This essay investigates the evolution of formal qualities of blockbuster films in American cinema. The texts used for analysis are Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). A change in the movie-going audience—specifically, the increase in audiences’ awareness of film conventions and cinematic language—prompted the strikingly different aesthetics of the blockbusters of the 1970s and those of the 1990s. This essay examines specific cinematic attributes observed in both films.
“What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine,” says Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws (1975), “It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim, eat, and make little sharks.” Dreyfuss’s character, Matt Hooper, was speaking about a killer great white shark terrorizing the residents of Amity Island. But he might as well have been referencing the film itself. Jaws was a carefully designed cinematic “miracle of evolution,” perfectly suited to “eat” its box office competition. And eat it did. Jaws grossed $7,061,537 in its first three days and went on to gross a total of $470,653,000, shattering previously held box-office records (Shone 27). Jaws was not technically the first of the highly advertised, high-budget blockbusters, but it was the film that opened the floodgates and changed the way the industry made movies. According to Hall and Neale, “the recovery of the industry from depression and the arrival of another “New Hollywood” are usually dated from the release of Jaws in 1975” (212). High-budget, high-return blockbusters were the new mainstay of the studios. This trend has been consistent ever since 1975. Today, epics, superhero movies, and adaptations of best-selling books dominate the box office.
In the 1970s, the blockbuster phenomenon began in earnest and informed every operation of the big studios in the film industry. The industry was in deep trouble by the end of the sixties, losing as much as half a billion dollars between 1969 and 1972 (Bordwell 2). It was big blockbuster films that brought the industry out of this recession. After Jaws and other high-grossing films, the industry shifted its focus to producing blockbuster after blockbuster. These blockbusters were characterized by their huge budgets, epic scales, and wide release strategies. Sequels and spin-offs were common, and merchandising brought in huge revenues. The rise of VHS tapes and cable TV changed the way viewers watched movies and changed the financial dynamic of the industry. Films could make more in VHS sales and TV distribution than they did theatrically. Because of these factors, blockbusters were the most financially viable option for studios. The effect of this “blockbuster system” has had a huge and lasting effect on the film industry as a whole.
Jaws is a good reference point for the ’70s blockbusters because it established many of the conventions of the era. As Hall and Neale state, “the most immediate successors to Jaws itself were Paramount’s King Kong (1976) and Orca–Killer Whale (1977), Columbia’s The Deep (1977), and Universal’s Jaws 2 (1978)” (213). Each of these films imitated closely the marketing and release strategies of Jaws and even had similar thematic and narrative elements. These films also shared aesthetic ties. Other films from the same time period exhibit a similar style and approach to Jaws. Thus, Jaws is a good point of reference useful in examining the common attributes of blockbuster films in the late ’70s.
Similarly, Independence Day was both a trendsetter in the ’90s as well as a film that typified the era because it demonstrates many of the norms of ’90s blockbusters. Tom Shone says of the film: “Independence Day kicked off a cycle of nineties disaster movies…” and “As a roll call of the images of much nineties cinema, it cannot be bettered” (243, 294). Independence Day serves as a good key indicator of the norms of 90s blockbuster cinema.
Although the production of blockbuster-type films remains consistent, the nature of these films has evolved over the years. A blockbuster today can appear quite different from a blockbuster from the era of Jaws. Key aesthetic differences include an overall shortening of the average shot length, a proliferation of camera movement shots, and an expanded usage of close-ups. Narratively, modern blockbusters are characterized by a trend toward split-protagonism and textural self-awareness. The modern blockbuster has undergone an evolution, changing its narrative and aesthetic approach in response to audiences’ increasing awareness of film conventions and tropes, and their expanding film and television literacy. Modern movie-goers are very aware of popular movie conventions, allowing filmmakers to engage with them on a meta-level of allusion and reference. This level of awareness also enables modern audiences to interpret and digest a rapid and condensed visual presentation within a film. Using Jaws and Independence Day, we can examine the way blockbusters have changed both aesthetically and narratively over the latter part of the 20th century in response to increased film literacy among audiences.
