its essential purpose is to revive the emotional attachment established in the cinema—“the soundtrack functions as a take-home souvenir of the cinematic experience, one that can prompt whole vistas of emotional reflection… not unlike the other catalog consumer goods purchased by the thousands” (Smith 1999, 46).

A concrete example is James Horner’s score to James Cameron’s epic, Titanic. The score is a vital element in the film’s formation of romance and epic, and the accompanying the theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”, performed by popular recording artist Céline Dion, went on to earn many prestigious accolades including the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The soundtrack sold extremely well—so well that its success even brought about a sequel, Return to Titanic, something that can never be seen by the film (Smith 1999, 54), demonstrating another financial advantage of cross media promotion.

A more effective ‘vertical’ practice nowadays is to employ the soundtrack as a ‘before’ piece of promotional material to generate hype. Soundtracks are commonly released weeks before their films “in order to give the music an opportunity to work its way up the charts and circulate the film’s title in radio and retail markets” (Smith 1999, 49).  Accompanied by a music video, the song would not only render anticipation for the film’s imminent release but also generate piles of revenue from CD sales. Prince’s song, “Batdance”, released several weeks before Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, became a number-one hit in the US and added interest to the film’s popularity. The film industry’s ability to buy into, and dominate, another completely separate medium such as the music industry is just one example of the mighty capacity of cross media promotion.

The success of some of these soundtrack releases could be attributed to the connection between major film companies and record labels. Three of the ‘big four’ record labels—Universal, Warner and Sony—all have roots in the film industry, whether through a parent company or as a subsidiary. In fact, during the 1980s, when the potential of blockbusters were realised, there was a long line of acquisitions and mergers among film companies and major media corporations: News Corp. purchased Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Communications merged with Time, Inc. to form Time Warner, the Music Corporation of America acquired Universal Pictures, and Sony bought out Columbia Pictures (Balio 1998, 62-63). This was a watershed ‘vertical’ transformation as companies became conglomerates, because it “brought media and communications to unprecedented levels of interrelationship” (Sklar 1993, 461), ultimately giving them omnipotence in the film market and its entire tie-in media.

Television was another industry that had profiteering potential for the film industry. Steven J. Ross, founder of Time Warner, suggested that “these new TV technologies were not to be fought but embraced, for they were simply more outlets for Warner Bros.’ Hollywood studio productions”. In fact, they were apparently so important that “he did not care about the magazine side of Time, Inc… he simply wanted Time, Inc.’s vast cable TV business” (Gomery 1998, 52). Time Warner did ‘embrace’ the technology, giving birth to Home Box Office, a major cable television network specialising in theatrical features, and later on, television movies and several highly successful original series.

In a ‘horizontal’ sense, getting to relive a cinematic experience at home is in itself a special experience. For those who have already seen the picture in a theatre, seeing it again at home some months later provides a nostalgic fondness that, in a way, momentarily puts them back into the cinema. Being able to avoid the frustration of travelling to the cinema and queuing for tickets is another reason why some would opt for cable rather than cinema. In the end, the method one chooses to see a film—cinema, cable, video rental, or other—is immaterial to the film industry, just so long as there are opportunities for them to generate profit.

Investing in the cable television market was one way for media conglomerates to control the competition. Many companies, including Paramount, found themselves at the mercy of Time Warner’s stranglehold on the cable television market.

“Reciprocity enabled Ross to choose to whom he would sell and then only deal with those companies that cooperated with other Warner units…Paramount studios had to tender its top movies to HBO because if Paramount did not, Time Warner’s cable franchises would not book Paramount’s Sci-Fi cable channel.” (Gomery 1998, 53)

Furthermore, media conglomeration allowed for cross-subsidisation, meaning “more and more media markets [could] take profits from a thriving area and invest and innovate in another,” resulting in difficulty for single-line competitors to keep up, “only other media conglomerates, which were willing to match Ross step for step, could survive” (Gomery 1998, 53). Sony, which “had neither forged connections with cable television nor had it acquired theme parks or consumer product chain stores to extend the franchises developed by its studios,” took a $3.2 billion loss in 1994, proving the importance of cross media promotion in sustaining the profitability of blockbusters for the film industry.

The gigantic media consortia realised another advantage it had in the blockbuster market that would keep out undesirable competition: its ability to create uber-expensive pictures (Elsaesser 2001, 17). Films made on big budgets were a lot of the time a make-or-break situation for small production companies—box office bombs such as Heaven’s Gate and Cutthroat Island notorious for sending their production companies, United Artists and Carolco, into bankruptcy (Wikipedia, 2006). Media conglomerates, on the other hand, not only had incredibly deep pockets but also access to almost every type of media, and so were able to dominate the ultra-high budget film market by funding it through cross promotion. And the fact that they could afford to spend prodigious amounts of money to produce a plethora of blockbusters allowed the concept of the blockbuster to develop, ironically, as an art form.

The blockbuster itself is transforming into a genre. Keller says “the conception of the blockbuster has become more discernible as something like a genre, and certainly as a format with quite familiar protocols” (1999, 134). The idea of creating something epic and groundbreaking, something loud and visceral, and spending truckloads of money doing it, is certainly forming its own stylistic ‘familiar protocols’.

