5. Blockbuster and Spectacle
Bringing up Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker without bringing in the term “blockbuster” is almost impossible. The man literally invented the type of movies that have become so commonplace in the summer these days. Now more colloquially known as “tentpoles” because of their propensity for sequels, the summer blockbuster was brought about with Spielberg’s film Jaws. It was one of the first movies to market itself with T-Shirts, Mugs, everything before the film came out. Not only that, but in a time when films would slowly release into theaters over time or across the country, Jaws had one of the widest releases. It saturated itself nationally and brought that attention all the way to the bank where it immediately turned out blood-stained cash.
But Spielberg didn’t have just one hit with Jaws – he followed that film up with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., the Indiana Jones series, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and many more. Especially when Spielberg was making movies for production company Amblin, he was churning out films that relied on spectacle and pizazz as much as they did basic storytelling. The films the man released all have gone on to be classics and still enjoy the amount of huge Hollywood gusto that was there when they first were released. Jurassic Park is still a collective pop-culture icon and a staple at the Universal Studios amusement parks. A Spielberg film, even now, is not just another film, it’s an event.
Spielberg may have invented the event films that audiences come to expect in the summer season, but these days it’s JJ Abrams who is redefining what that means. His use of viral marketing, in particular, is an example of how Abrams is expanding on Spielberg’s legacy. The producer/director was able to send the blogosphere for a loop when the teaser trailer for Cloverfield was released without a title but the banner of his production company, Bad Robot. Now with Super 8 that viral secrecy is back. Spielberg’s film Jaws brought about the national saturation through marketing, but Abrams has stepped up the game to saturate his projects from the grass roots into the mainstream media, as opposed to the other way around.
However, clever viral marketing doesn’t automatically make Abrams a ringmaster in the Hollywood circus. He’s done that all on his own through the films he’s chosen to make. Abrams first feature film as a director was the third installment of the hugely successful Mission Impossible series. Now, this wasn’t his first directing project – just his first film directing job – but nonetheless Abrams was granted the largest budget at the time for a first time director of a feature film. Abrams’ second film was Star Trek and his third is slated to be Super 8. Tackling major franchises and secret high budget films has vaulted Abrams to the top of the shortlist of directors that work solely in the blockbuster business.
Both Abrams and Spielberg enjoy slots on that list and it’s fairly exclusive because of the tremendous amount of pressure and talent it takes to make movies on that scale. Spielberg films nowadays are less iconic than they once were, but he still does not put out a movie without a cavalcade of press. Abrams’ projects are no different. Each time his name is attached to a project it is vaulted higher on the totem pole of Hollywood hotness. It’s status goes up and so does it’s profile. Spielberg makes films that are unequivocally driven to open wide and make lots of money and Abrams, too, has proven that he is capable of striking the iron hot with no intention of slowing down.
4. Critical and Commercial Success
Oftentimes the flip-side to the blockbuster/spectacle coin is critical disappointment. Michael Bay, the industry’s spokesperson for all things explosive, is a prime example of this phenomena. His movies make a killing at the box office but often flop with the critics. Steven Spielberg, for the most part, avoids this conundrum and is able to deliver films that are both commercially successful as well as critically revered. Many of the same films that I listed above under the blockbuster banner were and are still critically acclaimed. Saving Private Ryan won five Oscars, E.T. won four, and both Jaws and Jurassic Park won three Academy Awards.
Those are just a few examples as many of Spielberg’s other films have also taken home the Hollywood gold. Awards, however, aren’t the only standard by which movies are measured critically; they’re simply the most quantifiable. But Spielberg films enjoy success even now as examples of filmmaking at it’s best. The movies Spielberg has made are not only successful in film circles when released, but grow finer with age like wine. To be able to balance a public that seems to always thrive on what critics repel is tough but Spielberg has achieved it on multiple occasions. The idea is simple – good movies are accepted universally.
JJ Abrams has also tried to embrace this idea. That a good movie will stand on it’s own against audiences, against critics, and against anybody who watches it. He revived a fledgling Mission Impossible series as well as made Star Trek cool again (to the annoyance of Star Trek fans according to The Onion). MI: III took home a few awards and many nominations and Star Trek was nominated for multiple Oscars and took home one gold statue. In the television realm, LOST was one of the major events in the past decade among fans and serious viewers.
Admittedly, not all of Abrams’ work has been universally accepted. Cloverfield divided fans and critics, some found the premise silly, annoying or plain wanted to throw-up after watching it while others (like myself) enjoyed the uniqueness the film had to offer. Alias was another show that seemed to do only OK. Abrams’ appeal isn’t quite as universal as Spielberg’s and the success isn’t nearly as instantaneous, but with his feature films that he DIRECTS, Abrams’ seems to follow in the footsteps of the great Hollywood honcho.
3. Head of a major production company
Of course the other difference between Spielberg and Abrams and other Hollywood directors is that the two are major players with their production companies. Back in the 1980’s, Steven Spielberg set up his Amblin Entertainment production company which he used to produce some of the most iconic films of the decade. Along with E.T., Amblin – and by extension, Spielberg – was involved with Gremlins, The Goonies, The Back to the Future series, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? among others.
Apparently, however, being a head of one production company wasn’t enough for Spielberg who, in 1994, helped finance and found Dreamworks, SKG with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The idea was to attempt to form another Hollywood studio. This differed from Amblin’s mission which is merely to produce films and not finance them which usually falls on a studio’s shoulders. Dreamworks went on to become a healthy entity until it was sold to Paramount in 2005 and then released from that sale in 2008. Even before the sale, however, Dreamworks and Paramount enjoyed a healthy working relationship as production companies, co-financers, with Paramount usually reaping the distribution benefits.