One major quantifiable difference between Jaws and Independence Day is the length of camera shots. By observing the average shot length of different films, we can draw comparisons and conclusions. Using the Cinemetrics database established by Barry Salt, we see that Jaws has an average shot length of 6.8 seconds, while Independence Day has an average shot length of 3.2 seconds. According to David Bordwell,
Between 1930 and 1960, most feature films contained between three hundred and seven hundred shots, so the average shot length hovered between 8 and 11 seconds. . . . The pace accelerated in the 1970s. Then, about three-quarters of films had average shot lengths between 5 and 8 seconds, and we find a significant number of still faster ones (122).
Jaws fits this pattern perfectly, with its 6.8-second average shot length. In Jaws, longer takes are used especially in dialogue scenes, a place where later blockbusters commonly use quick cuts. The scene in which the police chief Martin Brody talks with the mayor on the ferry is a long conversation that is filmed in one continuous shot lasting a whole 102 seconds. These kinds of long takes are typical throughout the film, especially in the first half before Brody, Quint, and Hooper go out to sea to hunt the shark. On the other hand, Independence Day is cut much quicker. Dialogue scenes are handled much differently than in Jaws. Quick shot-reverse-shot edits are used to make the dialogue more insistent and fast-paced. Action sequences, as would be expected, are cut very rapidly. Shorter and shorter average shot lengths were a consistent trend from the 1970s until the 1990s, and the trend continues today. Martin Scorsese said in 1990, “I guess the main thing that’s happened in the past ten years is that the scenes [shots] have to be quicker and shorter. [GoodFellas] is sort of my version of MTV . . . but even that’s old-fashioned” (qtd. in Bordwell 152). Billy Bob Thornton said of his film All the Pretty Horses, “these days, they want to cut everything like a rock video” (qtd. in Bordwell 140).
These observations by directors reveal the impact that changing audience tastes have had on average shot length. Both Scorsese and Thornton reference music videos on television. Modern movie-goers are saturated with television-based media, which is usually cut very quickly, especially in music videos. This audience awareness of the simplified shorthand used in television shows, where time is precious and shots must be short to fit in a thirty-minute time slot, has spilled over into the film world. As we can see in Jaws and Independence Day, the average shot length is decreasing. Bordwell also observed this saying, “Today, films are on average cut more rapidly than at any other time in US studio filmmaking” (Bordwell 122). As film-goers became more and more accustomed to the rapid pace of television, their tastes adjusted accordingly. Bordwell stated, “Rapid editing obliges the viewer to assemble many discrete pieces of information, and sets a commanding pace. . . . Television-friendly, the style tries to rivet the viewer to the screen” (Bordwell 180). This trend will probably continue to rise, especially with the increase of YouTube videos and other online media.
Another large aspect of the evolution of the visual aesthetic style of blockbusters is the proliferation of camera movement. With the rise of the blockbuster came a large increase in camera movement, a trend which continued in the decades following the ’70s. Jaws exhibits many camera moves throughout its scenes. By the time Independence Day rolled around, the prevalence of camera movement was much greater. I analyzed both films and observed the number of camera moves used in each. These are the results:
The difference is striking. Jaws has a total of 159 camera movement shots, and Independence Day has a total of 444. The contrast is less striking when it is taken into account that Although Independence Day simply is a much longer movie, with more screen time within which to pack camera moves. However, the difference is still significant. In Jaws, 14.7 percent of all shots involve a camera move. In Independence Day, that percentage is 19.4. It should also be noted that in Independence Day, even shots without a large camera move often have a very slow camera crawl or very subtle zoom, and my statistics do not account for many of the digital-effect shots with a soaring camera in the air during the aircraft battles. In today’s blockbusters, the common style is to have constant energy and fluidity in camera movement. The camera is almost never absolutely stationary. According to Bordwell, “In the 1970s and early 1980s, free-ranging camera movements typically appeared only a few times per film. Eventually, however, they constituted a default menu for shooting any scene” (Bordwell 136). In Jaws, camera movement is always smooth and deliberate, with well–thought-out and well-executed dolly moves. In Independence Day, many camera movements have more of a raw, handheld nature to them, providing a more energetic and visceral feel. Many blockbusters post–Independence Day have taken this idea to an extreme by utilizing a handheld camera, whip pans, and constant movement in almost every shot.
