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George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg: Maestros of the Blockbuster

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  Four and a half decades after their breakout successes, they remain arguably two of the most potent brand names in American entertainment and understandably so.  Probably more than any other two individuals, they have been – for good or for ill — responsible for a massive reconfiguration of media entertainment, expanding from film into TV, merchandising, and new media, constantly exploring the ability to cross-pollinate all these strains, and sparking a re-thinking of the kinds of movies Hollywood makes and the way they’re made.

Lucas and Spielberg are credited – and sometimes blamed – for launching, expanding, and perfecting the concept of the synergistic, merchandisable blockbuster franchise.  After their commercial breakouts in the late 1970s, their movies regularly dominated the all-time best box office performers list for most of the following decades. Even today, after such recent additions as Avengers:  Endgame (2019), Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009), Black Panther (2018), the Lord of the Rings trilogies and the Harry Potter series, according to a June 2019 article on the site The Street, as directors and/or producers, Lucas’ and Spielberg’s names are still attached to seven of the all-time top 30 box office hits of all time adjusted for inflation.

George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg

Even this does not adequately measure their respective commercial muscle, omitting, as it does, the lesser but nevertheless notable movies associated with their production arms, as well as their expansions into animation, TV production, computer and interactive on-line games, and a variety of merchandising lines.  After over four decades at the top of the industry’s commercial pyramid, Lucas and Spielberg remain classic archetypes of the era and the acknowledged maestros of the blockbuster game.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  It’s nearly impossible to think of one without the other and, again, understandably so.  Colleagues, friends, sometimes collaborators, they are close in age, broke big about the same time, share a somewhat similar sensibility.  They are both “children of television,” much of the work they’ve directed and/or produced being inspired by – if not displaying an outright nostalgic affection for – the monster, science fiction, and war movies, the vintage serials, the cartoons and TV programs they viewed for hours on end as youngsters.  Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Poltergeist (1982), 1941 (1979), the Indiana Jones films – just to name a few – all have their roots in the Saturday morning TV viewing of Lucas and Spielberg. Their handle on popular culture has given them a preternatural instinct for material which will play for the mass audience, as well as the best way to portray that material.

A youthful passion for movies and moviemaking manifested itself as a technical proficiency impressive even at the start of the careers, and which grew into a technical mastery few current moviemakers have been able to match.  From their earliest days, they pushed at the limits of moviemaking technology, looking for any new device or technique which could bring their imaginings to credible life on-screen, whether it’s shooting Jaws on location in the open waters off Martha’s Vineyard with an animatronic shark, resurrecting dinosaurs through the magic of CGI (Jurassic Park, 1993), or injecting actors into a wholly alien universe composed almost entirely of computer-generated imagery, and performing side-by-side with an equally unreal computer-manifested co-star (Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars:  Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, 1999).

They continue to get the kind of media attention few other directors and producers do, and have retained their marquee value longer than most on-screen stars in the business today.  Although Lucas has been semi-retired since selling his production company, LucasFilm, to Disney in 2012, he’s still listed as executive producer for the TV series, Star Wars:  Detours, now in post-production, while Spielberg is listed as producer and/or director for no less than 22 projects for the big and small screen through 2022.  

Yet, for all their commonalities, the announcements of their respective current plans illustrate their vast, polar-opposite differences.  For all they share, their careers have followed two distinct, increasingly disparate arcs: one that of a filmmaker who has built on his early successes, and the other that of one seemingly trapped by his.

Lucas, for example, has been strikingly spare in his output.  What at the time looked to be the final installment in the Star Wars saga – Star Wars:  Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), marked only Lucas’ sixth directorial credit, four of the Star Wars episodes.  As a producer, Lucas’ name has been attached to only 22 theatrical titles in 43 years, with most of them – other than the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films – box office flops.  When Lucas received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, in light of his slim body of theatrical work, the recognition was generally considered to be for Lucas’ technological contributions to moviemaking, and the impact of the Star Wars series.

Spielberg, on the other hand, seems to barely finish one project before he’s on to the next, having directed 32 features between 1975 and the present (with two more in the pipeline) and acted in some sort of producer’s role on 63 more (with another dozen announced or in pre-production).  His production entities – Amblin and Dreamworks SKG – have turned out still more pictures on which he served no direct role, a wildly eclectic canon including the Shrek movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), the Back to the Future series, The Bridges of Madison County (1995), American Beauty (1999), Gladiator (2000), Cast Away (2002), Road to Perdition (2002), House of Sand and Fog (2003), Tropic Thunder (2008), The Girl on the Train (2016), 1917 (2019).

