Producer Jon Landau tells the story about when he first had an inkling he was part of a rare moviemaking experience. “It was at the ShoWest convention in March, nine months before we opened,” Landau recalls. “Paramount was screening their summer reel, and a big-time celebrity (who shall go nameless) leaned over to Jonathan Dolgen [one-time chairman of Viacom’s entertainment unit] and whispered: ‘I’d pay $7.50 just to see that trailer again.’”

The trailer was for Titanic, the most successful film of all time. Savaged by media pundits during its 153-day production as a marathon of profligate hardheadedness, Titanic cost $200 million to make—and went on to gross $1.8 billion worldwide. That’s about two-thirds of the United Nations’ budget, or the gross domestic product of Fiji. Titanic was Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth all rolled into one at-bat in the movie industry’s ultimate version of “chicks dig the long ball.” To the surprise of Landau (and everyone else), Titanic became that most elusive of Hollywood creations: a runaway blockbuster.

“We knew we had a wonderful script that we believed would be a box office hit,” Landau chuckles. “But did any of us think it would become a phenomenon? Never. We were a very expensive three-hour period drama going up against a James Bond film at Christmas. We didn’t even expect to win our opening weekend!”

I, Robot

Blockbusters like Titanic, which are as old as the industry itself, are singular for their times. It’s no more fair to compare the top grossing film of 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation ($110,000 budget; $317 million gross in today’s dollars), or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ($1.5 million budget in 1937; current gross of $180 million) with Jaws or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, made in 1975 and 1982, respectively. Industry analysts like to adjust for inflation (and they will later in this story). But, as Landau says, “films that reach that many people are unique. They’re products of the eras in which they were made.”

Figuring out what modern-day blockbusters have in common isn’t all that difficult. A list of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time, with The Empire Strikes Back pulling up the caboose at more than $290 million in U.S. box office, is bulging with fantasy and way-out creatures. In no particular order, we have: Star Wars, E.T., Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Pirates of the Caribbean and Finding Nemo. Wookies, aliens, hobbits, swashbucklers, superheroes, dinosaurs, fishies and a retarded guy who likes chocolate. Conventional wisdom would dictate that making a film half the planet wants to see must come down to a fantasy-driven spectacle wrapped inside a shining, if slightly garish, technological package. Or does it?

“This industry is plot-driven,” explains Landau. “Plot-driven films make a big splash but don’t resonate emotionally. Themes (and that really means the emotions they invoke) are what I look for in developing any film—especially one that’s shooting for the largest possible audience.” Landau says audiences went back to see Titanic again and again—the all-important return business card that can push a movie into the stratosphere—because it delivered on very deep and specific emotions. “How many times have you put on a record you’ve heard a hundred times before and loved it all over again?” Landau asks. “Each time feels new, because its emotions are so real.”

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Passion, not calculation, is also how Dean Devlin, producer and co-writer of Independence Day (with a worldwide gross of more than $800 million) describes what drives him to make “event” films, a term he prefers to “blockbuster.” “Anything that catches fire, regardless of its budget or marketing, can be called a ‘blockbuster,’” says Devlin. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding [$6 million budget; current gross of more than $240 million] was a blockbuster. The Passion of the Christ was financed by its director and that was a blockbuster. Neither film was designed as such. Event films often begin with large budgets and are intended from the outset to attract the widest possible audience.”

Devlin’s love for mass-market entertainment started at a young age: his actress mom, Pilar Seurat, even brought home a souvenir “phaser” from a 1966 guest spot on “Star Trek.” Devlin’s father, Don, who executive produced the 1987 hit, The Witches of Eastwick, preached to his son that a large-scale commercial release needs just as much care and feeding as a small art film.

“The only difference between a $2 million film and a $200 million film, my father said,” Devlin laughs, “is that you get paid a lot more on a $200 million film. The point being: if an event film isn’t driven by the personal passions of the filmmakers, if it’s cynical and reeks of formula, then the audience will reject it.” Devlin says a moviemaker’s passion must become “infectious” for an event film to attain mega-success. “Thrilling visual effects and fantastical plots are often a common denominator,” Devlin admits, because fantasy and science-fiction strip away what divides us and allow for a shared approach to storytelling. “That’s why these films are so successful worldwide,” he says. “They remove our prejudices and the themes flourish on common ground.”