“There does exist a stereotypical blockbuster because we expect our blockbusters to be experientially onomatopoetic, which is to say, we expect them to bust our blocks…” (Keller 1999, 136)

If the blockbuster formula were to be summarised in terms of explosions, disasters and other ‘big’ events, filmmakers such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could be considered auteurs of the ‘genre’ due to their mastery of these spectacles. As Keller states, “to talk about auteurism and the blockbuster together is to be speaking of a hybridization of categories only conceivable under postmodern conditions” (1999, 134-135). The commercialism of blockbusters, including its capitalist exploitation of cross media promotions, is a concept so far removed from the more artistic, less materialistic vision of the auteur theory that their paradoxical association can only be linked to postmodernism.

The concepts of auteurism and blockbuster can also be combined through established non-blockbuster auteurs employing their own artistic visions to guide blockbuster films. Wyatt says “most of the auteurs praised for their innovation and originality in American film have been forced to respond to the more commercially centred marketplace” (1994, 194). The results demonstrate a fairly striking contrast between films, especially when dealing with the same subject matter. The Batman series, for example, has been portrayed by three different auteurs (Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan) in three very distinct styles (gothic, comical and dark).

The dissimilarity between the styles isn’t so much as important as the fact that this character is able to unite such different styles. Blockbusters rely heavily on the idea of portraying only images and themes that can be easily manoeuvred between media “into other aspects of life from fast food to Halloween costumes to bedsheets” (Smith 1999, 61)—the comic book hero being a classic example. The dependence on “marketing and merchandising opportunities structured into the projects” (Wyatt 1994, 188) introduces the idea of high concept cinema, in which the films are predominately based on a simplistic concept that is heavily marketed. The mass-marketing of blockbusters in this respect questions whether the film is more of a commodity than an art. The transformation of cinemas from “single-auditorium houses to ‘multiplex’ layouts with up to a dozen or more screens” (Sklar 1993, 460) and the locating of more and more cinemas inside shopping complexes has furthered the idea that film is now treated as a product, a commodity, to be consumed where consumption is at its peak, since “film… is subject to the same exigencies and impulses” (Keller 1999, 140).

This relates to late capitalism, an idea which proposes that there was more emphasis on consumption than production toward the end of the twentieth century (O’Shaughnessy 2005, 416). It relates back to ‘vertical’ industrial mergers and acquisitions put forth to capitalise on the ‘horizontal’ aspects, specifically the audience’s propensity to consume. There is a strong connection evident between the ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ links to cross media promotion—the audience’s desire to engage in an ‘event’ and beyond is combined with the industry’s desire to profiteer from it, whether it’d be through tie-in products, such as merchandise, soundtracks and theme parks; through dominating other film mediums, particularly cable television and video technologies; or simply through filmmaking innovation, big budgets, special effects and auteurist visions. It all comes together to prove, as Thomas Elsaesser states, that “everything connects”.


  • Elsaesser, T. (2001) ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’ in The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties’, ed. J. Lewis, New York, NY:New York University Press, pp. 11-22
  • Smith, J. (1999) ‘Selling My Heart: Music and Cross-Promotion in Titanic,’ in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, ed. K. S. Sandler and G. Studlar, Middlesex County, NJ: Rutgers, pp. 46-63
  • Keller, A. (1999) ‘Size Does Matter: Notes on Titanic and James Cameron as Blockbuster Auteur,’ in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, ed. K. S. Sandler and G. Studlar, Middlesex County, NJ: Rutgers, pp. 132-154
  • Gomery, D. (1998) ‘Hollywood corporate business practice and contemporary film history’ in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, ed. S. Neale and M. Smith, London: Routledge, pp. 47-57
  • Balio, T. (1998) ‘A major presence in all of the world’s important markets: The globalisation of Hollywood in the 1990s’ in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, ed. S. Neale and M. Smith, London: Routledge, pp. 58-71
  • O’Shaughnessy, M. and J. Stadler (2005) Media and Society: An introduction. 3rd edn, Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  • Sklar, R. (1993) Film: An International History of the Medium. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams
  • Peterson, S. ‘Selling a Hit Soundtrack,’ Billboard, 6 October 1979, ST-2
  • Schatz, T. ‘The New Hollywood,’ in J. Collins, H. Radner and A. P. Collins (eds) Film Theory Goes to the Movies, New York: Routledge, 1993
  • Wyatt, J. (1994) ‘The Transformation of the Auteur’ in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 188-202
  • Wikipedia. (30 Oct. 2006) “High Concept” Wikipedia, from (Retrieved October 30, 2006)
  • Wikipedia. (30 Oct. 2006) “Batdance” Wikipedia, from (Retrieved October 30, 2006)
  • Wikipedia. (30 Oct. 2006) “World music market” Wikipedia, from (Retrieved October 30, 2006)
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  • Batman (1989) dir. Tim Burton, Warner Bros., USA
  • Batman & Robin (1997) dir. Joel Schumacher, Warner Bros., USA
  • Batman Begins (2005) dir. Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros., USA
  • Batman Forever (1995) dir. Joel Schumacher, Warner Bros., USA
  • Batman Returns (1992) dir. Tim Burton, Warner Bros., USA
  • Cutthroat Island (1995) dir. Renny Harlin, MGM, USA
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) dir. Mike Newell, Polygram, UK
  • The Full Monty (1997) dir. Peter Cattaneo, Twentieth Century Fox, UK
  • Heaven’s Gate (1980) dir. Michael Cimino, United Artists, USA
  • Jaws (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg, Universal, USA
  • Titanic (1997) dir. James Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox, USA
  • Waterworld (1995) dir. Kevin Reynolds, Universal, USA