Sheldon Hall

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:

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The word “blockbuster” originated in World War II as the nickname of a particularly large bomb (1,000 pounds or heavier) of the type used in the Allies’ aerial carpet bombing of military and civilian targets in Nazi Germany. It came to be used analogically in the postwar period, from about 1950 onward, to refer to particularly expensive and potentially highly profitable American motion pictures (and subsequently novels, stage and television productions, and other cultural forms). Its original connotations were specifically commercial rather than aesthetic—it carried the implication that the film so described was a powerful weapon in the 1950s struggle for dominance of the leisure and entertainment market, in which the cinema’s traditional lead was being eroded by competitive forms and pursuits, most notably broadcast network television. However, the common association between high production values (the conspicuous expenditure of a big budget) and commercial success (actual or potential) meant that specific aesthetic features came to be identified with the blockbuster, such as exceptional length, a large scale, and various types of spectacle. While the blockbuster is primarily an economic rather than a generic category, it has historically been characterized by certain particular genres: the biblical or historical epic, the action-adventure film, Westerns and war films, science fiction and fantasy, some musicals, and even a number of comedies. The blockbuster has also typically been associated with certain distribution and exhibition patterns: initially limited-release roadshowing, and more recently mass-release saturation booking accompanied by intensive media advertising and promotion. Academic studies of the blockbuster (as opposed to those of its various component genres) have tended to concentrate on the modern period, from the mid-1970s— when “Hollywood” and “blockbuster” have become virtually synonymous—though scholarship is beginning to extend its coverage backward, not only to the 1950s and 1960s but to films of the silent and “classical” studio periods, before the term “blockbuster” was coined, but when films of the type associated with it came to be produced on a regular basis. There have also been some studies of epics and other large-scale films originating from European and non-Western sources, though the greatest volume of scholarship remains, inevitably, dominated by a concern with Hollywood as the world’s most highly capitalized and globally penetrative film industry.

Article.  10332 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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