The Lord of the Rings

Devlin notes that the special effects in the original Star Wars might make George Lucas “cringe” compared to Attack of the Clones. “But you could easily release Star Wars in today’s market, and the film would still do fantastic business. The story is so emotionally engaging, the audience would gladly go along for the ride.”

If a passion for visual storytelling is at the heart of creating a blockbuster, then the converse forms the industry’s perspective of what deserves the blockbuster label. Bruce Nash runs The Numbers Website (www.the-numbers.com), which serves up a comprehensive breakdown of weekly, monthly and yearly box office totals. Box office totals for new and old titles are archived all the way back to the heyday of three-strip Technicolor. Nash says that tracking the blockbusters is more science than art these days, with all the focus centered on a movie’s opening weekend.

“The consensus for an opening weekend falls plus or minus 10 percent of what the film usually makes,” Nash explains. “Based on that number, and factors like the dollar amount of advertising, the number of screens, advance ticket sales on the Web, exit polling and the percentage change over successive weekends, we can predict with a fair degree of accuracy how much a film will ultimately make.”

New Line bet their company on The Lord of the Rings, and it paid off: The film has made almost $3 billion worldwide, including in its native New Zealand, where 125,000 fans lined up for its premiere.

Nash notes that turning out a blockbuster is, paradoxically, both easier and harder with each passing year. Rising ticket prices that outpace inflation and many more screens mean fewer people are needed to push a film into blockbuster territory. But the costs of making and advertising a blockbuster are not for the faint-hearted.

“The average production cost of movies released by the MPAA last year was about $68 million,” Nash says, “with P & A [prints and advertising] costs averaging $39 million. Most of the potential blockbusters this summer, with the exception of Shrek 2, are in the $130 to $150 million production range. This includes Troy, Van Helsing, Harry Potter, Spider-Man 2 and The Day After Tomorrow. You can expect the studios to spend upwards of $50 million in domestic advertising to ensure those movies reach their audiences. The reported advertising budget for Return of the King was $75 million, and that was only for the U.S. They spent another $75 million internationally.”

Citing Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, Nash breaks down just how broad a target a film has to hit to reach blockbuster status. “With a low-end production budget of, say, $150 million, and another $150 million in global advertising, Sony has invested close to $300 million before a single ticket has been sold,” Nash says. “The split with the exhibitor is usually 50 percent—although on a film like Spider-Man 2, it’s probably closer to 60 percent for the studio. Lucasfilm is reported to receive very favorable theatrical splits, perhaps higher than 70 percent for the Star Wars franchise. What helps Sony out is that the worldwide ancillary sales, i.e., the DVD market, will most likely match Spider-Man 2’s theatrical take. In theory, the film can make $250 million in the theaters and still be a blockbuster, since home video markets account for 40 to 50 percent of revenues.”

Thrilling visual effects and fantastical plots are often a common denominator… That’s why these films are so Successful worldwide. They remove our prejudices and the themes flourish on common ground.”

The concept that even a mighty blockbuster like this summer’s Shrek 2, which made more than $250 million in its first two weeks, or The Day After Tomorrow, directed by Dean Devlin’s former partner, Roland Emmerich, which hauled in more than $85 million its first four days in release, merely exists to enhance DVD sales is not something the movie industry is eager to embrace. Yet no one making a blockbuster would dare ignore the DVD market. As Devlin notes, DVDs have changed the way he makes movies.

“I set aside scenes just for the DVD release,” Devlin explains, “because the two experiences—theater versus at-home—are so different. Even as I’m making one version of the film, I’m always thinking about what would work for our DVD release. I will say to the editor, put that scene aside for the DVD, because it won’t work in the theatrical version.” Devlin cites scenes from his 1994 hit, Stargate, where the villain is surrounded by slave children in what Devlin calls “a strange and bizarre” environment. “The pacing of the film in the theater would not tolerate those scenes,” observes Devlin. “But at home, where you have time to absorb all this weird, creepy stuff, we knew they would play great. We tend to hold onto anything that will add value to the DVD release—a director’s drawing to sketch out an idea, for example, even if the scene as it appeared in the film is completely different.”