The difference between the filmographies of the two men is not only the striking one of quantity, or even quality, but of breadth, and therein, perhaps, is the true measure of the creative difference between them.

George Lucas attended the film program at the University of Southern California with the goal of becoming “…a documentary filmmaker, cameraman, and editor…”  He was not interested in mainstream commercial cinema, wanting, instead, to concentrate on more abstract fare while professing little concern for making money in the business.  He came under the mentoring wing of Francis Ford Coppola who engineered Lucas’ first professional directorial assignment, an expansion of an award-winning short Lucas had shot at USC which would evolve into the feature THX 1138 (1971), a film which, in every frame, reflected the serious, near-abstract art housework Lucas had explored as a student.  Set in a dehumanizing, emotionally-constrained future, THX 1138 is deliberately opaque, brooding, constructed more poetically than along linear dramatic lines. It is also as emotionally aloof as its striking, icy, white-on-white visuals, and, unsurprisingly, failed to connect with the mainstream audience.

The commercial failure of THX 1138 pushed Lucas to look for a more accessible, and, hopefully, commercial project.  He drew on his own teenage experiences to come up with American Graffiti (1973). As warm-hearted as THX 1138 is cold, as bubbly with youthful experience as THX is deliberate and restrained, Graffiti easily connected with a young audience who – after years of Vietnam and Watergate – eagerly lapped up its loving portrait of a more innocent time, and simpler pleasures and pains.  Graffiti became a huge hit $21.3 million domestic against a budget of $775,000, kicked off a national craze for 1950s nostalgia, and opened the door to Lucas for his first major production: Star Wars (later re-dubbed, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) (calculating admissions based on average ticket prices in 1973, multiplied by average 2019 prices, Graffiti’s box office would be the equivalent of somewhere around $110 million today).

A record-breaking hit at the time ($215.5 million domestic against a $13 million budget), Star Wars not only cemented Lucas’ entrée into Hollywood’s major leagues, but his profits from the movie and the merchandising (for which he’d shrewdly retained control) bought him complete independence from Hollywood.  He self-financed The Empire Strikes Back (1980, although he turned the directorial chores over to Irvin Kershner), and afterward built a full-service, state-of-the-art production facility — dubbed Skywalker Ranch — far removed from Hollywood in northern California, set up his own production company (LucasFilm), as well as Industrial Light and Magic, a special effects house which remains one of the premier movie technology laboratories today.  But, having done so, Lucas seemed at a loss of what to do with his newfound independence.

He walked away from directing claiming, “I’m never going to direct another establishment-type movie again,” although the one-time aspiring experimental filmmaker now found himself presiding over a production facility that seemed expressly designed for just that kind of work.  As a producer, he has, occasionally, husbanded the kind of serious moviemaking he aspired to as a student: he acted as executive producer for the American release of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Kagemusha (1980), as well as for the collage-like documentary Powaqqatsi (1988), and was also an uncredited producer on the noir homage Body Heat (1981) which marked the directorial debut of Lawrence Kasdan who had worked on the screenplays for Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  But, other than the Star Wars and Indiana Jones titles, much of Lucasfilm’s scanty producer’s filmography consists of misfires like Willow (1988), Howard the Duck (1986), The Radioland Murders (1994), Red Tails (2012) along with mushy children’s fare like Twice Upon a Time (1983), The Land Before Time (1988), and Strange Magic (2015) for which he supplied the story.

When Lucas did return to directing after an absence of 21 years, it was not to helm some against-the-commercial-grain individualistic effort, but yet another “establishment-type movie” – in fact, a series of them as he began turning out the second Star Wars trilogy.  Despite impressive box office, critics – and many fans of the original trilogy – considered them an artistic disappointment.

Lucas has often seemed uncomfortable with the more human elements of cinema, preferring, evidently, to immerse himself in the wonders of moviemaking technology, going as far as to remark, at times, that “actors are irrelevant.”  On the original Star Wars, the joke among the cast was how Lucas’ direction rarely went beyond, “Faster and more intense!” To that point, critics generally consider The Empire Strikes Back as the most dramatically rewarding of the original three movies; a movie which Lucas neither directed nor wrote.  Even on the character-driven American Graffiti, Lucas seemed at a loss as to how to deal with his large ensemble cast, hiring a dialogue coach to work with the performers while he busied himself with camera set-ups. When the second Star Wars trilogy began to hit screens, beginning with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), it appeared that all of his penchants – weakness with character and drama, technical mastery – had grown only more entrenched.  The New York Times’ A. O. Scott shared a common reviewers’ opinion in its judgment of Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) as a feature-length “action-figure commercial,” and that it was “…not really much of a movie at all, if by movie you mean a work of visual storytelling about the dramatic actions of a group of interesting characters.”

Attack of the Clones, while one of the top box office earners of 2002, would be the first Star Wars entry not to take the box office crown during its theatrical release, that honor going to the better reviewed, comparatively more flesh-and-blood Spider-Man.

Much of Lucas’ ancillary works are marked by incessant recycling and merchandising of his limited core of films i.e. TV movies, series and videogames spinning off from one aspect or another of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.  One wonders if, having created these money-minting machines, Lucas had boxed himself in by having to keep them fueled with one iteration after another of his familiar brands.

One also wonders why Lucas hasn’t taken advantage of his financial independence – particularly after selling LucasFilm to Disney for the mind-blowing sum of over $4 billion – to get back to the kind of more personal filmmaking he has often claimed is his true interest.  He said that was his interest in interviews supporting the release of Red Tails, and made similar noises after the Disney sale, yet all of his announced projects listed on IMDB are connected to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brands.

Spielberg, on the other hand, for all his technical flash and embrace of effects technology, has always been a more humanistic filmmaker.

Spielberg had been attending California State College at Long Beach in the late 1960s when Sidney Sheinberg, then head of Universal’s television division, saw a short Spielberg had made and offered the 21-year-old student a directing contract.  The following year, Spielberg made his directing debut with the middle segment of a Twilight Zone-ish TV movie triptych penned by Rod Serling: Night Gallery (1969).

In this, his maiden professional effort, Spielberg’s immediately recognizable visual fluency is every bit equaled by his ability to give emotional heat to the performance pas de deux between two veterans of mogul-era Hollywood which comprises the bulk of the piece:  Joan Crawford’s bitterly vindictive and selfish blind magnate willing to stop at nothing for the chance of a few hours sight, and noble but defeated Barry Sullivan, the doctor she blackmails into performing an illicit eye operation.

As Spielberg’s career advanced and his directorial projects became more elaborate and their settings more fantastic, Spielberg never let his technological mastery eclipse the human elements in his movies.  On Jaws, he had the original screenplay by the novel’s author Peter Benchley run through one set of rewriter’s hands after another for the major purpose of enriching the characters. He tangled with screenwriter Paul Schrader over the first draft of the script which would evolve into Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the same reason, looking to see his sci-fi fantasy populated with recognizably everyday characters.

Spielberg also knew how to get those carefully etched characters off the page and onto the screen:  eleven performers have received Oscar nominations for their work in Spielberg’s movies as of this writing (vs. Lucas’ one).

And, where all but one title in Lucas’ slim filmography is set in a Never-Never Land of futuristic fantasy, much of Spielberg’s work – including his fantasies – is grounded in an amiable, recognizable, middle-class suburbia much like the neighborhoods in which the filmmaker spent his childhood.  Some of his most effective early works – Close Encounters, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Poltergeist (which he produced but did not direct) – gain their power from cross-pollinating childhood fantasies of ghosts under the bed and alien visitors with equally vivid recreations of a comfortably familiar and banal suburban milieu.

Like Lucas, much of Spielberg’s work references the TV shows and movies he saw as a youngster, but where Lucas had spent several years in the intellectual hothouse of USC’s film program, Spielberg had, in essence, gone straight from watching TV to making TV.  Though he had ambitions of wanting to do “serious” film work, he was not the aspiring anti-establishment maverick – as Lucas initially was – trying to find a way to work outside the system, but rather proved to be very much at home within the Hollywood system.  That system provided Spielberg the opportunity – at the Universal shop – to learn and perfect his craft through years of directing episodes for major networks series like Marcus Welby, M.D., and Columbo, as well as the experience of working with the studio’s veteran craftsman.  He graduated to made-for-TV movies and gained his first major acclaim for Duel (1971), an artfully creepy bit of suspense about a traveling businessman (Dennis Weaver) who finds himself in a fight for his life with the never-seen driver of a tanker truck. Spielberg made several more TV features, but it was Duel, in which he displayed his knack for action without letting the picture devolve into empty chase mechanics, which led to his first theatrical feature:  The Sugarland Express (1973).

