Beyond the Blockbuster

A couple of weeks back, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas caught the film world’s attention by pointing to a trend within the industry.

From Spielberg:

“You’re at the point right now, where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal – and even maybe historical projects that may get lost in the shuffle. . . .

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

It’s easy for me to say I agree with him, and even easier to want to place the blame on the film studios, the book publishers, and the music companies, which all are caught in the ambulance-chasing blockbuster race. But… The audience is responsible, too.

Have you watched the Dustin Hoffman interview, about his film Tootsie, which went viral a few weeks back?

Though he doesn’t use the word “blockbuster,” he provides another example of what happens when we chase the blockbuster Marilyn Monroe, instead of supporting the just-as-interesting Norma Jean.

I asked [Columbia] if they would spend the money to do makeup tests, so that I could look like a woman. If I couldn’t look like a woman, then they would agree not to make the movie.

And they said, “What do you mean?”

I just somehow intuitively felt that unless I could walk down the streets of New York and not have – dressed as a woman – and not have people turn and ask “ who’s that guy in drag?” – or turn for any reason – you know, who’s that freak? – unless I could do that, I didn’t want to make the film. I didn’t want the audience to suspend their believability.

When we got to that point and looked at it on screen, I was shocked that I wasn’t more attractive. And I said, “Now you have me looking like a woman – now make me a beautiful woman” – because I thought I should be beautiful. If I was going to be a woman, I wanted to be as beautiful as possible. And they said to me, “That’s as good as it gets. That’s as beautiful as we can get ya, Charlie.” And it was at that moment that I had an epiphany.

And I went home and started crying, talking to my wife, and I said, “I have to make this picture.”

And she said, “Why?”

And I said, “Because I think I’m an interesting woman” when I look at myself on screen and I know that if I met myself at a party I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out.

She says, “What are you saying?”

And I said, “There’s too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brain washed” and . . . that was never a comedy for me.

Toward the end of the interview Hoffman slows, pausing to check his emotions. I kept thinking, he’s going to cry. Instead, he verbalized how much blockbusters are a part of so many of us. We want what looks good, what looks like a bestseller, a Top Ten, or a blockbuster film.

You know that old saying, Don’t judge a book by its cover? There’s a similar saying in book publishing: The cover is the most important page of a book.

The cover plays a role in our decision process. It’s the blonde hair and low-cut dresses on Marilyn, the colorful 3D image on a kids’ DVD, the attention-grabbing foiling and embossing on a book.

Something that doesn’t look good – that doesn’t look like a blockbuster should – is a harder sell. Might be just as interesting – if not more interesting – but it’s that cover, that trailer, that clip that convince us to buy instead of pass. How many film trailers have pulled you in, only to leave you walking out of the theater disappointed?

I spent the evenings of my senior year in college working the third floor of Strawberries Music on Boston’s Boylston Street. It was a rare day when more than a handful of customers made the climb to sort through the jazz, classical and Broadway musicals sections hanging at the top.

One of my first observations? The covers are BORING.

Though the sections collected more dust than customers, my manager insisted that I go through every section, aisle, category, and album, and ensure that everything on the floor was in the correct section, aisle, category and alphabetical place. He didn’t want to see Chick Corea’s category card sitting in Tower of Power’s section – and if he found a first floor Alanis Morissette album hanging with Mozart, heads were going to roll.

I looked at every cover of every album on that floor for hours on end. Because the covers competed for boring, the next category was content. What’s inside? I know Beethoven became a bestseller, but his album covers are just as boring as Vivaldi’s. Which to choose?

It was an experience I’ll never forget, because it forced me to think beyond the cover. It fed Curiosity and inspired Exploration.

As readers, listeners, watchers, it isn’t our responsibility to keep the different industry companies alive. But . . . If we want diversity, it is our responsibility to support it.

The first floor can be exciting, but after a while, it’s boring, too. If the various companies, studios, publishers, continue to spend big on the first floor – thinking that’s the best thing to attract customers – and then the first floor implodes . . . the second and third will fall with it.

We can’t tell them what to do, but we can do a better job climbing those three flights of stairs, providing that young kid on the third floor a busy day – and those interesting artists a read, a view, and/or an ear. And, perhaps encourage the execs to go beyond the first floor, too.