Most studio execs admit a DVD release influences the “production, editing and marketing” of today’s event films. Yet they also acknowledge that DVD success is still “dependent” on a film having broad success, say $100 million or above, in theaters. “Seeing these movies in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers is what it’s all about,” Devlin exclaims. “It’s the reason you want to make big commercial films—to tap into that communal well of emotions.” It’s also that emotional feeling that drives the DVD release, which producers see as an enhancement of an event film, not a replacement. “The theatrical experience is what gets people to want to seek out even more about the film when they go to buy or rent the DVD,” says Devlin.

Movies don’t always live up to expectations. At press time, Troy had only made $125 million of its $185 million budget back.

Producer John Davis, who has produced a slew of hits that have grossed in the $100 to $150 million range (Dr. Doolittle, Daddy Day Care, The Firm), has several summer releases aiming for blockbuster status. No stranger to mainstream success, Davis’ work has earned more than $2 billion worldwide. His summer releases of I, Robot, Garfield: The Movie and Alien vs. Predator may produce a sleeper blockbuster like last year’s Finding Nemo. To the producer’s chagrin, all three of his summer projects did not start out as blockbuster material.

“I believe a producer’s role is to find ideas you’re personally passionate about, and see where the elements take you,” Davis relates. “The Terminal was a very small script written by Sacha Gervasi, that I read and thought: ‘what a cool little idea.’ Then Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks signed on, and this small piece of material turned into a blockbuster. Collateral was another interesting little script that began at HBO; it went into turnaround and landed at Dreamworks. Michael Mann and Tom Cruise got involved and suddenly you have Collateral: a summer blockbuster. These films change shape and direction, depending on who’s involved.”

“Films in the Harry Potter series begin their lives as blockbusters,” adds Davis. “They’re the most successful young adult books of all time and they arrive in theaters with all the expectations and pressures that brings. But not all breakout films start with such resumes. They can come from modest beginnings and blossom into something much larger. Garfield would have been a different movie if the advances in digital effects had not happened so quickly. We realized this cat could give a performance just like a regular actor could inhabit a part, and that’s when Bill Murray signed on (as Garfield’s voice). You start with an idea—not with something that says ‘blockbuster.’”

The Day After Tomorrow (budget: $125 million) showed just a small profit, with a domestic gross of $153 million.

Harking back to the long-ball analogy, there are records even within the elite community of blockbusters that still impress Hollywood number crunchers. Spider-Man, released in 2002, tops the charts in as many areas as Michael Jordan. Among its records: biggest opening day ($39.5 million), biggest single day (more than $43.5 million) and fastest movie to reach $300 million (its 22-day total edged out Return of the King by two days). Spider-Man occupies a place on a list that only four other films can lay claim to: fastest movie to reach $400 million in U.S. box office (tied for first with Titanic at 66 days). With numbers like that, many analysts are predicting Spider-Man 2 won’t be able to outpace the original. Yet everyone is still projecting the film to duke it out for blockbuster honors with the third film in the Harry Potter series, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Two or three predestined mega-hits means studios are left eyeing their summer calendars for what will be a sleeper blockbuster.

“For a lot of films this summer, perhaps even more than years past, it will be one [weekend] and done,” observes Nash. “The summer was front-loaded with blockbusters, and Harry Potter might very well stay at number one until Spider-Man 2 comes out before the July 4th holiday. What often happens is that studios cede portions of the summer to films that are way out in front of the pack; they give up those key dates and start looking around for The Sixth Sense, which came out in early August and dominated the end of summer. That film spent five weeks at number one and made $200 million by mid-September.”

The kids didn’t seem to come out for Garfield (budget: $70 million), which drew $47 million in domestic ticket sales.

