Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Books: Blockbuster by Tom Shone

Blockbuster is a book written by a fan of blockbusters for readers who love blockbusters.

Blockbuster by Tom Shone.
From the opening few pages of Blockbuster it is clear that Tom Shone is a writer who is not afraid to celebrate success and he has obviously chosen his subject matter based on a topic which he visibly has a great deal of positive enthusiasm for.  To put it simply, Blockbuster is a book written by someone who loves blockbusters for readers who love blockbusters.

And that’s perhaps one of the main reasons why I enjoyed this book so much.  Right from the start it becomes apparent that Tom Shone is an author who much prefers to praise some of the brilliant and memorable moments in movie history, rather than criticise the occasional failures.  He is also someone who clearly takes pleasure when deserving movies are a commercial success as well as a critical success, and he doesn’t see ‘money’ as a dirty word.  All in all these factors make him the perfect choice to write this book.

Blockbuster begins by recounting a short snapshot of the childhoods of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, before then briefly summarising the history of Hollywood over the last century.  Once the introductions are out of the way Tom Shone then quickly moves on to the birth of the modern day blockbuster as he tells the story behind Jaws and the way Jaws-mania captured the American public’s imagination in the summer of 1975, as it became the first movie to ever gross over a hundred million dollars with box office takings in the US and Canada of $129.5 million.

Although I remember enjoying Jaws, I was never an obsessive fan but nevertheless the spark of excitement and the sense of adventure you get when reading the opening chapters expertly captures the way Jaws was received by the public at the time and recreates the mood of the moment perfectly.  It also sets the tone for the book as it immediately reminds you of the sense of wonder that movies can inspire in the audience, and thus quickly has you excited to read the rest of the book.

It's amusing to discover how out of touch some of the
movie reviewers of the day were with one critic in
particular describing Jaws as 'a mind-numbing repast for
sense-sated gluttons.'
You also get an insight into why blockbuster directors are as successful as they are and sometimes it’s down to something as simple as realising the key ingredient to making a movie a success.  For example when shooting Jaws, Steven Spielberg told Roy Scheider, “I don’t want to feel that you could ever kill that shark,” and that’s exactly the way I remember feeling when I first watched Jaws.  Spielberg has the genius to recognise the simple details a movie needs to make it work and in the case of Jaws it’s the sense of ‘how are they ever going to defeat this thing’ which gives the movie so much tension and power.

Blockbuster then moves onto perhaps the biggest phenomena in movie history as it tells the story of Star Wars and how George Lucas’ movie changed the industry forever in the summer of 1977.  Any Star Wars fans will love this section of the book and specifically the way it reignites the sense of awe and excitement you felt when you saw the movie for the first time.  In fact the story of the build-up to the release of Star Wars is probably my favourite part of the whole book.

Before the special effects were added and before he had settled on the final edit, George Lucas actually showed an early version of Star Wars to his friends and unbelievably he was met with some pretty harsh criticism and in some cases even offers of condolences!  At that early pre-release screening only Steven Spielberg had the vision to announce that Star Wars would be a success.  In fact he even confidently predicted that Star Wars would become only the second ever movie to take over £100 million at the box office which, when you consider the negativity which George’s other friends greeted Star Wars with, was quite a bold statement to make.

Then of course when Star Wars was released Steven Spielberg proved to be absolutely spot on and everything went completely crazy.  There’s a lovely moment recalled in Blockbuster where people are queuing round the block to see Star Wars and it’s broken the house records in all thirty five of its theatres so George Lucas suggests to his director friends that they sneak into a showing and witness first hand how the movie is received by the fans.  The reception is phenomenal and even unheard of at the time with the fans responding more like it was a massive sporting event rather than a movie, getting totally drawn into the plot and even screaming and cheering at some stages.  Yet despite the amazingly off-the-scale unheard of reception that Star Wars received, as George emerged from the theatre all he could say was, ‘This shot isn’t right, that shot isn’t right...’  His friends were blown away by the immense reaction Star Wars got but George Lucas, ever the perfectionist, could only see where he should have made further improvements.

A quote from one movie executive in 1967:
"Today people go to see a movie. They no longer go
to the movies."  Blockbuster movies like Jaws and
Star Wars made that statement more true than ever.

As you’d expect the phenomena of Star Wars is given quite a lot of coverage in Blockbuster, but finally Tom Shone moves onto a long list of other blockbuster hits including Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Alien, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T., Top Gun, The Terminator, Back To The Future, Titanic and many more, and throughout all the chapters the thing that comes across most strongly is the passion that Tom Shone has for blockbuster movies.

As well as retelling the history of the Hollywood blockbuster, this book also contains the charts for the all-time top 50 blockbuster movies (both actual and adjusted for inflation) as well as the yearly top ten grossing movies from 1970 to 2003.  These charts make for intriguing reading and provide a statistical picture of how the blockbuster has grown over the last few decades.  For example in 1977, the year of Star Wars’ release, the tenth top grossing movie was Semi-Tough with a box office take of $22.9 million.  Fast forward two decades to 1997 and the tenth top grossing movie had taken over ten times that amount, with the movie in question, The Full Monty, bringing in $256.9 million.  If you like your facts and figures then you’ll certainly find these statistical records to be an interesting addendum to every chapter.

As I stated in my opening paragraph, Blockbuster is written with the target audience in mind of movie fans who love blockbusters.  It is aimed at those who prefer to celebrate Hollywood’s successes, rather than snipe and criticise, and on a personal level reading this book reignited the emotions I first felt when I first discovered the excitement of going to the cinema as a child.

To sum things up, if you love blockbuster movies and, like Tom Shone, you don’t snobbishly regard commercial success as a badge of dishonour, then Blockbuster is a book which you will thoroughly enjoy reading and one which will bring back many happy movie-watching memories.

Tom Shone has a blog called These Violent Delights where he writes about movies:
Tom Shone's Blog

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Find more book recommendations at the following link:
Books on 'Worthy Of A Bigger Audience'

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