The young person interested in the history of cinema needs to know how the Hollywood blockbuster began and grew into the dominant American cinematic art form over the course of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first thing to know about movie blockbusters is that it was actually a movie that wasn’t by any standard a blockbuster hit that played one of the most important roles in creating the marketing strategy today that seeks to make 90% of the films produced by Hollywood studios into at least an opening weekend blockbuster. One good weekend is often enough to ensure investment money gets made back courtesy of video rights and secondary marketing strategies like toys and video games. A movie that is the opposite of a blockbuster played a major role in creating today’s Hollywood marketing standard of flooding theaters across the country with a movie on its opening day. The other movie that plays such a large role is often credited as being the prototype for the blockbuster film that everybody hopes to make when the director calls “action!” on the first day of principal photography. The two movies that stand forth as the icons of the Age of the Blockbuster are Jaws and Heaven’s Gate.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is really the first blockbuster of the Blockbuster Era. Film history buffs should take note that there were blockbusters before Jaws, ranging from Birth of a Nation through Gone with the Wind to The Godfather. That latter movie about the kind of gangsters you wouldn’t mind as neighbors was released only three years before Jaws, but in terms of marketing and how it compares to Transformers, The Godfather is as different from Jaws as The Sound of Music is different from Ironman.
Steven Spielberg’s little movie about a shark terrorizing the inhabitants of an island was the first non-animated movie to be seriously marketed to teenagers and older kids. Before Bruce the shark came along, a movie like Jaws would only have been released to the drive-in crowd where it would have made its anemic budget back atop the burning lips of millions of horny teens. Jaws actually had a large budget, a few stars and the backing of the studio whose very name brings up horror to those who have managed to really become film historians: Universal. Universal Studios built its reputation on low-budget black and white movies in the 1930s featuring wolfmen, vampires and re-animated human beings with bolts in the neck. Spielberg’s shark movie fits perfectly along that line, except that it was being treated as a serious movie rather than just a horror flick; you can tell Hollywood thought of Jaws as a serious movie from the fact that they nominated it for Best Picture.
Jaws quickly outgrossed The Godfather to become the number one box office hit of all time. Star Wars outgrossed Jaws two summers later. Film history buffs take note: the Blockbuster Era had still not begun and it would take Michael Cimino killing off the 1970s personal movie forever to bring it in. Cimino had ridden the Oscar and box office success of The Deer Hunter to justify his excess in making Heaven’s Gate. The 1970s had been the decade of the American New Wave when the ridiculous Auteur Theory finally crossed the Atlantic and allowed American moviemakers from John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese to make personal films that were not genre-specific nor were intended to topple The Sound of Music from its precarious place as the number one box office hit of all time when the 70s were ushered in. In the 1970s, it was considered perfectly legitimate to set out making a movie that wasn’t going to be the number one hit of its opening weekend. Young film students need to study up on the early films of men with names like Robert Altman, Michael Ritchie, Sidney Lumet, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby and Brian De Palma. Movies like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and a few others that didn’t star Jack Nicholson helped to kill off the only genre that could be counted on to produce big box office numbers: the musical. This death was hastened with the appearance of a number of extremely high-budgeted flops. (Poseurs should watch Blake Edwards’ SOB for a brief but all too authentic history of the death-bloated-musicals of the late 60s.) The 1970s saw the glittering old-Hollywood style of filmmaking give way to personal, gritty films that introduced uncensored sex, drugs, violence and profanity. Audiences were willing to go on a journey with these filmmakers because the destination promised something far different from the 1930s Warner Brothers gangster flick and the 1950s MGM musical airing on the Late Show when they returned home.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 1980s. You’ll remember that Martin Scorsese was one of those “auteurs” who led the revolt against the Hollywood movie machine. Scorsese is perhaps as much to blame for the Blockbuster Age as Spielberg, George Lucas or Michael Cimino. Shortly after wowing the world with Oscar-nominated movies like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver, Scorsese made a truly brilliant film that was greeted with hatred by critics and audiences alike. That New York, New Yorkis about a thousand times better than The Departed isn’t even worth arguing since even Gangs of New York is 500 times better than The Departed. And the only thing good about the former film is the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis. Scorsese’s musical trumps nearly everything else in that genre made since ten except for Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and it is almost as good as that. It was such a monumental box office and critical flop, however, that it nearly destroyed Scorsese’s career. The good thing about the fact that 1977 audiences couldn’t figure out New York, New York so they bought tickets instead to the simplistic Saturday Night Fever is that when Martin Scorsese was given the chance to make a movie again, he thought it would be his last chance so he broke every rule and truly made an auteur’s confessional movie. That film was Raging Bulland the rest is history.
There is no Raging Bull in Michael Cimino’s career, young film historians. You need to know that The Deer Hunter is a fantastically entertaining movie, but it’s not exactly Taxi Driver. (Of course, Taxi Driver is no King of Comedy, but try telling that to those who think Taxi Driver is a true portrait of a psychopath; Travis Bickle commits violence to save a teenage girl where as Rupert Pupkin commits violence just to become famous.) Michael Cimino spent about 50 million dollars making a western just a few years after Scorsese had spent about 40 million dollars making a musical. Neither a musical nor a western had been among the top grossing movies in almost a decade. Michael Cimino didn’t kill the western, but he is definitely among the unindicted co-conspirators that killed the American New Wave of cinema and ushered in the Blockbuster Age.