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  1. Basilis on July 19, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Always something interesting from Callie’s thoughts and experiences!

    Of course, we have to buy the things we find good. Now days it’s not so obvious when too many stuff(books,music,films) can be found on the internet for free.

    Illegally free…

    And surely we must also demand diversity and truly see beyond the surface of a good cover, or of an impressive but shallow content.

    It’s something that only the gift of education can allow us to achieve.

  2. Jeremy Brown on July 19, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Very interesting, Callie. Your comments on covers made me think of an email I got from Amazon a few days ago recommending the novel Cold Mountain. I’ve seen the film but haven’t read the book, so I know the gist of the story.

    The email included a description along the lines of “Wounded and disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier walks back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains the woman he loves.”

    Reading that, I might expect the cover to have cannons, flags, soldiers, maybe a heaving bodice or a look of longing. But the cover was misty blue and black mountains. Boring, and it tells me nothing about the story. But it works, maybe because I know what the story is about. If I saw it on the shelf or online without that knowledge, I wouldn’t pick it up.

    With my books, I feel the need to convey as much as possible on the cover without being amateurish (cannons, flags, soldiers, a heaving bodice AND a look of longing). Cold Mountain gets away with that cover, but I don’t think I can. If my would-be readers need to know the story for the cover to work, they won’t read it.

    I support your call to give more third-floor stuff a chance, no matter what the cover looks like. It’s led to some great discoveries that I love to share with others.

  3. Jeff on July 19, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Great post, Callie. I like it and agree that we have to support the non-blockbuster movies when they come out, but the thing is, a lot of them DO get support, and then, if they get enough support, they go from original material worth supporting to sequel-inspiring franchise crap. Just look what happened to The Hangover. Bridesmaids and The Heat both did really well, showing that movies aimed at audiences other than 18-year old boys can do well.

    Emotionally satisfying and original movies actually do tend to do quite well when they’re launched and properly backed. We just need movie studios to figure that out. Fortunately, at least one Studio seems to be learning that lesson (other than Pixar, that is). Now the other’s just need to get on board, IMHO

  4. Natasha on July 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Callie – loved that post. It brought a lot to my mind about mass media’s main dilemma.

    Jeff – you took the response almost right out of my head! It is fortunate that the ‘indie’ market and I guess we can still call some ‘specific interest’ movies are running with more and more support these days. I am always happy to see that happen because it gives me an emotional lift to know that a growing group of my humanity values some things that I do in art and are less and less drawn to the things the Marketers-that-be expect us all to be drawn too. (After all, they base their production goals on that bet!) Just goes to show ya’ – maybe people on the whole are mentally expanding and Main Street Marketers are being shown to have not (all kind of proof exists for Callie’s blog pudding)

    It is still curious to me that we even have these funny little category names like ‘indie’ and so many different regional versions of the ‘specialty films’ initiative.

    But I guess it would shock the heck outta everybody to see masses of people gather around supporting a Hollywood nobody with something specific to show us…wait a minute, hasn’t that already happened???

    And hopefully it will keep on happening, the old way of producing will die off in bulk and diversity will be embraced…for real!

  5. David Y.B. Kaufmann on July 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm


  6. John Thomas on July 19, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    On the level of the individual, I was reminded of what Steve says about wanting to be a rock star: It’s resistance, too.

    I think you’ve made a good point here. The industry (and we as individuals) aren’t willing to take a chance unless the potential for payoff is huge.

    While real artists, like smart investors, will take the consistent base hit to keep moving it forward to give you an opportunity to have the grand slam when the occasion really does present itself.

  7. Allen on December 31, 2020 at 4:10 am

    Something that doesn’t look good – that doesn’t look like a blockbuster should – is a harder sell. Might be just as interesting – if not more interesting – but it’s that cover, that trailer, that clip that convince us to buy instead of pass. How many film trailers have pulled you in, only to leave you walking out of the theater disappointed.

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  10. Henry Larry on January 24, 2024 at 12:10 am

    Spielberg and Lucas raise a valid point about the film industrys blockbuster obsession. Hoffmans Tootsie experience sheds light on societal beauty standards urging us to embrace diverse narratives beyond conventional norms.
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