Million Dollar Dinosaur: Jurassic Park, The High-Concept Film, and its Financial Impact on the Hollywood Film Industry
Paper by Jessie Reid.
Dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years, but their reintroduction in our universe, (cinematic), has not resulted in an expected fear and chaos, but rather awe and excitement. The return of these toothy predators to the society of man has indeed returned them to the alpha status they once enjoyed, but instead of dominating the lands they once roamed they have returned to financially dominate the ideological institution known as the Hollywood film industry. The High-Concept film, with its reemergence in the mid-twentieth century, has revitalized the Classical Hollywood format, resulting in a prosperity that perpetuates the white capitalist patriarchal system as the preeminent ideology that defines the major motion picture films that captivate movie audiences worldwide.
The High-Concept film method in all of its minute details, has brought a new prosperity to the business of cinema. As Justin Wyatt asserts in his informative book, High-Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Wyatt, 1994). “Positioning high-concept as a kind of style of filmmaking in the contemporary film industry has implications for understanding not only the determinants of commercial filmmaking, but also film historiography. Indeed in terms of film history, the period of “classical Hollywood” is marked by the mature studio system and a style of filmmaking centered on continuity; however the traits of the “post-classical” period (after the postwar disintegration of the studio system and the concurrent rise of television) have been suggested, but not formalized. He also asserts that, “a post-classical” period is aligned with the “New Hollywood” of the 60’s and 70’s, a period characterized by auteurs and the media conglomeration of the film industry” (7-8). The societal and cultural shifts that precipitated the momentary economic downturn of the movie industry of the sixties and early 70’s were major factors in the need for Hollywood to reinvent itself. By examining the emergence of the High-Concept film, or “Blockbuster”, in the mid to late 70’s, all the precepts for the return to the Classical Hollywood style, that are seen in films such as Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), as well as a financial prominence that lasts to this day, can be observed.
The High-Concept film, though a defining aspect of today’s cinematic experience, has its roots in a much earlier time in the history of film. Although Justin Wyatt asserts that, “high-concept as a term was first associated with Barry Diller, during his tenure in the early 1970s as a programming executive at ABC”, because as Mr. Wyatt emphasizes, “Diller needed stories which could be easily summarized for a thirty second spot, he approved those projects which could be sold in a single sentence” (8). This aspect of the high-concept film, its ability to be succinctly summarized in 25 words or less, can also be seen in the “old” Hollywood studio system in films such as Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) and Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959). These two films, (a tale of a woman and her family during the Civil War, and the story of a wealthy merchant during the time of Christ, respectively), although they delve into more complex character motivations and emotions during the film, nonetheless both had large budgets and even larger grosses, as well as extensive marketing campaigns, both of which are primary precepts for this type of concept film.
The studio system of the classical Hollywood period, the Production Code, Package Unit System, culture shifts, and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system set the stage for the evolution of the High-Concept film. As stated by Thomas Schatz in The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, he asserts that, “During the heyday of the classical Hollywood system, or “Golden Era” (pre-World War II), the movie industry was dominated by eight companies that constituted the major studios that promulgated the Hollywood studio system. Of these eight, five were fully integrated conglomerates, combining ownership of a production studio, distribution division, and substantial theater chain, and contracting with performers and filmmaking personnel: Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century-Fox), Loew’s Incorporated (owner of America’s largest theater circuit and parent company to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, and Warner Bros. Two majors—Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures—were similarly organized, though they never owned more than small theater circuits. The eighth of the Golden Age majors, United Artists, owned a few theaters and had access to two production facilities owned by members of its controlling partnership group, but it functioned primarily as a backer-distributor, loaning money to independent producers and releasing their films. This process of controlling the production, distribution, and exhibition of their product was known as “vertical integration” and allowed the “Big Five” to effectively form an oligopoly which remained in effect until the Paramount Decrees of 1948 effectively dismantled this system, setting the stage for the renaissance of the “new” Hollywood era and the high-concept film (online). Though the dismantling of the studios monopoly was a primary factor in the dominance of the high-concept film method, there were other factors that helped facilitate the rise of this style of film.