Projecting numbers in Hollywood is almost as popular as actually making movies. But even numbers are deceptive when accounting for a film’s mass appeal. Despite Spider-Man’s glossy records, it falls out of the top 10 on a list of the 50 top-grossing U.S. releases when adjusted for consumer price inflation and current ticket prices. The all-time leader, according to Exhibitor Relations? Gone With The Wind, made in 1939 for $3.9 million with a gross $1.9 billion in today’s dollars. Just behind Rhett and Scarlett is Star Wars, made for $11 million in 1977 and re-released five times over the following two decades. Star Wars’ U.S. gross of $461 million translates into almost $982 million in today’s dollars.

Other inflation-adjusted titles read like a history of the commercial blockbuster—The Sound of Music: $850 million, The Ten Commandments: $790 million, Jaws: $770 million. That little home-phoning alien, E.T., may be the most durable of all blockbusters. Made for a mere $10.5 million in 1982 and raking in $805 million in 2004 dollars, E.T. spent 16 weekends at the top of the charts. Its only re-release, for its 20th anniversary, accounted for less than 10 percent of its U.S. booty. Spielberg’s creation notched an astounding $400 million back when the average ticket price was less than $3.

Made for $11 million in 1977, George Lucas’ Star Wars has been released five times and made almost $982 million in today’s dollars; not to be outdone, James Cameron’s Titanic, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet, has enjoyed a worldwide gross of $1.8 billion.

“The economics of making blockbusters has changed,” observes Nash. “The average ticket price when Titanic came out was $4, and today it’s over $6. While you don’t have to sell as many tickets, there are more screens and movies vying for a smaller pie of audiences. What has evolved is that studios seem to put all their efforts into those first few weekends to establish a brand that will carry the film over into its DVD release.”

Nash goes on to note that more blockbusters being produced today earn $100 to $200 million before they lose steam. Ambitious efforts like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings are becoming an endangered species.

“New Line essentially bet their company on one movie,” Nash marvels, “and I doubt if we’ll see that anytime soon.” The Lord of the Rings series has generated just under $3 billion worldwide, one-third of the entire volume of the U.S. theatrical film industry in 2003.

“I think with the rising ticket prices, you may see a blockbuster cross the $1 billion (U.S.) threshold,” Nash concludes. “But the flip side is that audiences are content to wait for the DVD, if they can’t see the movie in the first few weeks. Staying in the theaters long enough to surpass a film like Titanic is less likely, with home theater systems becoming more affordable and the amount of competition that exists for the entertainment dollar.”

Jon Landau knows he may never be part of an experience like Titanic again. “Having worked at a studio,” he notes, “I can confidently say that no movie makes sense on paper. The risk is just too big, and it’s magnified that much more on a big blockbuster. What you need are visionary allies within the studio system who are brave, or perhaps foolish, enough to let these projects go forward. My next film with Jim [Cameron] is a large, epic, science fiction film that, quite frankly, we would not even undertake if we weren’t convinced it had blockbuster-size scope and potential.”

Whether it’s a $2 million art film or a $200 million film about King Arthur, moviemaking is damn hard work—on that everyone agrees. But as the producers quoted here can attest, the stakes rise precipitously with the budget, release date and level of talent involved. From a purely logistical perspective, putting together a mega-blockbuster suits those moviemakers with a taste for the grand adventure. Consider that both The Lord of the Rings and Titanic not only employed tens of thousands of people, but their mere existence supported the economies of New Zealand and Mexico for months—perhaps years—at a time.

The concept that even a mighty blockbuster…
merely exists to enhance DVD sales is not something the movie industry is
eager to embrace.”

“Going through Titanic, for me,” confesses Landau, “reinforced the idea that there are no mountains too high for filmmakers to climb. It also reinforced the reality that filmmaking is not about one person. It’s a collective art form unlike any we’ve ever seen. Titanic employed people from literally all over the world—stunt crews from Czechoslovakia and crews from England and Canada and Mexico—who were engaged in this huge endeavor of mutual cooperation.

Is it hard to produce a blockbuster with so much on the line? You bet it is. There’s a debate that goes on every day in your head that says, ‘How did I ever get into this?/This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life!’” MM