The spectacular failure of Heaven’s Gate was just the kind of nail that the heads of studios were looking for. Back in the old days, the head of a studio might guide his pet projects through the entire system of filmmaking. If there really was such a thing as an auteur in Hollywood, they had names like Zanuck, Warner and Cohn. But the guys heading the studios in the 70s were agents, hotel executives and even hairdressers. They wanted all the glory of making great movies and they were tired of bearded Bohemian directors taking all the credit and getting all the really good-looking girls.
It has been said that plenty of cocaine was available during the shooting of New York, New York and some of that was admitted by Martin Scorsese himself. Hollywood doesn’t mind your being a drug addict as long as you produce a profit. What Hollywood doesn’t like is the guy who thinks he’s some kind of artistic wunderkind who uses the movie business as if were his own private Disney World. Word got out that Michael Cimino spent tens of thousands throwing a party to celebrate having used up more film stock in the making of his movie about the Johnson County War than Stanley Kubrick had used in the making of The Shining. Both directors had set a record for film stock usage. The suits forgive Hollywood celebrities for being drug addicts, racists and even neo-Nazis, but there is one thing with which Hollywood studio execs will not truck: taking a crap on their money when the executive’s job is on the line.
When Heaven’s Gate was released, you’d have thought Michael Cimino was Ed Wood instead of a guy who had made a movie all the critics fell over and the members of the Academy drooled over just a few years before. Heaven’s Gate may not have been an actual crime, but you wouldn’t know it from the reviews. Of course, most reviews were not about the movie itself. A strange thing happened in the wake of Cimino’s 50 million dollar western that had only happened once since The Godfather first hit America’s movie theaters. Martin Scorsese had taken his hit and in his cocaine-fueled nightmares saw a future that had nothing to do with being given millions to make movies. The critics conveniently overlooked the fact that Scorsese had made the most stylish movie of the year and that he had directed Robert DeNiro to the most memorable performance of the year. Scorsese had committed the ultimate crime: he used too much studio money to make a personal film. The reviews were not of his movie, but of Michael Cimino as a filmmaker.
Of course, Cimino was no Scorsese with a Raging Bull hiding up his sleeve. In fact, it was beginning to look like Cimino was no Cimino. In taking him to task for making a 50 million dollar western, critics also did some revisionist history by suggesting that The Deer Hunter really hadn’t been that great all along. They were right, of course, but it took the critics a few years to figure out what others had figured out while watching Cimino’s Vietnam movie the first time. Heaven’s Gate represented all that the bean counting executives in charge of the movie business in 1980 hated most: directors who thought they were Michelangelo and who looked upon the Pope (studio exec) as a busybody in the Sistine Chapel that he happens to own.
Blockbusters were never considered the works of an auteur. (Someday, they will be; trust me on this one. Michael Bay will be considered an auteur at some point in the future and not in an ironic way.) The real power behind the success of the blockbuster wasn’t the director or even the star; it was the Hollywood studio executive who was smart enough to give a green light to producing a movie that everyone in the room knew was going to be a big hit. Of course, as William Goldman iconically made clear, there is really only one rule in Hollywood.
“Nobody knows anything.”
Nobody really knows if a movie is going to be a hit or not. Oh sure, they’ve got the template down enough these days to predict an opening weekend box office number and be within five million one way or the other, but nobody in the room during the pitch knows what second week box office grosses will look like. But Goldman isn’t right about one thing and that’s that the studio executive in the Blockbuster Age can spot the difference between a movie and a film. What the auteurs were doing in the 1970s were making films that were marketed as movies. Since the audience was willing to come along on the ride in many cases, the studios were perfectly content to bask in the spotlight afforded by making “serious movies” instead of beach party movies and Biblical epics. It was only when the directors actually seemed to think they were making something genuinely serious and meaningful that the zeitgeist at work had to be changed.
Heaven’s Gate killed the 1970s gritty pseudo-auteur style of show business in Hollywood forever. Or, at least up to November 2011 and I’m willing to bet 1970s-style moviemaking won’t be coming back into style before the Mayan calendar dooms us all in late 2012. Movie stars came back into style in the 1980s when the directors that had been the stars during the 1970s started making crap. Francis Coppola went from his Corleone family saga to One from the Heart. Brian DePalma went from making Sisters to The Untouchables. Michael Ritchie and Hal Ashby fell completely off the radar in the 1980s. Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman made too many box office flops in the late 1970s to warrant being given the chance to redeem themselves. John Cassavetes up and died and maybe he actually had it best of all. The only “auteur” to survive intact into the Blockbuster Age was Martin Scorsese and even he became a mere shell of himself in the 21st Century, replacing major-league talent doppelganger Robert DeNiro with supremely minor-league talent doppelganger Leonardo DiCaprio in a series of film collaborations that are consistently worse than the one before.
Then there is the unique case of Steven Spielberg. One could well argue that Hollywood’s only true auteur to come out of the 70s and find success in the Blockbuster Age has been Mr. Spielberg. One could argue that he is a mammoth figure straddling the era of the 1970s personal film and the post-1970s Blockbuster Age like Gulliver straddling the Lilliputian bay. But that’s an argument for another article at another time.
Final Cut – Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate