Although we traditionally associate blockbusters with huge explosions, over-the-top budgets, gigantic third-act fights between superheroes and endless tie-in promotions, the first blockbusters were anything but.

In fact, looking over some of the highest-grossing movies of the '70s - the decade that effectively birthed the modern blockbuster - only a couple of them could conceivably be compared to what we understand as a modern blockbuster. Jaws, for example, was essentially a high-concept thriller that featured a trio of relatively recognisable actors and a shark that didn't work most of the time. Rocky, equally, was an underdog story from an actor who was practically homeless before the success of the film. In other instances, the adaptation of a popular novel meant for a built-in audience, but wasn't until the late '80s and early '90s that studios began to more assiduously target blockbuster audiences.

In fact, those that could be defined as blockbusters in the '70s seemed to come about more by luck than anything else. After all, who'd have thought a period drama about a clan of Italian-American mobsters could become the monster it became?



As much as we might scoff and roll our eyes at the idea of making a movie based solely around a music genre, disco was EVERYWHERE in the '70s and it seemed only natural that someone tried to cash in on it. Effectively moulded together from the Bee Gees' powerful manager Roger Stigwood and a New York Magazine article that ultimately turned out to be fraudulent, Saturday Night Fever directly encapsulated the pre-AIDS promiscuity of the '70s, the bleak economic and social environment, and the decadent music into a two-hour odyssey. You can't have a tracking shot of someone walking with a paint can without hearing Staying Alive.



While some compare Close Encounters and Alien as being opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of extraterrestrial contact, the initial context of Close Encounters should be more readily understood. We only think of the aliens as being benevolent because we know where the movie ends; with Richard Dreyfuss heading off into space - and leaving his family behind in the process - but when you consider the film without that foreknowledge, it's kind of terrifying. Not only that, initial drafts of the screenplay - including one by Taxi Driver's Paul Schrader - had a completely different spin on the idea of alien encounters. Bold and original, few films have been able to match the kind of awe and wonder.


8. THE STING (1973)

When director George Roy Hill paired Robert Redford and Paul Newman together for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the success was such that another one simply had to take place. The script was plucked out of a slush pile by Rob Cohen, who'd later go on to direct The Fast & The Furious. In his coverage notes to Mike Medavoy, who'd later become the brains behind Orion Pictures, Cohen called it "the great American screenplay" and said that it'd make for a "an award-winning, major-cast, major-director film." All of it came true, as the film sweeped up seven Oscars that year, including Best Director for George Roy Hill and Best Music for Marvin Hamlisch.


7. GREASE (1978)

Grease was the highest-grossing musical of all time and held that record for 34 years until 2012's adaptation of Les Miserables usurped it. Not only that, Grease battled the sequel to Jaws during its run in the box office - but which do you remember from years later? Another product of impresario Robert Stigwood, Travolta had a one-two hit with this and Saturday Night Fever and its engaging performances from Olivia Newton-John and Stockard Channing firmly entrenched it in popular culture for years to come.



You wouldn't necessarily consider The Godfather to be a blockbuster, primarily because it's more closer in tone and execution to a period drama than anything else. Francis Ford Coppola lovingly recreated the mood and feel of the post-war prosperity of America, adopted a grandiose score from Nino Rota, and had Gordon Willis coat the screen in a radiant gold throughout. Still, it has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster - it's part of a trilogy, it was adapted from an existing and popular franchise, and it did phenomenally well at the box office.


5. THE EXORCIST (1973)

The Exorcist has the honour of being the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, but what's made the film endure is not only how disturbing it is and how it's considered to be one of the finest examples of the genre itself, there's also the stories and lore surrounding it. The film was the subject of a controversy surrounding subliminal imagery in the film on its release, cinemas offered "barf bags" to viewers before going in to see it, William Friedkin fired off a handgun to create a believable sense of shock in his actors' performance, Linda Blair had to have bodyguards for six months after the film's release as religious zealots believed she was glorifying Satan, and televangelist Billy Graham claimed a demon lived within the celluloid reels. 


4. SUPERMAN (1978)

It's telling that no other iteration as Superman is so beloved as Christopher Reeve's and Richard Donner's version of the character. Reeve's performance is understated in a film that's anything but, yet it becomes all the more effective in that we see Superman as having a quiet dignity without being forced. Marlon Brando hams it up as Jor-El whilst Gene Hackman swings wildly as Lex Luthor, but it's how Donner uses them all to craft a nostalgic and sincere portrait of a pop culture icon that's often imitated, but never matched.



3. ROCKY (1976)

In terms of its path through the box office, Rocky could be more defined as a sleeper hit than a blockbuster as the studio had little in the way of hope for its chances and the film's paltry budget and lack of a star actor meant it was like to come and go. Instead, Rocky returned an 1,110% return on its investment and spawned six sequels and a spinoff with Michael B. Jordan as the son of Apollo Creed - as well as giving Sylvester Stallone a career in the process. When you hear Stallone talk about his life before Rocky, and how it came into being, it's clear the film was as much about his own life as it was Rocky's and that authenticity is unmistakable.


2. STAR WARS (1977)  

If Jaws made the mould for blockbusters, it was Star Wars that calcified it into being as we know it today. The endless tie-ins, the toys, the comic-book spinoffs, the targeting, Star Wars was the first real attempt to create a full-scale intellectual property that had the potential to run and run. George Lucas, a devoted fan of the serials of the '50s, knew that he could just as easily craft an experience that people would want to come back to again and again. There's a certain irony in how Lucas never fully grasped Star Wars and has always been somewhat distant from it. For the much-maligned prequel trilogy, he tried to convince other directors to take on the role and make it theirs, and most likely felt stung by the poor reception from it. With Star Wars in '77, he was hailed as a genius - in both his canny sense of commercialism and his ability to finely tune the action and suspense for its intended audience. The rest is history.


1. JAWS (1975)

When you ask what is a blockbuster, there's usually two answers. One is Jaws and the other is Star Wars. That they're both still the go-to answer some forty years after their release defines the impact they had on the entertainment industry and their relevance to audiences. Granted, Star Wars has enjoyed success beyond its years because its fervent fanbase have kept it alive longer than it should have been and the inspiration it provided to a generation of directors, but Jaws remains unique because - when you strip away everything - it's a nifty little thriller. Sure, there's some setpieces to it and the stakes are reasonably high, but what gave Jaws such an impact was how it was neatly bundled together. Even now, you can turn on Jaws at any point and follow the story along without much in the way of guidance. It has such a purity of intent - not unlike the shark itself - that you're carried along with it.