A blockbuster is a work of entertainment – typically used to describe a feature film, but also other media – that 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 1940’s, referring to aerial bombs capable of destroying a whole block of buildings.
Its first known use in reference to films was in May 1943, when advertisements in Variety and Motion Picture Herald described the RKO film, Bombardier, as “The block-buster of all action-thrill-service shows!”
Another trade advertisement in 1944 boasted that the war documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa, “hits the heart like a two ton blockbuster”.
Several theories have been put forward for the origin of the term in a film context.
- One explanation pertains to the practice of ‘block booking’ whereby a studio would sell a package of films to theatres, rather than permitting them to select which films they wanted to exhibit.
- However, this practice was outlawed in 1948 before the term became common parlance; while pre-1948 high-grossing big-budget spectacles may be retrospectively labelled ‘blockbusters’, this is not how they were known at the time.
- Another explanation is that trade publications would often advertise the popularity of a film by including illustrations showing long queues often extending around the block, but in reality the term was never used in this way.
The term was actually first coined by publicists who drew on readers’ familiarity with the blockbuster bombs, drawing an analogy with the bomb’s huge impact. The trade press subsequently appropriated the term as short-hand for a film’s commercial potential. Throughout 1943 and 1944 the term was applied to films such as Bataan, No Time for Love and Brazil.