The constantly moving camera is a key difference between early blockbusters and later ones. This shift represents changing tastes among audience members, who have become increasingly film-literate. Modern audiences raised on a common canon of cinematic conventions have an immediate response to techniques such as camera moves, and know intuitively what the filmmaker is trying to express with the moving camera. There is an effort among “New Hollywood” directors to establish a “common cultural heritage” similar to the Bible and European canons of art (Bordwell 8). This common cinematic heritage enables modern audiences to interpret the tools of cinema quickly, and encourages directors to free up the camera and experiment with the language of camera movement and placement. Television and YouTube content are designed to be quickly and easily accessible by anyone with a few minutes to spare. The editing and cinematography of modern blockbuster films seems to follow that trend.
Modern blockbusters demonstrate a shift from wider shots to closer ones, making an actor’s performance more easily visible on non-theatrical screens. In Jaws, a large number of conversation scenes are shot from one camera angle, including all the participants in a medium wide shot. The ferry scene mentioned previously is an example of such a conversation scene. The shot ends up with tighter framing on Brody and the mayor via the blocking of the actors and a camera move. The first conversation we see between Brody and his wife, Ellen, is another of these shots. The conversation that occurs when Brody first meets Hooper keeps the two in frame rather than cutting between close ups of each. Jaws is replete with these kinds of shots. Using this type of shot stands in stark contrast to Independence Day, which largely abandons the technique of framing many characters in a single frame for dialogue, and replaces it with a shot-reverse-shot style. Independence Day almost always uses tight close-ups of characters in a conversation and cuts between them.
The growing shift towards closer framing can largely be attributed to the advent of television and videocassette: “Many filmmakers shaped their visual design toward what one critic called ‘televisionization.’ Television, many filmmakers believed, required closer shots” (Bordwell 148). Many filmmakers tended to “shoot for the box,” knowing that more viewers would end up seeing a film on a television set than in a theater. The smaller screen and low resolution of television viewing necessitated that actors be shot from close up, making expressions and actions clearly discernable for television viewers. With the shift in technology came a shift in taste.
Aside from aesthetic evolution, blockbusters have evolved narratively since the 1970s. Stories are still widely told in a traditional fashion, but elements of narrative have been modified. One such element of narrative change is split-protagonism. This element is not universally a part of a modern blockbuster, but it has gained popularity. In Jaws, we have a clear protagonist, Martin Brody. Hooper and Quint play major roles, but Quint dies in the end and Hooper’s character arc is mainly defined by his relationship with Quint. Both are not introduced until well into the film. The focus of the story is on Brody, which provides a strong unifying element of the narrative and provides focus to the narrative. In Independence Day, we no longer have a single, clear protagonist. We have Thomas Whitmore, the president of the United States; David Levinson, the programmer; Steven Hiller, the fighter pilot; and Russell Casse, the drunk. Several other characters have very prominent story arcs themselves. In Independence Day, the focus of the story is distributed across multiple characters. This kind of ensemble cast is not a required component of an Independence Day–era blockbuster, but it is a common occurrence. Once again, television may play a role in this trend. Television viewers became accustomed to split-protagonist stories because of long-running television series that featured a large cast. In a television series, there is enough screen time to flesh out many different characters, allowing each to be the protagonist of his or her own story. In films, the time constraint is much greater, but the influence of a television-literate audience demands an ensemble approach.
