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I was looking through some stuff on Amazon, and I came across the Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens video game, and the description of the game explained that it is based on the hit "blockbuster" movie. I've seen this term used all the time for movies and media that do well, but I've never thought about its significance before. I'm confused as to why.

Blockbuster is typically defined as the following (from Merriam Webster):

1: a very large high-explosive bomb

2: one that is notably expensive, effective, successful, large, or extravagant

3: one who engages in blockbusting

But these have nothing to do with successful media sources. How did the term "blockbuster" come to be associated with a hit film?

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The original sense of bombs that blast the entire block, the term was used figuratively in the fifties referring to very successful movies, from which the contemporary meaning.

The linguistic origins of the blockbuster are fittingly militaristic, since so many such movies are themselves concerned with gun battles, explosions, and other things that go boom. The first blockbusters were bombs, specifically bombs that were able to bust an entire block.

In 1942 the word began being used in newspapers; an article from the Bellingham Herald on July 27th has the headline “Those ‘Big, Beautiful’ Bombs Are Called ‘Block Busters’ By Germans.” The earliest blockbusters appear to have been the invention of the British Royal Air Force, and are described at the times as weighing two tons, being about six feet in length, and possessing of “very great destructive power.”

Blockbuster began to broaden its meaning almost immediately, and within a year it had already taken on metaphorical shades. An article in the Showmen’s Trade Review on July 3rd of 1943 used the word to refer to something other than an actual bomb in a headline, “Blockbuster Hail Stones Cost Theatreman $150 for New Roof..............

Once the Second World War ended, and the literal bombs were no longer being dropped, blockbuster continued to be used metaphorically, generally to describe something that was of great excitement or significance. The term was often used in describing movies, especially by marketers, but not necessarily more so than in describing other things that had a certain wow-factor.

An article from August of 1954 in Film Bulletin, a periodical devoted to the motion picture industry, sheds some possible light on how the word came to be so associated with movies. It concerns a report on the plans that the executives of United Artists had for releasing upcoming features, and says

  • “From exploitation-minded vice-president Youngstein came the term ‘block-buster’ to describe attractions that gross at least $2,000,000 in the U.S. and Canada.” (The Youngstein in question is Max E. Youngstein, one of a group of five partners who bought United Artists from Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.)

(blog.dictionary.com)

Blockbuster:

  • also block-buster, big bomb (4,000 pounds or larger, according to some sources), 1942, from block (n.) in the "built-up city square" sense. Entertainment sense is attested from 1957.

(Etymonline)

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The earliest reference I can find to "blockbuster" in reference to films specifically is in a newspaper advertisement from 1957, but given the perfunctory use in the advertisement, I suspect there are earlier cases I haven't found.

Next week... two terrific blockbusters.

enter image description here

-The News-Review -- Saturday, January 5, 1957 (paywall link)

As Josh mentioned, the term previously referred to large destructive bombs in World War II. Like etymonline, OED attests it to 1943:

1943 London Times 22 Dec. 4/5 Bombs were falling..many 8,000 lb. and 4,000 lb. ‘block~busters’ among them.

As early as in 1950, the term had an entertainment context, as "The Blockbuster" was a nickname for the wrestler Hans Schnabel.

enter image description here

Interestingly, in 1944 there was a film comedy called Block Busters, likely a comic appropriation of the term derived from the military origin. From Wikipedia:

After an afternoon of playing baseball, Muggs McGinnis (Leo Gorcey) and the East Side Kids gang arrive at the door of their clubhouse, where a man named Higgins (silent comedian Harry Langdon, in one of his last film appearances) is removing their "East Side Club" sign. Higgins explains that the owner of the place plans to rent it to some "respectable" tenants. When Muggs learns that the new tenants are due to examine the place at noon the following day, he plans to frighten them away by picking a fight with Butch (Billy Benedict) and the Five Pointers, a rival gang.

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I was told by a scholar almost 50 years ago that the origin of the word Block Busting usage in North America was when after 2nd World War a large Number of small houses were built , mostly White Colonies & the real Estate Prices were kept artificially high so that the minority & Blacks who were Poor could not afford it . Ingenious of a few Jewish Real Estate Agents , brought a few houses in these White Colonies & to bring the prices down of these artificially inflated prices , rented them to Black Families . The hate was so strong that the Whites started leaving the Blocks & Blocks of the White Colonies & the law of Economics of demand & supply prevailed & the real Estate Prices came down , the "Block was Busted" . It was a tactic used by ingenious Real Estate Agents to bring the Artificially Inflated Prices of the Houses down. It made logical sense to me then as it does now , however now it's distorted .

  • More information on this practice and early uses of the term at the Wikipedia article "Blockbusting", and on the article's talk page. There is a comment there that dates this usage to 1940: "both blockbusting and “block busting”, the expression, seem to date back at least to 1940, as it is a plot point in the 1940 American Negro Theater play, On Strivers Row, by Abram Hill. —John W. Kennedy (talk) 00:07, 17 June 2017 (UTC)" – MetaEd May 29 '18 at 22:25
  • At least one edition does contain that term, found in The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938 at Google Book Search, and the 1940 publication date seems to have support also. – MetaEd May 29 '18 at 22:29

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