Roundtable: The “Implosion” of the Blockbuster?

June 18, 2013
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Mainstream critics have traded in the narrative of Hollywood’s “end times” for as long as film has existed. However, the recent adoption of this trope by retiring filmmaker Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco Film Festival and blockbuster pioneers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at the opening address of the Lucas-funded USC School of cinematic arts building, warrants our asking whether their positions as filmmaker-producers somehow makes these claims more legitimate or whether they are merely echoing these oft-repeated sentiments within an industry in transition.

Among some of Lucas and Spielberg’s predictions are the assertions that the Hollywood blockbuster model has become unsustainable to the point that several failed tent-pole releases will cause the industry to go bankrupt, that movie prices in the future will resemble the $100+ ticket Broadway theatre model, and that television and video game narratives will eventually become the only place for creative types to display their creative talents.

What are we to make of these assertions? To answer that question, Antenna has indulged me in the assembly of a ‘blockbuster’ team of scholars and historians (Brenda Austin-Smith, Chuck Tryon, Tom Schatz, and Alisa Perren) each of whom has their own take on the recent events. Instead of allowing the increasingly uniform view of the “Implosion” of Hollywood to take hold, our intention is to generate more conversation to frame these rather dire pronouncements within their proper context.

We invite your comments and look forward to your contributions to the evolving conversation.


Where do We Start?  Brenda Austin-Smith

There are so many points of entry into this discussion—where do we start? First off why would the industry adopt a Broadway model, when the point of Broadway is the physical presence of the performers, and the unpredictability of performances? The expectation of nuance, interpretation, and difference—response effects between audience and performers–is a lot of what makes Broadway work. It’s not just about sets and costumes.

The ‘implosion’ claim, based on the prediction of a few major failures, belies the kind of marketing strategies that John Sedgewick studies in his work on the economics of film. Studios tend to treat films as items in a portfolio. Big films can fail, but these failures are often hedged by several other minor successes, and studios can re-direct marketing resources rapidly to capitalize on early box office returns. The shift to the all-eggs-in-one-blockbuster-basket mode of production doesn’t sound like a credible business practice, though it makes for dramatic copy.

The comments about gaming intrigue me. Prestige games like Bioshock and Dishonored do indeed tell complicated stories, and empathy has never been the only emotion bonding viewers to fictional characters (think Shakespeare; think Norman Bates and the car we all worry won’t sink into that swamp). I think that in many games, the affective impetus is not so much empathy as it is anxiety over the survival of one’s avatar, which is pretty powerful as an engine of attachment to the workings of a game. Having to keep your virtual wits about you jacks your adrenalin (horror films can work this way too) and you imprint on the experience. Some games ask you to take responsibility for your choices, to face up to what your avatar has become, or to refrain from an action in order to make something of yourself. These are not simplistic psychological or emotional moves. The slight against video games in favor of films misrepresents both why we watch films (its not always about whom we like or feel for) and why we play games.


Lucas’s and Spielberg’s Crocodile Tears?  Thomas Schatz

Are those crocodile tears or what? Spielberg is worried that films like Lincoln won’t get a proper release? Soderbergh stepping away is one thing – and he’s actually stepping away. But listening to the two most powerful men (and of course they’re men) in Hollywood lament the state of the industry is more than a little frustrating, since both are in a position to actually do something about it. Soderbergh jokingly suggested that a studio give him the cost of producing and marketing a high-end tent-pole movie – a half-billion dollars, say – and let him use it to produce a slate of films. This is chump change for either Lucas or Spielberg; maybe one of them might oblige.

Perhaps the answer partly lies with the scheme Soderbergh thought of in cahoots with Mark Cuban. That day-and-date deal that he and Soderbergh cooked up several years back makes more sense than ever now. The real problem is that the antiquated model keyed to a domestic theatrical launch is working better than ever. Spielberg’s speculation about the studios releasing a string of mega-budget bombs and changing their ways is a pipe dream and he knows it. He and Lucas taught the majors all too well how to engineer global entertainment machines.


Spielberg, Lucas, and The Blockbuster Mode of Production — Chuck Tryon

As someone who has been thinking quite a bit about movie distribution, I found myself asking a number of questions about Spielberg and Lucas’s USC comments, in which Spielberg predicted that a cycle of box-office bombs could lead to an “implosion” of the Hollywood model, a claim that Lucas quickly endorsed.

