American Blockbuster

Movies, Technology, and Wonder

Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 54 illustrations Published: August 2020

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Film

Ben-Hur (1959), Jaws (1975), Avatar (2009), Wonder Woman (2017): the blockbuster movie has held a dominant position in American popular culture for decades. In American Blockbuster Charles R. Acland charts the origins, impact, and dynamics of this most visible, entertaining, and disparaged cultural form. Acland narrates how blockbusters emerged from Hollywood's turn to a hit-driven focus during the industry's business crisis in the 1950s. Movies became bigger, louder, and more spectacular. They also became prototypes for ideas and commodities associated with the future of technology and culture, accelerating the prominence of technological innovation in modern American life. Acland shows that blockbusters continue to be more than just movies; they are industrial strategies and complex cultural machines designed to normalize the ideologies of our technological age.


“Charles R. Acland has written an astute, masterful genealogy of the film critic's kryptonite: the blockbuster. Bringing clarity to the massive films that hide from scholars in plain view, Acland shows just how complex and unstable ostensibly self-evident genre and trade terms can be. Beyond a film history, this wide-ranging book offers a prototype for multi-modal historiographic method and incisive film analysis in an era of big data and digital humanities. Far more than an origin story, Acland's reverse engineering lays bare the struggles behind the management of Hollywood's blockbuster category, the fabrication of overdone artlessness. A must-read in film and media studies.” — John Thornton Caldwell, author of Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television

“No other book traces the emergence of the stabilization of Hollywood's blockbuster strategy as deftly as American Blockbuster. Charles R. Acland's powerful synthesis of historical analysis and cultural theory, along with his assessment of Hollywood's blockbuster economy—and of the studios’ prevailing blockbuster aesthetic—will have a significant impact.” — Thomas Schatz, author of The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era

“This is a stunningly insightful and comprehensive study of the blockbuster that contributes new historical, cultural, and critical perspectives on a definitive phenomenon in American cinema. Through impeccable research and lucid writing, Charles R. Acland ultimately shows us how movie blockbusters have functioned to drive and to legitimate the ‘technological exhibitionism’ that lies at the heart not only of the film industry but also of society more broadly, offering a rich assessment of why these films are among the most consequential popular art forms in modern times.” — Barbara Klinger, Indiana University

"A crucial addition to the burgeoning scholarship on contemporary Hollywood cinema, this deeply researched, densely reasoned book explodes a number of well-worn myths about the blockbuster film while advancing a provocative new thesis about its role in modern society. Drawing on a wealth of historical data, Acland demonstrates conclusively that the origins of blockbuster cinema lie not in the 1970s—as critics pointing to the mammoth success of movies like Jaws have often argued—but in the 1950s with the creation of such Hollywood super-productions as Ben-Hur. . . . [T]his landmark book illuminates much about US cinema and culture. Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty."
  — I. Olney, Choice


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Charles R. Acland is Distinguished University Research Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence and Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture, and coeditor of Useful Cinema, all also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Part I. The Spectacle Industry
1. Blockbuster Ballyhoo  3
2. Industrial Regimes of Entertainment  35
Part II. The Rise of the Blockbuster
3. Delivering Blockbusters  87
4. The Business of Big  124
5. Hollywood's Return  160
6. Cosmopolitan Artlessness  191
Part III. The Technological Sublime of Entertainment Everywhere
7. The End of James Cameron's Quiet Years  233
8. The Technological Heart of Movie Culture  266
Epilogue. Exhausted Entertainment  296
Notes  305
Filmography  337
Bibliography  347
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