Sugarland represented a significant increase in complexity for Spielberg over his TV work both logistically and creatively.  Most of Duel had consisted of one truck, one car, a lonely stretch of road in the California desert, and one principal actor.  On his series work, major characters had long been established by the respective series’ stars, and the shows were shot on the studio backlot.  Sugarland, however, had action sequences involving dozens of police cars and helicopters, locations spread all across Texas, four principals and a host of supporting parts, and a challenging storyline gradually changing from the gently comic to the heartbreakingly tragic, and in which the most sympathetic characters – a young, married pair of minor felons on a cross-Texas quest to regain their son from foster care – are also the story’s “villains.”  Though the movie failed commercially (possibly suffering from being one of a glut of couples-on-the-run stories all opening over the same period i.e. The Getaway [1972], Badlands [1973], Thieves Like Us [1974]), reviewers enthusiastically agreed Spielberg had made an auspicious theatrical debut.

The Sugarland Express had been produced by one-time 20th Century Fox chief Richard Zanuck and his partner, David Brown.  When the duo acquired the rights to the novel Jaws, Spielberg asked on as director. The unprecedented success of Jaws ($260m US v $8m budget) would do for Spielberg what Star Wars would do for Lucas two years later; buy him creative independence in Hollywood.

Soon after Jaws, Spielberg set up Amblin Entertainment, his own production company, so he could more easily initiate and maintain creative control over projects.  Amblin was a much different entity than Lucasfilm and the Skywalker Ranch. Spielberg did not remove himself from Hollywood; his company was based in Los Angeles, and Spielberg kept strong ties with the company which had nurtured him through the early part of his career – Universal – and later with Warner Bros. where he forged a strong, personal relationship with Steve Ross, the then chief of Warners’ parent company, Warner Communications (later Time Warner).

Almost immediately, Spielberg became as prolific a producer as a director, spinning off projects of interest in which he had neither the time nor inclination to direct himself, and providing major breaks for new or up-and-coming directors like Robert Zemeckis (who cut his directorial teeth on I Wanna Hold Your Hand [1978] and Used Cars [1980] for Amblin), Joe Dante (Gremlins, 1984), and Barry Levinson (Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985).  By the mid-1980s, Spielberg was producing as many movies as he was directing. Within eleven years after making The Sugarland Express, Spielberg had directed nine theatrical features (more than George Lucas has directed to date) and had produced another nine just since 1978.

The 1980s saw Spielberg creatively stumble.  His work seemed to waffle between a desire to move up to more adult themes (with the exception of The Sugarland Success, all of his movies prior to 1985 had been some sort of adventure or fantasy), and a fear of alienating the mass audience with stories darker and more troubling than the fare with which he’d come to be associated.

It was, in fact, a chronic fear.  On Sugarland, producer and director had reversed stereotypical roles in a debate over the tone of the movie with Spielberg pushing to compromise the picture with a more upbeat finish while Richard Zanuck argued to protect the integrity of the original tragic finale.  On Jaws, while Spielberg admirably wanted the principal characters to have more dimension, he also wanted them to be universally likeable, so both the obsessive shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and snobby oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) were softened from their book versions.  And, while Spielberg may have enjoyed spinning out his fantasies in familiar milieus, he seemed uncomfortable with the more drab aspects of everyday existence.

With films like Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, directed for producer friend Lucas), and E.T., that tendency was of little issue, but as Spielberg tried to change direction it hobbled his work.  He sanded off the more harsh and problematic edges of Toni Morrison’s novel The Color Purple for a milquetoasty 1985 adaptation; his 1987 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, inspired by Ballard’s childhood experiences under Japanese occupation during WW II, was generally considered inferior to John Boorman’s thematically similar Hope and Glory released that same year; Always (1989) was a woefully miscalculated remake of the bittersweet WW II fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943), with Spielberg mistakenly assuming the milieu of airborne firefighters had the same gravitas as Joe’s self-sacrificing bomber pilots in combat against the Axis; and then there was Hook (1991), a misguided attempt to “adultify” Peter Pan with themes of menopausal re-evaluation as a long-absent and now grown Peter (Robin Williams) returns to Never-Never Land.

