No, sum­mer block­busters aren’t just mind­less ac­tion flicks. And they didn’t start with “Jaws.”

’Tis the sea­son to be grumpy about sum­mer movies: Cue the usual com­plaints about too many se­quels, su­per­heroes and spe­cial ef­fects clog­ging up the na­tion’s ar­ter­ies. Grous­ing about big stu­dio flicks is al­most as much of a tra­di­tion as wait­ing in line to s

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Tom Shone Twit­ter: @Tom_Shone Tom Shone is the au­thor of “Block­buster: How Hol­ly­wood Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Sum­mer” and the forth­com­ing “Woody Allen: A Ret­ro­spec­tive.”

1 “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were the first.

When it comes to pin­ning the blame for our end­less cin­e­matic sum­mer, crit­ics and his­to­ri­ans have agreed on the fall guys: Steven Spiel­berg’s “Jaws” (1975) and Ge­orge Lu­cas’s “Star Wars” (1977).

In fact, the block­buster men­tal­ity — which is to say, B-movies get­ting the A-list treat­ment, be­ing heav­ily mar­keted, open­ing wide and rack­ing up mas­sive prof­its — took hold of the stu­dios a few years ear­lier, with “Love Story” (1970), “The God­fa­ther” (1972) and “The Ex­or­cist” (1973) all break­ing box-of­fice records. “God­fa­ther” pro­ducer Robert Evans de­clared that “the mak­ing of block­busters is the new­est art form of the 20th cen­tury.”

Nor was “Jaws” the first film to open “wide,” as is fre­quently claimed. In 1971, “Billy Jack” opened in 1,200 cine­mas, far ex­ceeded­ing the 465 of “Jaws,” which was re­duced from a planned 900 by Uni­ver­sal’s Lew Wasser­man so that de­mand for Spiel­berg’s film ex­ceeded sup­ply. “Star Wars,” mean­while, opened in just 43 cine­mas — in to­day’s terms, it was the “sleeper” hit of 1977. They were, how­ever, the first movies to break $100 mil­lion, and they did so by pi­o­neer­ing the mod­ern, vis­ceral movie-as-thrill-ride, rack­ing up re­peat view­ings in a way “The God­fa­ther” never did, as peo­ple went back for more.

2 Size mat­ters.

So read the posters for “Godzilla” (1998), one of the big­gest busts of the ’90s. To­day, su­per­heroes do battle with su­pervil­lains, dec­i­mat­ing our megac­i­ties and turn­ing sky­scrapers to tin­der in their ef­forts to save the uni­verse (again). In the new “Juras­sic World,” the T. rex makes way for the big­ger, bulkier In­domi­nus rex, be­cause, as one char­ac­ter says, “No one’s im­pressed by a di­nosaur any­more.” An un­promis­ing sen­ti­ment in a movie about dinosaurs.

But the break-out star of the first “Juras­sic Park” was not the T. rex but the much smaller ve­loci­rap­tor— smart, fast and lethal. The first gen­er­a­tion of block­busters was made up of such David and Go­liath nar­ra­tives, set­ting speed and cun­ning against size, with speed and cun­ning win­ning. Spiel­berg had the op­tion of cast­ing Charl­ton He­ston, the big­gest dis­as­ter-movie star of the day, in “Jaws,” but went in­stead for Richard Drey­fuss as his nerdy ichthy­ol­o­gist. He cast Roy Schei­der as the hy­dropho­bic po­lice chief, telling him, “I don’t want to ever feel you could kill that shark.” He filled “Jaws” with phys­i­cal cow­ards. “Star Wars,” too, was a hymn to the lit­tle guy. “Aren’t you a lit­tle short for a stormtrooper?” Princess Leia asks a dis­guised Luke, who uses the Em­pire’s size against it, run­ning X-wings down the gul­leys of the Death Star.

The rebels vs. the Death Star, Marty McFly vs. Biff, the T-1000 vs. Sch­warzeneg­ger’s bulkier Ter­mi­na­tor— the Porsche to Arnie’s Panzer, in the words of James Cameron. The “Ti­tanic” direc­tor un­der­stood bet­ter than any­one how the mighty fall.

3 Block­busters are as Amer­i­can as ap­ple pie.

When “Juras­sic Park” opened in France in 1993, Cul­ture Min­is­ter Jac­ques Toubon de­clared the movie “a threat to French na­tional iden­tity” and said that it was ev­ery French­man’s “pa­tri­otic duty” to see the French pe­riod drama “Ger­mi­nal” in­stead. The Lib­er­a­tion news­pa­per called on Prime Min­is­ter Édouard Bal­ladur “to con­front, with re­newed mus­cle, the yankosaurs who men­ace our coun­try.”

