The lesson of Jaws was to open wide

Cinema Today
July 2, 2004

It is somewhat ironic that the blockbuster film industry, which targets the minimum level of intelligence to generate the maximum financial gain, was founded by a generation of film students who adored the history and diversity of film language and technique. These film nerds, who include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese, would go on to direct some of the world's top-grossing films, but they also made it difficult for smaller, personal, quirky films - the type of films they themselves adored - to find financing.

The film brats did not perpetuate the kind of film-making they love. Instead, it was left to Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape (1989) to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and inspire a new generation of American independent film-makers. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs generated enough revenue to launch its distributor, Miramax, into a position as the foremost instigator and distributor of independent films. The major studios, seeing the prestige and occasional pot of gold to be gained for relatively little investment, have now set up their own mini-studios to make small, personal, quirky films for the art cinema niche market - films such as Easy Rider (1969), with which Edward Buscombe begins his book Cinema Today.

In the introduction, he explains that with the success of Easy Rider - it cost $500,000 and grossed $19 million - the major studios, which were losing money hand over fist with traditional film fare, poured money into new bloods such as Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin. A grittier, realistic American cinema resulted - M*A*S*H , The Godfather , The Exorcist - which paved the way for the first real blockbuster, Jaws (1975).

Before this, films were released into a few first-run cinemas and through advertising, reviews and word of mouth, the box-office revenue would build over time. The critics were important to this process. Jaws was released on 464 screens across the US, backed by an extensive and expensive marketing campaign. The idea was to get as many people as possible to see the film on the first week, often before anybody had time to read the reviews. Such marketing is now common practice. Hardly a week goes by without a "major" film being hyped. Troy was released on 3,411 screens and grossed $45.6 million in its first three days in the US alone. Then there is world market to consider, and sales to cable TV, satellite TV, terrestrial TV, DVD and video. No doubt Troy will recoup its $200 million budget one way or another.

The two-tier system in American cinema-blockbusters and niche films - in some ways resembles the old A-film and B-film system of the studio era, in which the major studios needed to fill the theatres they owned with product, so they promoted the A-films with stars and spent as little as possible on the B-films that were made to complete the double bill. It now makes business sense for the studios to spread their investment across many different niche markets. But there is a big difference between the A-films released today and the A-films of the studio era: the B-films of yesterday have become the A-films of today.

Cinema Today agrees that modern (Hollywood) cinema was born in the blockbusters of the 1970s; it then lists the major directors and films of the past 30 or so years. Half of its bulky, heavily illustrated pages are devoted to American cinema, and the rest to cinema from around the globe.

Unfortunately, there is very little else to the book other than a walk down memory lane (for those who know film) or a tick list of films to see in the future (for those who do not). Buscombe is a reliable writer, but he offers no real analysis of the films' content as most of the films are dealt with in one line. There is no feeling for how the films were made because there are no interviews or anecdotal material. The illustrated material is comprehensive, illustrating all the major films of the past 30 years, but very little of it is unusual, or newly uncovered, or shows the directors at work. (A photo of a director beside a camera does not show a director at work.) The book therefore seems caught between two stools: neither a photo-book with a text spine to guide readers through it nor an in-depth analysis with illustrations.

Paul Duncan is a writer and editor of books on cinema.

Cinema Today

Author - Edward Buscombe
Publisher - Phaidon
Pages - 512
Price - £39.95
ISBN - 0 7148 4081 5

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