Even though he seemed to have lost his creative way, Spielberg was still capable of turning in a moneymaker.  Despite predominantly negative reviews, Hook took in almost $120 million domestic, and was followed in 1993 by the empty-headed but technically amazing Jurassic Park which, with its U.S. take of over $357 million, was, for several years, the all-time box office champ.

Whatever inner governor had been holding Spielberg back creatively he finally managed to cast off – and do so with a vengeance – with 1993’s Schindler’s List, adapted by Steven Zaillian from Thomas Keneally’s bestselling novel which, in turn, was inspired by the true story of playboy German industrialist Otto Schindler (Liam Neeson) who, during WW II, rose to the occasion and saved hundreds of Jews from extermination.  Schindler is boldly shot in a dolorous black-and-white, and deals face-on with one of the grimmest chapters in human history. It was, in light of its somber story, surprisingly successful commercially ($96 million US/$312 worldwide against a $25 million budget), and gained Spielberg a level of artistic legitimacy he’d been unable to achieve with his earlier work.

Schindler’s List also seemed to liberate something in Spielberg, and after the sequel The Lost World:  Jurassic Park II (1997), he turned out a string of pictures all marked, to some extent, with a new, more mature sensibility.  There was Amistad (1997), another true history piece, a noble – if unfocused – attempt to grapple with America’s history of slavery; and then the brutally demythologizing WW II adventure, Saving Private Ryan, the following year.  Even when he returned to the realm of science fiction and fantasy with Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002), the moral simplicity of Close Encounters and E.T. was clearly gone.

A.I. was originally to have been a Stanley Kubrick project.  Kubrick had spoken with Spielberg about the possibility of working jointly, with Kubrick as producer and Spielberg in the director’s chair, but, ultimately, Kubrick felt the material leant itself better to the other director’s sensibilities and turned the property wholly over to Spielberg.

A.I. is a sci-fi fairy tale, a futuristic Pinocchio (which the screenplay, by Spielberg from a screen story by Ian Watson adapting Brian Aldiss’ short story, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” references repeatedly), being the story of a robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), who longs to be a real boy so as to regain the love of the human mother (Frances O’Connor) who rejects him for her biological son.  Overlong, episodic, sometimes sluggish and heavy-handed, it’s an interesting debate as to whether or not Kubrick would have handled the rambling structure of the piece better than Spielberg. By the same token, it’s worth arguing whether or not the more emotionally aloof Kubrick could have delivered the poignancy Spielberg brings to some of the movie’s more emotionally-laden scenes for, despite its flaws, the movie has moments of undeniable dramatic power.

A.I. is not a child’s fairy tale, but a fairy tale for adults about a child’s bruised soul.  David’s jealousy over his biological brother, his feelings of abandonment and loss, his horror at learning from his creator (William Hurt) that his “uniqueness” will be reproduced for mass consumption, and the longing carrying him through his long, often terrifying quest are frighteningly real, disturbing, and sometimes heartbreaking.  So, too, is the poignancy of the movie’s final scene, marked by a lyrical bittersweetness unthinkable in a Spielberg picture of 20 years earlier.

David has been recovered by alien explorers from a future ice age long after the human race has died out.  Having searched his memory, they are aware of his trials and offer him the possibility of a brief bit of happiness.  They can recreate his mother from a keepsake lock of her hair. However, they warn, the recreation will last for only one day, after which she will sleep and never wake.  David takes the offer and the day spent alone with his mother in a replica of their home is an idyllic day of mother-and-child delights. As the day ends and she turns to bed, David turns his back on his cybernetic immortality, curling up in an unending sleep with the mother who finally loves him.