First, it’s worth asking whether the imagined future they were describing—what Lucas called a “Broadway” model featuring $100 tickets and movies lingering in theaters for over a year—had any basis in reality. Like many other scholars, including Geoff King, I’m skeptical.  Thanks in part to the films of Spielberg and Lucas, the blockbuster mode of production has been successful for several decades now. Even when studios face a summer with tepid U.S. box office, they benefit from post-theatrical sales (cable, DVD) and from ancillary products (toys, video games, etc). Furthermore, this blockbuster model has only been reinforced by its expansion into overseas markets, creating a situation where Iron Man 3 might play in Beijing, China, several days before it arrives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Studios are not going to disrupt this model with expensive tickets that will alienate their core market: teenagers and young adults with limited budgets (not to mention the capability of pirating those movies if ticket prices get too high). Allowing movies to remain in theaters for several months would also be a non-starter. Studios and theaters alike depend on rapid churn. They need movies to circulate out of theaters relatively quickly so that those same teenagers will return to fork over ten bucks (twelve with the 3D surcharge) for the pleasure of seeing something else on the big screen, usually involving astounding special effects. If anything, theatrical windows are narrowing, as studios work to have their films available on DVD or on VOD as quickly as possible, a shift that Edward Jay Epstein documented several years ago.

Hollywood blockbusters routinely fail to meet box office expectations—Disney’s 2012 film John Carter, for example, is now a distant memory. But in the blockbuster era, there are always more options at the multiplex, especially as movies circulate through the theatrical window at an even faster pace than ever before.


Soderbergh, Spielberg and Lucas: Filmmakers at the Crossroads? — R. Colin Tait

What intrigues me about the statements from Soderbergh, Lucas and Spielberg is that they were even spoken aloud at all. On a basic level, these high-profile proclamations seem wildly out of step with the industry’s practice of upbeat self-promotion. Instead, the impression these statements produce is that it is no longer fun to make movies in Hollywood anymore.

And maybe it’s not. Soderbergh’s departure follows the frustrating experiences of his being fired from Moneyball and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and his difficulty securing studio financing for Behind the Candelabra. Similarly, Lucas and Spielberg faced similar bumps with the commercial failure of Lucas-produced Red Tails (after which he sold Lucasfilm to Disney!) and the somewhat disappointing cultural impact of Lincoln, which failed to garner sufficient Oscar traction in the wake of Argo’s momentum.

So, while it is impossible to quantify whether these assessments about Hollywood are correct, there is something about these statements that feels true about the state of the cinema, particularly relating to an individual director’s ability to marry art with commerce. There also seems to be something true about the creative freedoms of television, not to mention the presumed sophistication of those audiences which Soderbergh, Lucas and Spielberg all covet.

Lucas’s, Spielberg’s and Soderbergh’s statements evoke a general sense of anxiety in the wake of Hollywood’s new paradigm, which may or may not also include a generational shift. Instead of ushering in the New Hollywood or Indie Cinema moment – as they did several generations earlier – Lucas and Spielberg have become the grumpy establishment figures they themselves sought to replace, while Soderbergh remains a transitional figure wedged between the old and the new.


Spielberg, Lucas and the Popular Press — Alisa Perren

As interesting as Lucas and Spielberg’s comments may be, I am especially intrigued by the press coverage of their remarks. This coverage largely has perpetuated the notion of TV as a culturally inferior form (HBO excluded, of course) as well as reinforced an idealized notion of cinema, tying its “value” to the theatrical experience.  In addition, the growing challenges to the film industry’s business model frequently are being conflated with the creative output of that industry (and beyond). The quality of the films and the state of the film business simply are not the same.

What I have found most intriguing is that, thus far, no one has situated these filmmakers in relation to their generation. Yet as I read the coverage of the USC event, I couldn’t help but imagine Peter Biskind rushing off to write a dramatic new coda to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Jason Bailey of Flavorwire sees their remarks as the epitome of hypocrisy. He asks how the two filmmakers who are arguably the most responsible for setting in motion the current blockbuster system more than thirty years ago could now attack it so vociferously. One answer is that people like them – as well as Lynda Obst, who issued her own ideas on the “broken” state of the business in Slate over the weekend – are now objecting to current conditions because they are finally being adversely affected by the technological, economic, and cultural shifts that have been in process for quite some time. Only now are those who were most senior, most financially successful, and most insulated within the Hollywood structure (i.e., bubble) apparently facing head on what everyone else working at lower levels of power or outside the system altogether have faced for years, even decades. And when the biggest names are affected (and talking), the press can’t help but cover it. As Geoff King observes, this situation opens a space for scholars to intervene and provide the context often lacking in the breathless media reports.




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6 Responses to “ Roundtable: The “Implosion” of the Blockbuster? ”

  1. Geoff King on June 18, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    How nice to read a blast of cool scepticism about these comments after some of the breathless media coverage! The other end of these claims that I also address briefly in my post at, to which there are a couple of links above, is what’s implied about films at the other end of the scale from the blockbuster – the studio ‘quality’ or ‘prestige’ film, the object of my current research.

