The origin of the term Blockbuster
According to Wikipedia and various other sources the term blockbuster derives from an arial bomb of enormous size and explosive force that in World War II could empty German cities of whole blocks of streets. In film business the same term means a successful movie that is able to empty streets of its inhabitants as well, not destroying but luring them into cinemas. A social explanation of blockbust as gentrification is given by The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) and the Langenscheidt’s Dictionary of American Slang (appendix 1975) which says: „To persuade white property owners to sell their homes quickly and often below true value for fear that Negroes will move into the area.“ A blockbuster is therefor „a real estate agent or agency who practices blockbusting.“
Many years ago, I read another more reasonable and less cynical explanation of the original use of the word blockbuster. I was not able to find the source again though, which made it impossible to overcome the bouncers at Wikipedia. Already in the early days of film production companies such as Paramount demanded that cinema owners booked their movies en bloc, since the secured selling of successful together with not so successful movies guaranteed the budget of their next production. According to Lewis Jacobs (The Rise of the American Film, 1968, p. 165) the cinema owners fought these block bookings already as early as 1917. Nevertheless, their dependency on the big distributers remained constant over decades. The 1930s and 1940s saw the heyday of block booking. Booking en bloc, my forgotten source said, set a strict time corset that sometimes was broken open when a movie was unexpectedly so successful that it busted the block system by running much longer than foreseen. In the branch papers these movies, often made on a low budget and without big stars, were termed blockbuster. As this system existed since the very beginning of movie business, also the term blockbuster might go back to that early days, being popular in the film industry but not outside its market.
It was the mighty bomb that made the term blockbuster famous. In 1943, when the bomb fell for the first time on Berlin it had also a funny appearance in the Bugs Bunny Cartoon Falling Hare and was called a block-buster. A quotation often cited, speaking of „a block-buster of an idea for a musical play“, seams to proof that the term was already used in 1942. The quotation leaves out that it stems from 1957 when there already existed blockbuster movies and that in full length it reads: „One day I had what seemed to me like a block-buster idea of a musical play.“ (The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). When in the next decade the blockbuster belatedly returned from war to the movies with all its popularity as a street-cleaner, it was after about 15 years not really welcomed by all sides.
First of all it meant greatness that would conquer the small sized but dangerous television. High-budget productions aimed at mass markets. By offering big screens (Cinerama, Vistavision, 70 mm), big stars and big stories in over-length they merchandised these new values with great success.
When the press took up the term blockbuster in the late 50s and early 60s, it was used in a critical sense, notwithstanding its popularity, because the movies were defined by their production budget and marketing effort rather than their artistic values (Penelope Houston and John Gillett: „The Theory and Practice of Blockbusting“. Sight and Sound, Spring1963). The blockbusters between 1959 and 1966 were high budgeted productions such as Ben Hur, Spartacus, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Biggest Story Ever Told and The Bible. The peak of the development was reached already in 1963 with Cleopatra. The commercial risks became obvious and the splendid money machines would turn into „box-office bombs“, as they were called then, and soon enough disappeared.
Not for ever. In the early 1970s movies such as The Towering Inferno had big budgets and a lot of stars but were not labeled as blockbuster since the term had still a bad flavor. On the other hand small productions such as Taxi Driver or Jaws that were unexpectedly a big commercial success were not named blockbuster as in the old days. The term returned only when the new generation of filmmakers in the 1970s began to produce films such as The Godfather, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now with big budgets. Only then the term blockbuster reached that glorious meaning of success on all levels which it kept since.