03/08/2018 22:11 BST

Why Do We Call Hit Movies 'Blockbusters?'

Movies that break records at the box office earn this title, but its original meaning is kind of sinister.

Jesse Grant/Getty Images
This June, "Avengers: Infinity War" passed $2 billion at the global box office. We dove into why these hit movies are known as "blockbusters" in the first place.

The term “blockbuster” is typically reserved for movies with large budgets or big results at the box office. But what does the act of “busting blocks” have to do with movies, anyway?

According to Cambridge Dictionary online, a blockbuster is defined as “a book or movie that is very successful.” Merriam-Webster is a bit less specific and defines it as “one that is notably expensive, effective, successful, large, or extravagant.”

But Merriam-Webster also includes the definition “a very large high-explosive bomb,” referencing the term’s original meaning.

As Julian Stringer wrote in his 2003 book Movie Blockbusters, the word was coined to “describe a large-scale bomb in World War II.” The bomb was supposedly able to take out a whole city block and was used by the British Royal Air Force. In 1942, The Bellingham Herald in Washington state ran a story titled “Those ‘Big, Beautiful’ Bombs Are Called ‘Block Busters’ By Germans.”

In September 2017, authorities in Frankfurt, Germany, evacuated thousands of people after someone discovered an unexploded “blockbuster” there. Smithsonian Magazine reported that the “particular bomb was likely dropped by the Royal Air Force more than 70 years ago,” but still had the potential to go off. 

But according to Stringer, the term “blockbuster” started being used in the mid-20th century to describe both “large-scale productions” and major box office successes (which he points out are not always synonymous).

A 1954 issue of Film Bulletin offers a theory as to how the movie-centric meaning of “blockbuster” came about, according to Ammon Shea, a writer known for his work on the English language. One Film Bulletin article that can be viewed via the digital library nonprofit Internet Archive reads: “From exploitation-minded vice-president [Max E.] Youngstein came the term ‘block-buster’ to describe attractions that gross at least $2,000,000 in the U.S. and Canada.”

The article noted that United Artists planned to “release at least one ‘blockbuster’ per month from now on.”

“Blockbuster” has also been used to simply refer to something larger than usual, as in a 1943 Showmen’s Trade Review headline that reads, “Blockbuster Hail Stones Cost Theatreman $150 For New Roof.” The “theatreman” in question swore the hailstones were “as big as golf balls,” according to the story. 

In 2007, writer and film critic Manohla Dargis offered a similar origin story for the word “blockbuster” in The New York Times, saying the paper included it in one of its crossword puzzles in 1950.

“The word probably originated with the powerful bombs that the British Royal Air Force used to decimate German cities during World War II, the so-called blockbusters,” Dargis wrote. “It soon entered the vernacular, appearing in advertisements before the end of the war, and as a clue in a 1950 crossword puzzle in this newspaper (46 across).”

A quick Google search for “blockbuster movies” yields a list that’s dominated by superhero films: “Iron Man,” “Man of Steel,” and movies from “The Avengers” series. Other action movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the “Transformers” series also made the list. Many of these blockbusters came out during the summer ― a popular strategy for production companies ― but a movie can be a blockbuster any time of the year.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
A Blockbuster movie rental store in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, Colorado, on April 6, 2011. 

Of course, the movie rental chain Blockbuster once provided hours of entertainment before the age of streaming. In July, CNN reported that Alaska’s last two Blockbuster stores were set to close and that only one store, in Bend, Oregon, would remain.

Sandi Harding, the general manager of the Blockbuster in Bend, told CNN her store had “no plans on closing.” She mentioned customers come in every day surprised there’s still a Blockbuster afloat.

“Daily, we have people coming in and going, ‘Oh my gosh. You’re a Blockbuster. How are you still here?’” she said.