    Spielberg implies that this is in deep trouble, as might seem to be the case if even he struggled to get a Lincoln into theatres. But this is another area where general media discourse tends to be at the level of over-stated hype. One minute, we’re told, the ‘quality’ film is dead. Soon after, a few appears and there are general expressions of astonished disbelief at the existence of such things within the blockbuster-dominated studio economy. This happens every couple of years or so. Here, again, the reality tends to be rather less dramatic. A certain limited space seems to be available to such films (under certain conditions, often requiring the presence of someone with large economy clout, either filmmaker or star), for reasons that I’m seeking to explore further, a space that seems to persist despite what sometimes might appear to be its endangered status.

    • R. Colin Tait on June 18, 2013 at 3:52 PM

      Geoff – I really like your observations about the cyclical nature of this argument, both in your comments here and on the original post on your website. I do think, however, there is something happening to the middle ground that you are talking about – maybe a hollowing out of the middle-tier which certainly Lincoln doesn’t represent, but where the $30 million dollar drama used to reside.
      I do think you’re wise to adopt a wait and see attitude to what will occur, and perhaps following Tom Schatz’s suggestion, VOD and day-and-date releases (or even films downloadable before they are in the theatres via iTunes) seems to be the place for where these works are going.

      • Geoff King on June 19, 2013 at 2:45 AM

        Colin, yes, that may be the case about the middle tier. But it would be good to see some actual evidence. What we need is someone to do a study that involves actually going through a couple of decades of studio output and assessing whether or not certain kinds of films have become more or less frequent, so we can get some proper answers to such questions rather than relying on our own impressionistic speculation (unless anyone has already done this and I’ve not seen it). I’ve been doing a little bit of that for a period of 5 or 6 years in relation to ‘quality’ films, but only really a quite small, local snapshot. Doing that kind of study on a larger scale isn’t a lot of fun, although it might give us some useful answers.

        • R. Colin Tait on June 19, 2013 at 1:58 PM

          I also wonder where foreign/international releases factor into this. There’s an interesting piece in the New Yorker today entitled “The Ingredients For a Healthy Cinema” which begins with this premise by comparing the American Independent (middle-tier) to French model. Films for ‘mature audiences’ such as Best Exotic Marigold Hotel might also be a place to start, particularly as the success story seems to be that there is still lots of money to be made by catering to older and (sometimes female) audiences.

  2. Brad Schauer on June 18, 2013 at 11:31 AM

    Great posts and a terrific idea for a roundtable! I agree that most of Spielberg & Lucas’s ideas seem either old hat (TV as a refuge for “quality” adult-oriented material, theatrical releases emphasizing spectacle) or wrong-headed (basically everything else, for all the reasons mentioned). It’s been amusing to see nearly every single online film scholar and industry analyst systematically refute their claims.

    As far as the “big meltdown” Spielberg describes, I think we’re seeing boomer wistfulness for the original big meltdown of the late ’60s that spawned the Hollywood Renaissance. As much fun as it might be to see a repeat of those utterly atypical industrial conditions, I can’t imagine a scenario where this could happen a second time (hence the wistfulness!) As Brenda and Chuck suggest, with the corporate ownership of studios, the increased value of international markets, the importance of franchise synergy, etc. it’s going to take a lot more than “three or four” mega-flops to overturn such a deeply entrenched production model. Remember, Disney’s stock dropped .46% for one day after the JOHN CARTER write-off.

    At least Lucas is consistent — he has always positioned himself as iconoclastic and anti-establishment, even as a blockbuster mogul. He frequently spoke of the “great risk” of self-financing the STAR WARS prequels, for instance. His “struggle” to release RED TAILS fits this personal narrative, which includes Warners recutting THX-1138 and Fox very reluctantly supporting STAR WARS in the mid-seventies. Although when RED TAILS was first released, Lucas framed it more in terms of institutional racism (or at least, Hollywood’s devaluing of black audiences), which was more sanctimonious but certainly more accurate than the idea that the Hollywood establishment is out to get George.

    Finally, the clueless comments on video games remind me of Roger Ebert’s (RIP) and smack of fogeyism. I bet Lucas hasn’t played a game since the REBEL ASSAULT cd-rom. Both Spielberg and Lucas slap their names on enough games, they should know better. But to fully understand the narrative complexity and emotional potency of a contemporary game, they’d need to make the typical gamer commitment of 10-30 hours, and I don’t see that happening.

    • R. Colin Tait on June 18, 2013 at 3:59 PM

      Brad, I really appreciate your thoughts about the generational nature of this debate, something that I tried to evoke in my own piece. There is also a really great article in the AV Club recently that talks about how Spielberg’s and Lucas’s predictions are generally way off-base (which you can read here –,98987/?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=SocialMarketing&utm_campaign=standard-post:headline:default).
      As I stated (and as I think Alisa eloquently describes) the new economic situation (which many creative types have been experiencing during the recession) seems to have finally reached the upper-end, not to mention forcing them to adapt as figures like Soderbergh have. Certainly, Lucas seems genuinely exhausted by the prospect of moving forward with the industry, and perhaps the failure of Red Tails (or at least the *narrative* that he built for himself about it) has finally made him decide to leave for good.