Minority Report is more of a straight-up sci-fi action thriller, and, as such, perhaps it even more clearly displays the new colors Spielberg had added to his palette, emotional colors which stand out starkly against the comparatively simple ambitions of Report’s futuristic fugitive story.  Minority Report (adapted from a Philip K. Dick story by Scott Frank and John Cohen) is a less artistically grandiose but more tightly-constructed thematic kin to Blade Runner (1982) in that it tries to retool noir for a sci-fi context, taking a familiar story – a cop (Tom Cruise) is framed for a murder he didn’t commit – and giving it a World of Tomorrow twist (cops use psychics to apprehend criminals for crimes they have yet to commit).  Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski find a modern-day visual counterpart to the light/shadow starkness of the classic noirs with a color-drained look of charcoalish harshness. And, like the classic noirs, this visually abrasive scheme mirrors the rough-edged content; a hardboiled cop now desperately on the run, hiding out among the future’s demimonde, forever haunted – and somewhat twisted – by his guilt over the long-ago loss of his son snatched away at a public pool outing during an ever-so-brief moment of distraction.

In the early 21st Century, of the two men, Spielberg emerges as the more vital, more exploratory moviemaker.  In fits and starts, he has broadened his emotional range both as a director and producer. While Spielberg’s various production brands have turned out an astounding amount of disposable, forgettable kiddie fodder, their output has also expanded to include such un-Spielbergian works as American Beauty, Collateral (2004), the matched pair of WW II stories Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both in 2006), and the HBO WW II mini-series’ Band of Brothers (2001) and its Pacific war counterpart, The Pacific (2010).  He has not only maintained the creative collaborations he established in the earliest days of Amblin (Robert Zemeckis directed Cast Away [2000] for Dreamworks), but continues to offer opportunities for new directorial talent, giving TV director Mimi Lederer her theatrical feature break on The Peacemaker (1997) and Deep Impact (1998), and doing the same for stage director Sam Mendes with American Beauty and Road to Perdition and then continuing the relationship with 1917.

At the top of his creative game, Spielberg continues his incredible output.  Consider his directorial efforts just from the past decade: the animated The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and The BFG (2016), WW I adventure War Horse (2011), his moving period piece Lincoln (2012), the true story Cold War drama Bridge of Spies (2015), another true drama set in the world of Vietnam era journalism with The Post (2017), the head-spinning effects fest of Ready Player One (2018), and currently in post-production, his revisiting of the classic musical, West Side Story.

Still, however, accomplished Spielberg stands as a filmmaker, and however impressive his artistic growth may be, it is George Lucas’ stamp which is most indelible on the industry today.  Jaws may have given Hollywood its taste for the summer blockbuster, but Star Wars demonstrated the full potential of the present-day film franchise. And, it is also the Lucas’ aesthetic which holds sway.  It is the model for the Marvel film universe, Warners’ attempt to do the same with its DC Comics characters and the “monster-verse” with King Kong, Godzilla, et. al.

As far back as his earliest days as a feature director, Lucas had come to believe the most important parts of a movie were its opening five minutes and its climactic twenty, with everything in between no more than filler.  He felt simplistic characters and stories could be eclipsed by sufficient doses of fast-paced action. There is hardly a big-budget thriller today which does not seem poured out of that mold. To that point, running down 2019’s box office scores on Box Office Mojo, no less than 15 of the top 20 domestic earners of the year were either sequels or new entries in some kind of expanding franchise ‘verse

And so Spielberg, the one-time wunderkind, has become one of Hollywood’s Old Guard, one of the last few at the major studio level who believes in the antiquated idea that movies – even the most fantastic of adventures – should be about people.

– Bill Mesce

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.



  1. Stephen Bowlby

    March 30, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Musician friend of mine has an interesting thesis. That JAWS might not have been the super summer blockbuster it was had not John Williams’ score brought it to an entirely new level of iconic identity. Likewise STAR WARS and RAIDERS franchises. Scored in any one of a number of lesser manners, none of these films would have the impact they have because of their unique, powerful, and memorable musical identities.

  2. Bill Mesce

    March 30, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    True, but then BIG scores have always been part of BIG movies. Think of the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA HOW THE WEST WAS ONE, BEN-HUR, all thise big-scale flicks, and they had equally grand scale scores (JAWS is kind of an outlier in that it’s more about intensity than epic sweep, but your point holds more true there). Williams has demonstrated a clear flair for the style, but it’s a shame that so many forget he is capable of other colors. My favorite Williams score was his first for Spielberg: THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Lovely work. But, agan, nice observation.

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