Everyone loves a good blockbuster—a film that has it all: action, stunts, special effects, thrills, and the potential to dominate pop culture conversations for years after its release. It is often said that Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) was the first blockbuster film, and that along with Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), it launched a new era in the history of Hollywood filmmaking: the Blockbuster Age, which continues to this day. And while there is no doubt that Jaws and Star Wars led Hollywood to push to release many more high-budget, effects-heavy movies deliberately aimed to have mass-market appeal, were these two films really the first of their kind? Looking back in film history, I can see many earlier pictures that, at first glance, could seem to match our modern definition of a “blockbuster”, from James Bond films like Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) all the way back to the works of Georges Méliès during the very early years of the silent era, beginning with his now-legendary 17-minute picture A Trip to the Moon (French: Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1902). Which leads me to what would seem to be the central question I want to address in this essay: did Méliès create the world’s first blockbuster film in A Trip to the Moon?
In order to answer that question, we first have to determine exactly what we mean when we call a movie a “blockbuster”. The term originated during World War II, where it originally described bombs powerful enough to destroy an entire city block, but it quickly began to be applied to anything considered exciting (in much same way that we also use the word ‘explosive’), which, starting in the late forties, came to include successful movies. However, it really was Jaws and its successor Star Wars that codified the modern understanding of the term (Waxman), an understanding that I would posit includes three main prerequisites: a high budget, an intent for the film to have widespread mass-market appeal, and a focus on spectacular thrills as opposed to a deep story. I mean no disrespect when I say that Star Wars and Jaws all possess these traits to one degree or another, but does A Trip to the Moon? And can we even say that those cinematic ideas existed in 1902 in the same way they do now?
First, let’s look at A Trip to the Moon’s budget: 10,000 francs (Frazer 99). Calculating using historical inflation rates from the Consumer Price Index and the French Insee index, I could say that this is equivalent to about 50,000 modern US dollars, which by modern commercial movie-making standards is basically free. So does that mean A Trip to the Moon is not a blockbuster? Well slow down, not really. Even if this number was an exact equivalency (which it isn’t; always take old monetary numbers adjusted for inflation with a grain of salt because they don’t take into account things like changes in living standards or in which items we consider valuable), it isn’t really fair to compare modern movie budgets to the budget of a film this old, when standards and expectations for the cinematic medium were very different. For one thing, movies in 1902 were much, much shorter than they are today (projectors couldn’t yet accommodate multi-reel films, meaning that runtimes were capped at 10–20 minutes), so they cost relatively less to produce, and for another they often had fewer cast and crew to pay, as contributors would often take on multiple roles in a single picture—Méliès, for example, usually acted in his films in addition to producing, directing, and editing them. Finally, films at this time were not afforded the prestige as an art form that they enjoy today, so while many intrepid filmmakers at the time were indeed spending money to build film studios and establish cinema as an entertainment industry, individual movies were seen as disposable and tended not to be approached as serious monetary investments. Instead of comparing A Trip to the Moon’s budget to that of a modern film, it is more useful to compare it to those of the films that preceded it—did it have a high budget for its time? To which the answer is absolutely yes. The film was the most expensive that Méliès had ever made at the time, had the longest production schedule as well, and ended up the longest picture he had ever produced by the time it was complete. By Méliès’s standards at the time, A Trip to the Moon was downright lavish (Frazer 99), and I am sure that the picture’s high production value did a great deal to help it to stand out from other films being shown at the time (and stand out A Trip to the Moon most certainly did).
Speaking of which, the film was extremely popular upon release, and was rampantly pirated around the world, including by the Edison Manufacturing Company (Frazer 46). So there is no question that A Trip to the Moon had mass-market appeal, though due to the whole piracy thing, Méliès never saw most of the financial returns himself. But was the film intended to have such widespread success, or was it intended for a more niche audience? Well, asking that question about a film as old as A Trip to the Moon probably says more about modern cinema than it does about A Trip to the Moon or any other film made around the same time. After all, there was no such thing as a niche film audience in 1902; every movie made at the time was hoped by its creators to have mass-market appeal (Thompson and Bordwell 11–21). Movies were often seen by upper and lower classes alike, though the former often hoped to do so clandestinely since films were widely considered “low” or “vulgar” art. There were not yet any pictures made like we have come to expect today that are meant to be “serious” and appeal to any sort of niche or connoisseur audience (Bowser 1–2). So was A Trip to the Moon intended to have mass-market appeal? Short answer: yes. Long answer: absolutely.
