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Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters

A Hollywood History

By Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale

Publication Year: 2010

The pantheon of big-budget, commercially successful films encompasses a range of genres, including biblical films, war films, romances, comic-book adaptations, animated features, and historical epics. In Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History authors Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale discuss the characteristics, history, and modes of distribution and exhibition that unite big-budget pictures, from their beginnings in the late nineteenth century to the present. Moving chronologically, the authors examine the roots of today’s blockbuster in the “feature,” “special,” “superspecial,” “roadshow,” “epic,” and “spectacle” of earlier eras, with special attention to the characteristics of each type of picture. In the first section, Hall and Neale consider the beginnings of features, specials, and superspecials in American cinema, as the terms came to define not the length of a film but its marketable stars or larger budget. The second section investigates roadshowing as a means of distributing specials and the changes to the roadshow that resulted from the introduction of synchronized sound in the 1920s. In the third section, the authors examine the phenomenon of epics and spectacles that arose from films like Gone with the Wind, Samson and Deliliah, and Spartacus and continues to evolve today in films like Spider-Man and Pearl Harbor. In this section, Hall and Neale consider advances in visual and sound technology and the effects and costs they introduced to the industry. Scholars of film and television studies as well as readers interested in the history of American moviemaking will enjoy Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series

Front Matter

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

We would like to thank Barry Keith Grant, Annie Martin, and Wayne State University Press for their support and patience. We would also like to thank our publisher’s readers for their comments and suggestions, Richard Chatten for his manuscript corrections, and the librarians and...

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pp. 1-8

This is a book about the history, characteristics, and modes of distribution and exhibition of large-scale, high-cost films in the United States, and the industrial policies, practices, and conditions that governed their production or importation from the 1890s to the present day. It is also concerned, though to a lesser extent, with less expensive, smaller-scale films that...

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Chapter 1. Early Films and Early Features, 1894–1911

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pp. 9-20

The earliest films in the United States were less than a minute long. Members of the public could view them on a peepshow machine in an arcade or a parlor or, a year or so later, as part of a program of films projected onto a screen in a vaudeville theater, an amusement park, or an opera house.1 The peepshow films “were all simple recordings of some type of preexisting popular attraction: displays of boxing, wrestling, and physical culture;...

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Chapter 2. Multireel Features, Epics, and Roadshows, 1911–1916

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pp. 21-40

During the course of 1911 and 1912, the term feature became ubiquitous. Coincident with a rise in the number of two- and three-reel films, its use was still largely compatible with the concept of the program feature. However, 1911 and 1912 witnessed the release of a number of longer films than these, films such as The Crusaders; or Jerusalem Delivered (1911), The Miracle (1912), Richard III (1912), and Queen Elizabeth (1912), each in four reels; Dante’s Inferno (1911) and From the Manger to the Cross (1912), both in five reels; and Cleopatra (1912), in six reels.1 As a result...

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Chapter 3. Superspecials, Specials, and Programs, 1916–1927

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pp. 41-61

A month after the premiere of The Birth of a Nation in New York the weekly release chart in The Motion Picture News marked the extent to which films were now available “in two distinct formats. The industry’s oldest firms, and a few younger rivals, were marketing program releases of short films, one to three reels in length, which were issued like clockwork on a daily schedule,” as Richard Koszarski...

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Chapter 4. Color, Large Screen, Wide Screen, and Sound, 1894–1931

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pp. 62-87

Whenever sequences in Wings were projected in Magnascope, whenever Wings was exhibited with a prerecorded soundtrack, whenever The Big Parade was shown in its colored versions, the latest technologies were as much on display as the films they were used to enhance. To that extent, these...

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Chapter 5. Tuners, Spectacles, and Prestige Pictures, 1929–1939

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pp. 88-111

Following two decades of near-continuous growth for the American film industry, the 1930s marked a period of instability and a sharp downturn in profits. Economic and political problems, both within and outside the United States, left Hollywood continually needing to readjust its market strategies. Such problems made a particularly marked impact on the industry’s...

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Chapter 6. Fewer but Bigger, 1939–1949

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pp. 112-134

In the 1930s, MGM consistently had the highest production costs, and earned the highest rentals, in the industry. Between 1936 and 1940 it made eleven films costing $2 million and over, as many as all other studios combined. But even with the company’s considerable distribution clout, only two of these—The Great Ziegfeld and Maytime (1937), the most successful of the Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy series of operettas—were profitable. With the...

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Chapter 7. Colossals and Blockbusters, 1949–1959

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pp. 135-158

In what Variety called a “giant step back toward normality,” the period 1949 to 1951 saw a rise in major studio output but a substantial reduction in operating costs.1 With the box office now in recession, budgets and shooting schedules were cut. Careful advance planning helped eliminate wasted footage. Overheads were reduced by laying off permanent staff at all levels. Even executives...

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Chapter 8. Roadshows, Showcases, and Runaways, 1956–1970

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pp. 159-186

In its year-end box-office summary for 1959, the British trade paper Kinematograph Weekly singled out five films as belonging in a distinct category separate from “ordinary” releases. These five—The Ten Commandments, South Pacific, Around the World in Eighty Days, Gigi (1958), and The Nun’s Story (1959)—were labeled “hard ticket giants,” a rubric at once indicative of their...

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Chapter 9. Multiple Jeopardy, 1965–1975

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pp. 187-212

In April 1965 Variety described “what might be called the ‘new’ picture business, a prevailing modus operandi which took a decade to evolve from five separate industry crises.” That modus operandi included: “profitable (hence peaceful) coexistence with television”; the predominance of “studio-packager coproduction deals”; the aftermath of theater divorcement; the arrival of overseas...

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Chapter 10. Super Blockbusters, 1976–1985

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pp. 213-234

As Mike Medavoy had warned, and as Variety noted in its review of 1975, the success of Jaws and other recent films had encouraged the majors to embark once again on a “‘big picture’ cycle with costs escalating accordingly.”1 Another wave of blockbuster productions was on the way. 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). Orca, The Deep, and Jaws 2 all opened in the summer, and all three received what...

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Chapter 11. Ancillary Markets, Globalization, and Digital Technology, 1986–2009

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pp. 235-259

On January 2, 1986, The Hollywood Reporter predicted that “1986 will probably make entertainment history by marking the first time that home video revenues will exceed those of theatrical releases.” According to Variety, it had already done so: “Consumer spending on the rental and purchase of videocassettes in 1985 skyrocketed to about $4.55 billion, a figure that soared above the ’85 theatrical boxoffice total and nearly doubled the size of the video business in...

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pp. 260-263

We have sought in this book to detail the history and characteristics of large-scale, high-cost film productions in the United States from the 1890s to the 2000s. In doing so, we have also noted the scale and the characteristics of a number of major boxoffice successes. Drawing principally on the trade press and on archival sources, we have sought to relate them to the industrial contexts from which they emerged, into which they intervened, and which...


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pp. 265-309


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pp. 311-327

Name Index

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pp. 329-344

Title Index

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pp. 345-360

Subject Index

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pp. 361-363

E-ISBN-13: 9780814336977
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814330081

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 58
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Contemporary Approaches to Film and Media Series