One of the largest ways in which narrative has changed since Jaws in the 1970s is in the self-aware, referential aspects of later blockbusters. In Jaws, some camera moves and techniques draw attention to the fact that you are watching a movie, but there is a sense that the filmmakers are trying to avoid that awareness. In Independence Day, the filmmakers constantly remind you that you are watching a movie, and make constant references to other films:
Independence Day ushered the blockbuster into its… self-parodic camp phase… With Independence Day, camp went mass market, its prerogative passing from the audience to the filmmakers themselves, who knew their movie was big and dumb ahead of time, and advertised their knowledge at every step, with the sort of dialogue so cheerily cognizant of its own faults as to leave film critics in a state of fuming gridlock (Shone 244).
Independence Day is jam-packed with references to other blockbuster films. Fighter pilot Steven Hiller is eager to “get up there and whup ET’s ass.” He later quips, “Now that’s what I call a close encounter!” Jeff Goldblum even goes as far as to reference his character (David Levinson) in Jurassic Park (1993) by saying, “Must go faster, must go faster!” Bordwell calls this trend towards allusionism a “core feature of post-classical Hollywood” and cites philosopher Noel Carroll’s idea that modern filmmakers use an “iconographic code”:
[Carroll] ascribes the impulse to a new generation of filmmakers who, brought up on TV and trained in film schools, addressed each other and a newly hip audience by citing classic films. A film could gain emotional or thematic resonance by making references to Psycho (1960) or The Searchers (1956). Seeking to add expressive dimensions to their work, filmmakers turned from “organic expression” to “iconographic code” based on their devotion to auteurs (Bordwell 7).
This “newly hip audience” was fluent in classic film references, and filmmakers found it possible to connect with them by filling their films with such references. As media-literate audiences came into a theater, they brought with them a common cultural background, that is, a set of cinematic scripture that could be used by filmmakers to take shortcuts and communicate on a new level.
The film industry in the 20th century had given America and, to a large extent, the world a sort of Jungian collective unconsciousness of film references, conventions, and tropes. Savvy directors began to access this repository of knowledge in order to make their films better resonate with audiences, reward devotees, and film buffs who could spot every reference. As Bordwell says, “By 1990 allusionism had expanded into a general recognition that popular media constituted the shared culture of movie consumers. . . . Allusions to old movies are expected in virtually every project” (24). Blockbusters were not immune to this trend, and have changed considerably since the 1970s to incorporate these kinds of references. Film and television-literate audiences brought on this type of change. Of Independence Day, Shone says, “The larding of references to other movies was so dense you weren’t sure if the film would have end credits or footnotes” (244).
As audiences continue to change, blockbusters will change in response. A blockbuster film is made with the specific purpose of pleasing a mass audience. When the tastes of the mass audience change, so will the films targeted towards them. Audiences will only become more and more assimilated into the “iconographic code” of popular media as time goes by. New developments, such as the proliferation of internet video sites like YouTube, will likely have an effect on audiences and filmmakers. In this age of memes, social networking, and file-sharing, the iconographic code spreads quickly and thoroughly within society and permeates further than it ever has before. In the future, we are likely to see radical changes in blockbuster aesthetics and distribution. Already there is a trend to split a tent-pole franchise blockbuster movies into multiple films: for example, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010/2011), The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (2011/2012), and the Hobbit films. This shift is likely a product of the recent upsurge of V.O.D. streaming and the “binge-watching” phenomenon. Other changes to the blockbuster are sure to come as well. The films that become immensely popular fifty years from now will be completely different from the films of today. As audiences continue to become more and more media-literate in a media-saturated world, blockbusters will continue to change and adapt.
Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It. Los Angeles, CA: University of California, 2006. Print.
Hall, Sheldon, and Stephen Neale. Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2010. Print.
Independence Day. Dir. Roland Emmerich. Perf. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox. 20th Century Fox, 1996. DVD.
Jaws. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton. Universal Pictures, 1975. DVD.
Shone, Tom. Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. New York, NY: Free, 2004. Print.