Paramount also has a healthy working relationship with, you guessed it, JJ Abrams. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was also founded by the director and has been involved in major projects such as LOST, Alias, Cloverfield, and other Abrams’ movies. Most movies that Abrams has produced, directed or is attached to currently are co-productions with Paramount.
Besides Paramount’s involvement with both major players (and their helping team the two for Super 8), JJ Abrams has done a good job of making Bad Robot a recognizable name in both television and film worlds. He’s as hands on as they come and has provided cultural touchstones in both arenas in the 2000’s. Like Spielberg, Abrams is the head of a production company that is groundbreaking and respected in the industry. Both directors showcase an ability to master not only the art of filmmaking but the business side of it as well. Spielberg with Amblin and Dreamworks has gifted the cinema’s with classic films and Abrams with Bad Robot has been releasing shows and films that are pushing the boundaries of the mainstream while still maintaining a broad audience.
2. Primal Ideas as Stories
Part of the reason for the broad audience that Spielberg has enjoyed has been the themes and ideas he has explored in his films. Most of them are simple: sharks, aliens, dinosaurs. He explores fear and mystery. Now granted Spielberg has delved into more complex issues surrounding the Holocaust and World War II but each of those films can also be boiled down to simple concepts. Saving Private Ryan is about love and rescue. Schindler’s List about morality. A.I., a film many people see as misguided (though I don’t agree), is a bit of a jumble because it’s Spielberg getting at too many ideas for one film. Too much philosophy.
Spielberg is at his best when he has a simple driving device to the story, especially when those devices are ferocious beasts or aliens. This simplification of his themes, with layered complexities, is what enables Spielberg films to be so wildly successfully. The broader the base of the film, the broader the audience. A simple idea umbrellas underneath it the more complex ideas that infiltrate everyday life.
JJ Abrams, too, understands this and has been able to capitalize on it. Most notably with his television series LOST, a show that centered around a mysterious island. Though the show became increasingly complex and philosophical, in the pilot episode that Abrams directed, the idea was these people needed rescuing from the mystery of the island. Cloverfield too exemplifies this idea with a monster terrorizing a city. A simple boiled down idea.
These ideas between Abrams and Spielberg are more than simplified themes, however, as they are also very primal. Fear is a subject that many of the filmmakers’ movies have explored. Fear, love, these are basic emotions that have roots in the primal upbringings of mankind. Their movies play on these primal notions and because of that they are able to draw audiences in.
This is one of the most important links between Abrams and Spielberg. There are plenty of filmmakers who could be the “next Spielberg” but their movies don’t reflect that notion. Abrams’ do. He wants to provide audiences with films that are big in scope but basic in theme. Complexities are subtle that are layered on top. Christopher Nolan may be similar to Spielberg, but Inception is far too complex to be what many would expect of a Spielberg.
1. The Brand
Out of all the valuable assets attributable to him, the most valuable to Steven Spielberg is probably his name. In fact, at one point I remember hearing that Dreamworks has insurance against Spielberg’s death close to $1 billion because that’s what they expect to lose should he die. Part of that is because he has connections and is a capable producer but the other part of that is they lose his branding. Spielberg’s name attached to a project is worth millions of unmentioned marketing dollars not to mention box office return.
There are only a few filmmakers whose brand is valuable and Steven Spielberg’s is at the top of that list. I often laugh when first time directors try to attach their name to a film as if it’s a brand – it doesn’t have the same effect. Spielberg’s name, however, is synonymous with dependably good movies. That doesn’t always mean great movies, but more often than not it means a solid film. Spielberg’s film career has almost been split into two, he started as a big time director and now, though he still directs, has devoted much of his time to producing.
JJ Abrams, on the other hand, has had the opposite career path. He is first and foremost a producer and is only now coming into his own as a director. Yet Abrams’ brand is powerful in the industry as well. His name draws a certain kind of prestige to the project, one that you know will deliver on it’s usually mysterious premise with some interesting entertainment. Abrams has built himself up into the industry and then decided to take on the top job of director. It’s his name and reputation that have allowed him to bag such high profile projects.
Star power is usually devoted to actors and actresses and is rarely attached to the men and women behind the camera. Now with Super 8, the cast isn’t the focus as much as the two powerhouses of movies that have come together under their mutual Paramount roof to work together. Abrams has even credited Spielberg with inspiring the film by saying he wants it to have the feel of the old Amblin Entertainment pictures.
While Abrams’ brand is not nearly as powerful as Spielberg’s, it is much younger and has massive amounts of room to grow. It already is one of the highest reputations in the industry and people are lining up to get to work with the super producer. This may be one of the most important aspects that makes JJ Abrams like Steven Spielberg – his work draws audiences to theaters and colleagues to his office.
Watch the Throne
JJ Abrams is in a unique position as a filmmaker right now to become truly the next Steven Spielberg of this generation. There are other major directors who have climbed to the top echelon, but it takes a certain style and gravitas to be comparable to Spielberg. Abrams embodies these qualities in the films he makes by directing pictures that are both commercially and critically successful in part due to their primal themes that appeal to the broader mainstream audience. Abrams has also capitalized on the branding of his own name while vaulting his production company, Bad Robot, to the top through a healthy relationship with Paramount.
Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams are equal parts savvy moneymakers and sensitive artists. While at different parts in their career, the two have met to put out what is sure to be a major event movie in Super 8. If it’s anything like their previous efforts, the combined work of the director/producers should result in a powerful movie and a cash cow for the industry. In the end, it’s the mastery of both the craft and business of filmmaking that make Spielberg and Abrams who they are.