But a year later, Hol­ly­wood’s over­seas prof­its out­stripped its do­mes­tic ones, a cru­cial tip of the see­saw that has only grown more acute. Th­ese days, a movie like “Trans­form­ers: Re­venge of the Fallen” makes more than half of its prof­its over­seas. China, the world’s fastest-grow­ing movie mar­ket, is ex­pected to eclipse North Amer­ica in 2020, and Hol­ly­wood is shap­ing and mar­ket­ing its projects ac­cord­ingly. You won­dered why “Iron Man 3” soft­ened the vil­lainy of the Man­darin, why the Trans­form­ers movies fea­tured prod­uct place­ments for Chi­nese banks and other brands, and why the mon­sters of “Godzilla” and “Pa­cific Rim” went on an ex­clu­sive, big-city tour of the Pa­cific? Nine new cine­mas open in China ev­ery day.

4 Block­busters are for boys.

Let’s get the nomen­cla­ture right: “fan­boys.” The mer­chan­dise-col­lect­ing, DVD-al­pha­bet­iz­ing sci-fi nerds, pale of skin and damp of hand­shake, who are ru­mored to emerge from their Game Boy-filled man-caves long enough to make the new Marvel movie No. 1 be­fore beat­ing a hasty retreat. It’s true that since “Star Wars,” the stu­dios have ze­roed in on teenage boys as the only mar­ket ob­ses­sive enough for the re­peat view­ings that keep their block­busters afloat. “I make movies for teenage boys,” Michael Bay has said. “Oh dear, what a crime.”

But that was be­fore “Twi­light,” whose ef­fects were felt at Comic-Con in 2008. Thou­sands of young, fe­male “Twi­light” fans in­vaded, caus­ing some boys to break out in a cold sweat and walk the con­ven­tion floor with signs and T-shirts read­ing “Twi­light Ru­ined Comic-Con!” like hard-line com­mu­nists con­fronting the prospect of pow­er­shar­ing in post-1989 Ro­ma­nia. The­myth that only boys can make a movie a block­buster is shat­tered fairly reg­u­larly th­ese days, with this year boasting “Fifty Shades of Grey”; Dis­ney’s live-ac­tion “Cin­derella”; the Char­l­ize Theron-dom­i­nated and sur­pris­ingly fem­i­nist “Mad Max: Fury Road”; “In­sur­gent,” the sec­ond in­stall­ment in the Diver­gent fran­chise star­ring Shai­lene Wood­ley; Pixar’s “In­side Out,” about the mind of a 12-year-old girl; and the fi­nal in­stall­ment of the Hunger Games fran­chise, which has al­ready put star Jen­nifer Lawrence in the bil­lion-dollar boys’ club.

5 Block­busters are just mind­less fun.

“Open­ing with lots of ze­roes / All we get are su­per­heroes,” Jack Black sang at last year’s Os­cars, where a film cri­tiquing comic-book movies as “cul­tural geno­cide,” “Bird­man,” reigned supreme. The academy’s prej­u­dice against big mon­ey­mak­ers is deep-rooted. When the 1976 Os­car nom­i­na­tions for best direc­tor were an­nounced and he found his place taken by Fed­erico Fellini, Spiel­berg said: “This is called com­mer­cial back­lash. . . . Every­body loves a win­ner, but no­body loves a win­ner.” Sim­i­larly, “Gandhi” beat Spiel­berg’s “E.T.” in 1983 — although when was the last time you watched “Gandhi”?

The Os­cars may reg­u­larly mis­take them­selves for the No­bel Peace Prize and dis­dain block­busters as ap­peal­ing to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor, but there’s noth­ing low about what we have in com­mon: To­day’s mind­less fun has an un­canny habit of turn­ing into to­mor­row’s much-loved clas­sics. “In­cep­tion” was as in­ge­nious a piece of watch­maker cinema as has been com­mit­ted to celluloid; there’s as much pure ki­netic moviemak­ing in “Mad Max” as in any film re­leased this year; Pixar makes films with as much art, craft, heart and soul as any best pic­ture win­ner. Let the academy chase the coat­tails of pres­tige. This sum­mer, I’m go­ing to the movies.


Owen, played by Chris Pratt, leads rap­tors on a mission in “Juras­sicWorld.” The movie fea­tures In­domi­nus rex, ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered to be big­ger and bad­der than T. rex.

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