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The Rise and Rise of the Box Office Blockbuster


Blockbuster superhero films aren't just saving the world, they're rescuing the traditional cineplex and movie theatre. As streaming services and the evolution of home entertainment systems rally for control of the entertainment world, comic book giants DC and Marvel are keeping movie-going audiences going to the movies!

The biggest box office hits over the last few decades have all been action-packed, high fantasy visual extravaganzas. James Cameron's Avatar and Titanic headline, but the top grossing films of all-time now include Marvel's Avengers series with Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War. There's little doubt that the latest installment, Avengers: Endgame will also find its way into the top ranking.

Other major entrants are the new Jurassic World, Fast and Furious and Star Wars series, making the list packed with movies made in the last decade. The resurrection of 3D technology and escalating currencies probably have something to do with this, but the numbers don't lie.

While we've entered an age where CGI is becoming capable of representing the unimaginable, the prevalence of CGI-heavy films demonstrates the ongoing demand for escapist cinema. Back in the day when digital visual effects hadn't been birthed, George Lucas realised he was writing the middle story for Star Wars and declared that the special effects weren't capable of representing the first Star Wars movies he envisioned, which is why they were delayed. "I never thought I’d do the Star Wars prequels, because there was no real way I could get Yoda to fight. There was no way I could go over Coruscant, this giant city-planet. But once you had digital, there was no end to what you could do."

Years on with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, the franchise is firing on full thrusters, necessitating a staggering of the latest films in order to give fans a chance to anticipate new sequels and spin-offs. The rate at which these blockbusters are being churned out is so fast and furious (sorry) that it's becoming overwhelming to keep up with each of the varied and beloved series. Thankfully, studios like Amblin, Disney and Marvel (now Disney too) are keeping their standards high, making it easier for filmgoers to hand over their cash. The turnaround time of film shoots is also shrinking, making efficiency and planning critical in effecting big budget productions with more pressure overlapping into post-production wizardry.

It's quite amazing how screenplays that should take up to ten years to write are now being crafted, rewritten and set in stone much sooner. Writing teams help get the product finished quicker, franchise requirements probably also limit the bounds of imagination, making the process more methodical and even mechanical. Leaning on the CGI, it's probably not as important to grab the audience with compelling drama, when you've got eye-popping visuals to fall back on.

As we know from Roland Emmerich films, the writing is still very important, but then again... the large ensemble pieces aren't allowed to go too deep with characters. Spawning superhero, sci-fi, animation, street racing and space-opera blockbusters left, right and centre, the audience is so distracted from what's hot off the press that they're already looking forward to the next big release before they've even bought their tickets.

The rise of the blockbuster is great for the film business, generating great returns at the box office and roping in existing fan franchises. To some extent, it's also good for the post-production side of visual effects, enabling business for multiple agencies, who have to produce more on tighter budgets to be more competitive. The downside is that when special effects take centre stage, the acting and writing tends to become secondary. Harnessing the collective star power of some of this generation's best, means they're not quite as important... not becoming the drawcards of yesteryear. This makes them cheaper, compelled to bend to the current financial climate and ultimately dispensable.

While it may seem like a good idea for stars to have an ego-check decades after the star system, the problem is that this middling syndrome shifts the focus from performance to style. It's not as important for actors to exude what makes them who they are, but rather that they get in line and just make sure they remember theirs. While a seemingly small adjustment, making visual effects more important sends a message in an industry already on the cusp of moving over to digital stars. The problem is that by gravitating in this direction, substance, personality and human interest are becoming afterthoughts rather than a focus.

Truly timeless films deal with the human condition and what makes us tick. While it's critical that we revive flagging cinemas and create polished and profitable cinematic products, it's also important that we don't lose our souls in the process. Disney have been buying up major media companies, possibly in an effort to remain relevant and stay in control of the entertainment world in the age of Netflix.

While streaming services like Netflix are servicing the low budget film market, keeping many stars in business with their own production division, there's a whole new battle over rights to content old and new. With Disney+ on the verge of mixing up the game once again, we've just got to hope that we won't lose the healthy middleground in the process.