Which brings me to my final criterion for a movie to be a blockbuster: a focus on spectacular thrills as opposed to a deep story. This is another question that, in my opinion, says more about modern films than early ones, because, like the previous inquiry, it would never have been asked in 1902 and instead betrays assumptions on what the inquirer considers to be the natural state of cinema. Today we expect movies to fall somewhere on a spectrum between spectacle-based “popcorn movies” and “serious” narrative- and character-driven art films, but in 1902 there was no such spectrum. In fact, pretty much all movies were spectacle-based; the film industry was, as Tom Gunning puts it, a “cinema of attraction”. Méliès even said himself that he always considered the narratives of his films to be secondary to their spectacle:
“As for the scenario, the ‘fable,’ or ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks,’ or for a nicely arranged tableau.” –Georges Méliès, “Importance du scénario” (Gunning 382)
So of course A Trip to the Moon prioritizes attraction over story, and you don’t even need any of this context to see that—it is obvious just from watching the film; just look at the whimsical costumes, fantastical sets, acting gags, and exceptional hand-painted colors. All of those sum to a much, much greater portion of the film’s appeal than does its simple story. But that’s not what makes this question interesting to me; what I like about asking this question of A Trip to the Moon is that doing so actually breaks modern idea of the “popcorn movie” versus “serious film” dichotomy. While A Trip to the Moon is clearly a spectacular film, it was also considered to be extraordinarily narratively-involved at the time of its release, and indeed is still considered a major stepping-stone in the development of narrative in cinema. In a time when most movies (including almost all of Méliès’s previous films) were short actualities or “trick films”, a film with a cohesive narrative about a group of astronomers planning to go to the moon, making the journey, and coming back with spoils, appears incredibly sophisticated. What this reveals, in my eyes, is that even going back to the earliest days of cinema there has never really been a line between popular and sophisticated films—it has always been a false dichotomy.
So, in conclusion, A Trip to the Moon meets all three of my criteria—a high budget, an intent for mass-market appeal, and an emphasis on spectacular thrills over a deep story—and it was to my knowledge unprecedented in that first category, meaning that, yes, I think the film was technically the first ever blockbuster movie. But what does that actually mean? What do we learn from backdating this modern term to the very beginning of cinema?
Well, for one thing, if it wasn’t for budget, every early film would have been a blockbuster, so the fact that we now have a term for that type of movie as a specific subcategory of cinema at large is indicative of both how much and how little filmgoing tastes have changed in the past century and a quarter. We no longer consider the cinema of attraction to be the default type of movie, as the film industry has expanded to allow for more narratively complex films that accommodate a wider spread of tastes and moods. Yet at the same time, the very definition of a blockbuster is that it is intended to be popular in its spectacularity. There is clearly still massive desire for the cinema of attraction, and today as in Méliès’s day, films that indulge us in that continue to be the most successful. In short, the film industry has changed, but human interests have not. The many narratological changes in the film industry have ultimately simply been to accommodate a wider range of those human interests.
And secondly, by considering A Trip to the Moon as the first blockbuster movie, we can begin to notice other characteristics the picture shares with modern blockbusters. Like Jaws, Star Wars and many other films that we associate with the modern idea of a blockbuster, A Trip to the Moon is still considered, to some extent, “low art”. It is a genre film. It is lighthearted in tone. The presence of traits like these in the original blockbuster, while not integral the definition of the term in my opinion, do reveal quite a bit about what we did consider and continue to consider appropriate material for a blockbuster, and what that connotes. They show us that throughout the history of cinema, genre films (perhaps circularly due to their popularity as narrative fodder for blockbusters) have always been associated with low art, a deprioritization of narrative, and an avoidance of “seriousness” of tone. And despite these factors evidently having long been a recipe for widespread appeal, the negative connotations that these elements still sometimes hold among connoisseurs of “high art” clearly also date back a long way, even though, as we have seen with A Trip to the Moon and films like it, popularity and sophistication need not preclude each other. This sort of snobbery and elitism is deeply-rooted in our society, certainly predating cinema by a very long time. However, the history of cinema provides a source of hope. As we have seen, all films used to be thought of as “low art”, but today the scope of that label in cinema as been reduced to a subcategory in a wider industry. Popularity, once it reaches a certain order of magnitude, demands a degree of legitimacy. Though A Trip to the Moon, Jaws, and Star Wars continue to be “low art”, they are also now taken seriously by many intelligentsia, who can now see such films as more than “merely” low, and can finally examine such films respectfully and even reverently, with an eye for the way they create meaning and what that meaning says about the people and environment in which they were made and consumed. With time and enough popular recognition, perhaps the same can become true of all artistic mediums and genres that continue to be dismissed by some for their popularity.
I first wrote a version of this essay for a class I took last year on the history of silent film; the version here is adapted from that one. I love studying early cinema and turn-of-the-twentieth-century entertainment in general, so I quite enjoyed the class and it was fun to write this simple essay using the most famous silent film there is to examine how the industry has changed since then. There is a lot more I could talk about with regard to A Trip to the Moon that doesn’t fit here, but I would love to analyze in more depth someday—particularly the film’s take on colonialism and its role in the codification of the “standard first contact” trope that we still see in media today.
Bowser, Eileen. “The Nickelodeon.” The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915, University of California Press, 1994.
Frazer, John. Artificially Arranged Scenes: the Films of Georges Méliès. G.K. Hall & Co., 1979.
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Film Culture in Transition, edited by Wanda Strauvin, Amsterdam University Press, 2006, pp. 381–388.
Solomon, Matthew. “Review of Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896–1913) and Georges Méliès Encore: New Discoveries (1896–1911).” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, vol. 12, no. 2, 2012, doi:10.5749/movingimage.12.2.0187.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. McGraw Hill, 2002.
Waxman, Olivia B. “Why Are Hit Movies Called Blockbusters?” Time, Time, 7 Feb. 2020, time.com/5776406/blockbuster-meaning/.