Show Me the Data

George Lucas's in-house publishing company shows us the money—and the attendance figures, and the production budgets, and the actors' salaries, and...


Reviewed by Mark Anderson

cover of  Blockbusting
George Lucas’s Blockbusting Edited by Alex Ben Block & Lucy Autrey Wilson; It Books/Harper Collins, 2010; 976 pp.; US $29.99; ISBN: 978-0061778896

Here’s a book that doesn’t so much need a review as it does a regression analysis. If you’re a numbers person who loves the movies, then George Lucas may have helmed the best thing you’ve seen since first learning about the Skywalker family tree.

George Lucas’s Blockbusting takes a fresh, quantitative approach to the history of feature films that transcends the raw data to become a kind of meta-collage of filmed entertainment from its earliest days. Alex Block (editor at large at The Hollywood Reporter) and the editors at George Lucas Books dissect 300 of the most financially successful movies made since the dawn of the 20th century, providing budgets, back stories, revenues, and distribution details. Film technologies figure prominently, notably in film formats and therefore projectors in the teens; the consolidation into a handful of large studios in the 1920s; and the massive investments in talkies, color, air-conditioning, and wide-screen formats from the 1920s through the 1950s.

The book’s numbers provide for some eye-opening comparisons. The 20th century’s ultimate blockbuster, for instance, was 1939’s Gone With the Wind, which grossed, in modern money, US $1.4 billion. (All the book’s dollar amounts are converted up or down to 2005 dollars.) Its $58.5 million budget was wildly extravagant for its time, but by the 1980s, that was business as usual (Ghost Busters cost just $200 000 less). By the early 21st century, the industry was positively penny-pinching. Of the 25 blockbusters of 2000 through 2005, only two (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the indie breakthrough My Big Fat Greek Wedding) had a lower bottom line. Even a modest CGI thriller, The Perfect Storm, cost more than two and a half times as much.

The 1930s were certainly the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ninety million tickets were bought each week by the nation’s 123 million people, and a hit movie reliably generated revenues five times as large as its budget. Today that weekly ticket-to-population ratio is down to 10 percent, and a blockbuster—the winner that covers the costs of a studio’s many losers—now hits the jackpot if its earnings approach just twice its budget.

In Blockbusting, George Lucas may have set out to pay his own unique tribute to America’s most popular art form. But the book ends up reading more like a eulogy. A second edition of Blockbusting 10 years hence—if the book’s trend lines continue for the traditional Hollywood movie studios—will probably read like the treatment for a big-budget disaster film. So pop some popcorn. Whatever the ending, the final few reels of this one are going to be epic.

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About the Author

MARK ANDERSON, a technology journalist in Northampton, Mass., contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum. In July he reviewed When the Lights Went Out (MIT Press, 2010) by historian David E. Nye.