Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters.
Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters. Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 2010. 363 pp. Paper.
The epic, blockbuster or spectacular film has been a staple component of Hollywood cinema ever since its earliest days. From Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), Spartacus (1959), Star Wars (1977), to Gladiator (2000), audiences have flocked in droves to witness elaborate set pieces, special effects and memorable stories. Critics have also been drawn to these films--not only successful examples, but spectacular flops such as The Conqueror (1956), with John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and Ishtar (1987), with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman leading a cast in an epic that sank without trace (recouping only $8m. of its $45m. budget).
Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale's book traces the development of ali three genres from the late nineteenth century to the present day. They are especially interested in how they were promoted. In the earliest days they were part of an overall variety program of live action and comedy, with their main selling-point being their subject-matter, or their technological innovations (some were shot in primitive color). It was only during the 1910s that these films became longer (acquiring the title of "feature films') and more lavish. Hall and Neale are especially interested in the ways in which spectaculars were "roadshowed"--in other words, toured round the country for weeks and months on end, playing at venues both large and small. By such means the producers transformed the spectacular into an occasion, rather like the visit of a touring theater company, which differentiated it from the run-of-the-mill fare normally on offer at movie houses.
By the 1930s roadshowing had become a risky business, especially for big-budget films that required considerable expenditure on marketing and publicity. Whenever the technique was used, however, for example, with Gone with the Wind, it paid off handsomely at the box-office. In the 1950s roadshowing reassumed much of its earlier significance, as the major studios marketed their respective wide-screen and stereo sound formats--Twentieth Century-Fox's Cinemascope being an example--that would hopefully tempt audiences away from the television screen and back into movie houses. Even today roadshowing forms an important strategy to promote epics, IMAX versions of feature films or IMAX films.
Hall and Neale make a convincing case for the fact that the success of any spectacular film in Hollywood is as much due to the ways in which it has been packaged and sold to the public, as to its production. The studios deliberately drew on a series of "representational practices" (6) to sell the films, with the focus of attention placed on special effects, the films' "eventfulness," as well as the stories they told. Cecil B. De Mille was especially adept ar this kind of marketing; in the modern era the same also applies to James Cameron's blockbusters Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). Hall and Neale describe these films as examples of "the cinema of spectacular situations," where form matters more than content: audiences like this kind of cinema for its special effects, even if the effects overwhelm the plot. Twentieth Century-Fox understood this well as they sold Cinemascope to the public in the 1950s, even if the films themselves (e.g., The King and I, 1956), did not benefit greatly from this kind of format.
Epics, Spectaculars and Blockbusters offers an entertaining account of how high-cost film production has ebbed and flowed in Hollywood over the last one hundred and twenty years. It breaks new ground by showing how distribution and exhibition practices have assumed equal, if not greater importance in contributing to a film's box-office performance. What is now known as "saturation releasing" has its antecedents in the early twentieth century: In silent cinema, theater and vaudeville publicity campaigns. Sometimes the book's detail overwhelms its design. In their desire to analyze multiple films in detail, the authors sometimes lose sight of their overall argument. Nonetheless, Hall and Neale's book is an important one that shifts the discourse of film history away from textual analysis into a consideration of how industrial, technological and commercial issues determine the ways in which big-budget films are constructed and consumed. It deserves to be recognized as an innovative work, opening up new avenues of enquiry in film studies.