A blockbuster is a work of entertainment - especially a feature film, but also applied to other media - which is highly popular and financially successful. The term has also come to refer to any large-budget production intended for "blockbuster" status, aimed at mass markets with associated merchandising, sometimes on a scale that meant the financial fortunes of a film studio or a distributor could depend on it.
The term began to appear in the American press in the early 1940s, referring to aerial bombs capable of destroying a whole block of buildings. It came to be applied to movies as a metaphor, indicating something successful on a dramatic scale. Successful films such as Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, Gone with the Wind, and Ben-Hur, were called "blockbusters" based purely on the amount of money earned at the box office. Other terms for highly successful films included: "spectacular" (The Wall Street Journal) and "super-grosser" (New York Times).
In 1975 the usage of "blockbuster" for films coalesced around Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, fast-paced exciting entertainment, which became a common topic of conversation, inspiring repeated viewings. The film is regarded as the first film of the "blockbuster era", referring to this as a film genre. Although earlier films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965) had made more in ticket sales (when adjusted for inflation),Jaws' domestic box office take in excess of $250 million was seen as a new standard for "blockbuster". Two years later, Star Wars expanded on the success of Jaws, setting box office records and enjoying a theatrical run that lasted more than a year.
After the success of Jaws and Star Wars, many Hollywood producers attempted to create similar "event" films with wide commercial appeal, and film companies began green-lighting increasingly large-budget films, and relying extensively on massive advertising blitzes leading up to their theatrical release. These two films were the prototypes for the "summer blockbuster" trend, in which major film studios and distributors planned their annual marketing strategy around a big release by July 4, hoping to attract audiences over the summer, previously a moribund time for ticket sales. Blockbusters in the following decade included Close Encounters of the Third Kind (late 1977),Superman (1978),Alien (1979),Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981),E.T. (1982),Ghostbusters (1984),Beverly Hills Cop (1984),Back to the Future (1985).
Eventually, the focus on creating blockbusters grew so intense that a backlash occurred, with critics and some film-makers decrying the prevalence of a "blockbuster mentality" and lamenting the death of the author-driven, "more artistic" small-scale films of the New Hollywood era. This view is taken, for example, by film journalist Peter Biskind, who wrote that all studios wanted was another Jaws, and as production costs rose, they were less willing to take risks, and therefore based blockbusters on the "lowest common denominators" of the mass market. In his book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson talks about blockbuster films, stating that a society that is hit-driven, and makes way and room for only those films that are expected to be a hit, is in fact a limited society.