The Production Code, (a system of regulations that were a guideline for moral decency in films), was another aspect of the pre-World War II film industry that would help to bring about the High-Concept method. To paraphrase the statements made in America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009), the studio system during the Great Depression ran high with the risk of financial ruin (1929 until start of World War II). During this time most of the dominant studios were in debt and desperately searching for ways to return the audience to the cinematic experience. (36). Benshoff and Griffin also state that, “One of the methods that Hollywood used to woo potential customers back into theaters was to emphasize lurid stories that promised increased violence and sexual titillation” (36). This moral “looseness” in films eventually led to the formation of the Hollywood Production code, which though known by the major studios of the time, did not become implemented until 1934 with the introduction of the Seal of Approval. This seal, which were given to films following the moral code, became the standard, dictating which scripts received the “green-light”. This standard for film censorship was also used by a majority of theater owners, who agreed to only show films bearing this seal. This guideline for the content of films, which would eventually be abolished in the 1960’s, helped to streamline film scripts resulting in the high-concept films we see today.
The shifts in culture and the Package Unit System also helped to propel the high-concept film to the forefront of the movie industry. As stated in Contemporary American Cinema (Williams and Hammond, 2006), “By the late 1950’s however, broad shifts in public attitudes towards sex had become evident. As a result of this shift in attitudes, films dealing more or less directly with themes of sexual behavior and sexuality were gaining the seal of approval. Williams and Hammond also assert that, “By the mid-1960’s many films, particularly European cinema, were being released without the seal of approval, and ultimately the Production Code was rendered obsolete” (6). This informative text also contends concerning the Package Unit System, (financing single film projects), and Runaway Production, (films slated for commercial distribution in America, but made in other countries), that “the move to film-by-film financing was one of the most important shifts in production practices, and the one that is indicative of the collapse of the studio system in the 1950’s. Williams and Hammond in Contemporary American Cinema also contend that, “this type of production also worked hand-in-hand with the phenomenon of “runaway productions, which had become a prominent means of production in the 1950’s while creating considerable conflict with the unions in Southern California (loss of union jobs). This also had an impact on the developing notion in film of the “auteur” or “authored film”. Many of the “auteurs” had developed roles as producers and had benefited from the package unit system in terms of artistic control (6-7). The “auteur” movement, through this series of events, (package unit system and runaway productions), would go on to become a major defining principle of the high-concept film.
The formation of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system which is observed in its association handbook as being, “used in the United States and its territories to rate a film’s suitability for certain audiences, based on its content. The MPAA rating system is a voluntary scheme that is not enforced by law; films can be exhibited without a rating, though many theaters refuse to exhibit non-rated or NC-17 rated films. Non-members of MPAA may also submit films for rating. Other media (such as television programs and video games, which are a large part of the High-Concept Method), may be rated by other entities. The MPAA rating system is one of various motion picture rating systems that are used to help parents decide what films are appropriate for their children. This rating system came into being because of the belief that the Production Code was, “out of date and bearing “the odious smell of censorship”, (by then president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti). Filmmakers were pushing at the boundaries of the Code, and cited examples such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which contained the expressions “screw” and “hump the hostess”; and Blowup, which was denied Code approval due to nudity, resulting in the MPAA member studio releasing it through a subsidiary. He revised the Code to include the “SMA” (Suggested for Mature Audiences) advisory as a stopgap measure. To accommodate “the irresistible force of creators determined to make ‘their films'”, and to avoid “the possible intrusion of government into the movie arena”, he developed a set of advisory ratings which could be applied after a film was completed. On November 1, 1968, the voluntary MPAA film rating system took effect” (Rating online). Cultural shifts in society such as television and the move of the populace to suburban centers, (malls), as well as the rise of the counterculture, and feminist/ Civil Rights Movements, were also major changes in the cinematic experience that made the time ripe for the reemergence of the High-Concept film.
