In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Blockbusters

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Silent Cinema and Stage Spectacles
  • Postwar Hollywood and the Roadshow
  • Contemporary Hollywood
  • Distribution, Exhibition, and Marketing
  • Economics, Ancillaries, and Globalization
  • Reading the Blockbuster
  • Spectacle, Special Effects, and Technology
  • Action-Adventure Films
  • Epics and Historical Films
  • Gender and Action-Adventure

Cinema and Media Studies Blockbusters
Sheldon Hall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0010


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.

General Overviews

In seeking to describe and analyze blockbusters, writers in both academic and journalistic fields have used a number of different indicators, both economic and aesthetic, to identify the relevant films. They have tended to focus on the most commercially successful films in Hollywood’s history—as is the case, for example, with Bart 2006, Hall 2002, and Sanders 2009, or the most costly—as with Hall and Neale 2010. All these texts range across a number of different genres and a very broad historical period in trying to account for patterns of production and consumption (a general context for which is provided by Izod 1988). Krämer 2005, another Krämer 2005 (cited under Contemporary Hollywood), and Shone 2004 concentrate instead on more recent decades, the period associated with “New Hollywood” (as it is variously defined and understood) and its particular emphasis on the “high concept” blockbuster of the type developed by Spielberg, Lucas, and others.

  • Bart, Peter. Boffo! How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

    One of the more interesting journalistic accounts, with twenty-seven case studies of milestone hits, including stage and television productions. Written by the executive editor of Variety, and drawing extensively on the files of that publication.

  • Hall, Sheldon. “Tall Revenue Features: The Genealogy of the Modern Blockbuster.” In Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. Edited by Steve Neale, 11–26. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

    Concise general introduction to the Hollywood blockbuster relating contemporary trends to their historical antecedents. The anthology also contains a wide range of articles on recent generic developments in American cinema.

  • Hall, Sheldon, and Steve Neale. Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History. Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.

    The most comprehensive monograph to date on the Hollywood tradition of large-scale, big-budget super-productions. Ranging widely across a number of genres, the book spans the entire history of commercial cinema in the United States and also gives extensive coverage to distribution, exhibition, and technological developments.

  • Izod, John. Hollywood and the Box Office, 1895–1986. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1988.

    Compact survey history of the American film industry’s commercial fortunes, mostly taken from secondary sources and now in need of updating, but accessible to neophytes.

  • Krämer, Peter. “Big Pictures: Studying Contemporary Hollywood Cinema through Its Greatest Hits.” In Screen Methods: Comparative Readings in Film Studies. Edited by Jacqueline Furby and Karen Randell, 124–132. London: Wallflower, 2005.

    Articulates a methodology for analyzing popular cinema based on the most popular films. The method is demonstrated at greater length in the other Krämer 2005 (cited under Contemporary Hollywood).

  • Sanders, John. “The Blockbuster.” In The Film Genre Book. By John Sanders, 387–457. Leighton Buzzard, UK: Auteur Publishing, 2009.

    Makes the case for the blockbuster as a genre in its own right, with nine examples ranging from Spider-Man 2 (2004) to Bambi (1942). The other six sections of the book include a number of other films that might have been eligible for the same category. Useful as a starting point for undergraduate or pre-university discussion.

  • Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. London: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

    Slick, somewhat facetious journalistic history of Hollywood since 1975, lacking the rigor of more scholarly studies, but an accessible starting point for younger and less sophisticated students.

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