The Real Reason We Call Hit Movies 'Blockbusters'

Blockbusters, by definition, are movies that have achieved great commercial success. But where did the term "blockbuster" come from? It was first used on November 19, 1942, in a Time magazine article about the Allied forces dropping explosives in fascist Italy. The bombs used for the mission were called "blockbusters," as they were able to decimate an area equivalent to a city block. From there, media reports started referring to large bombs as blockbusters, and the term was eventually used to describe something explosive and shocking (via Time).

As time went on, the term "blockbuster" gained a new meaning. The term was used by movie critics when they described a film that was extreme, not in box-office sales, but in its content. In a 1943 article about the film "Mission to Moscow," critics noted that it was "as explosive as a blockbuster," per a Time article. By the 1950s, blockbusters had a whole different meaning after the war. Film historian Sheldon Hall talked about the transition and stated, "Continual use detached the word from its linguistic origins and ensured that it came to be associated primarily with popular entertainment in general and with the big-budget, high-impact Hollywood hit in particular."

The term blockbuster today

The term "blockbuster" can have different meanings when it comes to movies. Those that typically fit the term are films with high budgets, remarkable special effects, and a star-studded cast, as reported by Film Draft. Furthermore, those that were considered blockbuster movies were the ones that made bank in box-office sales. In fact, Variety magazine called 1953 the "year of box-office blockbusters," as about 135 movies that debuted that year earned at least $1 million, which is equivalent to approximately $10.3 million in today's money (via Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive). In 1954, the magazine Film Bulletin published an article on film company United Artists, wherein the term "blockbuster" was used to describe films it will produce that achieve at least $2 million in sales in Canada and the United States.

Today, the factors that come into play when talking about blockbuster movies include the amount of money spent in production, the number of sales in a given time period, a positive reaction from movie critics, and its lasting impact on the audience.