The High-Concept film, or “blockbuster” is an evolution of styles that makes a definitive definition somewhat hard to ascertain. The “blockbuster” as asserted in the online text by Steve Neale in Hollywood Dimensions is defined as, “applied to film, theatre, and sometimes also video games, denotes a very popular or successful, usually big budget production. It also contends that, “before Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), set box office records in the summer of 1975, successful films, such as Quo Vadis (Mervyn Leroy, 1951), The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956), Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and Ben-Hur ((William Wyler, 1959), were called blockbusters based purely on the amount of money earned at the box office. Jaws is regarded as the first film of New Hollywood’s “blockbuster era” with its current meaning, implying a film genre. It also consolidated the “summer blockbuster” trend, through which major film studios and distributors planned their entire annual marketing strategy around a big release by July (online). This definition, which also encompasses “high-concept”, does leave out factors that help to further define this concept in film. As contended in High-Concept, Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, the high-concept films are, “differentiated within the marketplace through an emphasis on style and through an integration with their marketing. These two factors are not mutually exclusive. Mr. Wyatt also reveals that, “the tie between marketing and high-concept is centered on a concept which is marketable (i.e. that contains an exploitable premise or pre-sold properties, such as stars). This tie between marketing and concept is perfectly exemplified by the high-concept action film Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), and Batman (Tim Burton, 1989). These films much like the high-concept method itself, Justin Wyatt contends, are concentrated on the “look”, “the hook” and “the book”. These principles he asserts are, “the look of the images, the marketing hooks, and the reduced narratives” (22). These principles are shown throughout both of these films and help cement them into the high-concept category.
Jurassic Park, and the “auteur” who directed it (Steven Spielberg), have helped to redefine the high-concept film, thus reinvigorating the classical Hollywood format. The “auteur” Steven Allan Spielberg as observed in Steven Spielberg: A Autobiography, (born December 18, 1946) is an American director, producer and screenwriter. Spielberg is considered one of the founding pioneers of the New Hollywood era, as well as being viewed as one of the most popular directors and producers in film history. He is one of the co-founders of DreamWorks Studios (1). As the prolific director states in Steven Spielberg: A Biography (Joseph McBride, 1997), “I’ve always been interested in dinosaurs since I was a child, Spielberg said while making Jurassic Park. As most of my films originate, the interest of the subject matter originates from kidhood. And I remember always collecting dinosaur models, and being interested in the fantastic size of these creatures” (61). The auteur, (filmmakers like Spielberg, Burton, and other “film school brats” who are a direct lineage of director Roger Corman), bring a distinctive and personal imprint to each of their various films. In the case of Mr. Spielberg, the ability to retain the innocence and wonderment associated with youth, gives this visionary director the requisite tools needed to continue to captivate audiences worldwide.
Jurassic Park allows us to see the marketability and succinct premise that is the core of the High-Concept method. “What if you could return dinosaurs to the world of man? What would happen”? The film, (adapted from a book and subsequent screenplay written by Michael Crichton), which explores the ramifications of the happening, give us a glimpse into this alternate reality and the moral and ethical questions this “supposed” resurrection would entail. As we see in the darkened, but artificially lit, wide to medium framed, long take scene on the Isla Nublar as the velociraptor arrives, the island parks workers, spearheaded by Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), the park’s game warden, try to, in an age old battle, harness the unbridled power of nature. After a park worker is killed while trying to relocate the creature on the island, the parks investors, (another implicit reference to the dominant ideology of the white capitalist patriarchal system), demand that an inspection of the park be made to ascertain if it is safe for visitors. The lawyer, Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) enlists the aid of our ubiquitous white male protagonist, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and the woman who he will inevitably have to rescue, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). This classical Hollywood formatted film of a three-act structure, cause-and-effect goal driven narrative, is filled with a plethora of other protagonist and antagonists to flesh out this tale of man attempting to harness the uncontainable power of nature.
