What Makes A Masterpiece and Blockbuster Work?

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John Ford, the director known for such classic films as The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath, once said, “Make a movie for them, make a movie for yourself.” He was referring to the commercialization of art and maintaining a sense of self in a world dedicated to entertaining the crowd. As Woody Allen put it, it’s not show-show, but show business. So how do artists make popular works and at the same time make good art? It’s a big question that will be fleshed out in this series.

I’ll start by asking, what makes a great piece of art work? I take this question to be the same as what makes a blockbuster. Not to reduce the evaluation of good art down to—if the mob sees it then it must be good, of course there are anomalies—but rather that if the art captures something about the human essence that provokes, brings to life, or gives solace, then it will be shared. Look at the popularity of the super hero franchise through this lens. Each character aside, what experiences do these combined stories have that get us rallying to theaters in such huge numbers to be moved and emboldened? As Feuerbach said, “God is man writ large.” The stories of Gods worked in Greece, super heroes continue to work today.

Or take the success of Avatar. Why did a movie about a blue species become the highest grossing film of all time? It’s an age old love story that pulls on our sexual desires toward the wild and primitive. It then rationalizes that desire, in that primitives are more connected to life than we are. They have something we lack and because of that they are greater than us. You really could say they are their own kind of super heroes. On top of that, when connecting with Avatar, every viewer could take solace in the battle of nature prevailing over production. No person today is not aware of global warming and the devastating effects civilization is having on the environment. A film of this kind strokes our ruffled feathers, invigorates our fight and strengthens our hope, that the apocalypse may not come during our generation.

Great artists know this is why people are moved in large numbers by art. Spielberg, in making War of the Worlds, realized a story of this kind would submerse into people’s memories and emotions around September 11th. He purposely made creative choices to enhance this connection, using cell phone camera footage and news footage to reveal the initial strike, just as we experienced the attack on the twin towers. The film went on to do $600m at the box office.

Similarly, there is an economic trend of horror films to be most popular during war time, and then musicals to emerge in popularity after, as if to mark the kind of elation we feel when we get off a roller coaster, excited by the fact that we’re still alive. The horror movie or the musical is that collective tension or exhale, cathartic in that it gives us permission to feel. A great piece of art works in that it shines for the culture what it is experiencing, so all may come and bask in its light.

This is what makes a great piece of art work. Next we’ll look at why art resonates so strongly with us.

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Robert is a film-maker and business person with a diverse array of executive and creative experience...
  • Sky Nite

    The comparison between superheroes and Greek Gods really hits the mark. I think the primal appeal has something to do with feeling agency. Heroes and Gods are able to change the world in ways that seem impossible for a normal person.

  • Matt DeMartini

    Interesting points, for sure. Great examples of films that connect both commercially and emotionally through core themes and imagery that people relate to. But what about more esoteric works of art that are still considered masterpieces? Or blockbusters that make tons of money with no emotional core? What makes those films work?

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