The profitability and ancillary market for this film was phenomenal, changing the way the high-concept film is perceived in Hollywood. As stated by Justin Wyatt in High-Concept, “The ties between high-concept and marketing are both numerous and strong. The style of the high-concept film depends on slick, arresting images which, at times, distance the viewer from the narrative, (an allusion to the “invisible style” which is a primary principle of the classical Hollywood format). These images in turn drive the marketing of the high-concept films through being replicated across a variety of media, (print ads, one-sheets, television commercials, trailers) and merchandised product (book tie-ins, soundtracks) (109). The financial success of the marketing campaign can be seen in the following statement from the online text of Jurassic Park: Box Office Mojo, when it observes that, “following an extensive $65 million marketing campaign, which included licensing deals with 100 companies, Jurassic Park grossed over $900 million worldwide in its original theatrical run, becoming the highest-grossing film ever at the time, a record held until the 1997 release of Titanic. It was well received by critics, who praised its special effects, John Williams’ musical score (music being another driving factor in the success of the high-concept film), and Spielberg’s direction. Following a 3D re-release in 2013 to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Jurassic Park became the 17th film to surpass $1 billion in ticket sales, and the film ranks among the 20 highest-grossing films ever (online).
The film won more than 20 awards (including 3 Academy Awards), mostly for its technical achievements. Jurassic Park is considered a landmark in the development of computer-generated imagery and animatronic visual effects, and was followed by three commercially successful sequels, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Jurassic Park III (2001), and Jurassic World (2015). A fifth installment is scheduled for a 2018 release (Mojo). It also observes concerning the ancillary market, (television, DVD’s) that, Jurassic Park was broadcast on television for the first time on May 7, 1995, following the April 26 airing of The Making of Jurassic Park. Some 68.12 million people tuned in to watch, garnering NBC a 36 percent share of all available viewers that night. Jurassic Park was the highest-rated theatrical film broadcast on television by any network since the April 1987 airing of Trading Places. It also states, the film made its VHS and Laserdisc debut on October 4, 1994. With 17 million units sold in both formats, Jurassic Park is the fifth best-selling VHS tape ever. Jurassic Park was first released on Collector’s Edition DVD on October 10, 2000, in both a widescreen and full screen, and in a box set along with sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park and both movies’ soundtrack albums. It ended as the 13th best-selling DVD of 2000 counting both versions, finishing the year with 910,000 units sold. Following the release of Jurassic Park III, a new box set with all films called Jurassic Park Trilogy was released on December 11, 2001; it was re-released on VHS and DVD as part of its 15th anniversary on October 8, 2004. It was repackaged as Jurassic Park Adventure Pack on November 29, 2005 (Mojo).
The astounding financial profitability of the event film is tailor made for the movie industry. As Justin Wyatt observes in High-Concept, the “first wave” of conglomeration in the film industry led to a contraction of the economic risk involved in mainstream studio filmmaking, evident through the lower number of releases and the development of the roadshow, the youth film, and the blockbuster. This tightening of the industry is also illustrated through a shift in film distribution strategy. The move to saturation releases rather than limited or platform releases for major studio films in the mid 1970’s onward marks a significant break in the established studio distribution pattern. This shift also fostered changes in film marketing methods, redesigning the pattern of film marketing to support saturation releases. He also observes that, “not coincidentally, both alterations in distribution and marketing function most effectively with high-concept films” (109). As we can see from the information contained throughout this essay, from the beginning of the high-concept method in films such as Ben Hur, to its modern reinvention in “event” films like Jaws, Batman, and Jurassic Park, the high-concept film has and will remain a viable and relatively “safe” vehicle for the film industry to reap large financial rewards with little to no risk, thus making this concept of film a dominate factor in the cinematic experience that we see in America and worldwide.
1) Wyatt, Justin. “High-Concept”: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, (1994), 7-8, 109.
2) Benshoff, Harry M, Griffin, Sean. America on Film; representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, (2009) 36.
3) Hammond, Michael. Williams, Ruth Linda. Contemporary American Cinema, (2006), 6-7
4) McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Autobiography (1997) 1/61
5) Schatz, Thomas (1998/1988). The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. (London: Faber and Faber) Online
6) The MPAA Rating Systems. 1994. Online
7) Neale, Steve. “Hollywood Blockbusters: Historical Dimensions.” Hollywood Blockbusters. London: Routledge, 2003. Online
8) Jurassic Park. Box Office Mojo. 2013 Online