In ''The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money
and Power in Hollywood,'' the investigative author Edward
Jay Epstein holds that what used to be the movie business,
centered in ''movie houses,'' has been transformed into
the home-entertainment business. As a result, its familiar
lexicon has been overtaken.
''Outdated vocabulary,'' he writes, ''includes such terms
as B-picture, first run, marquee name, long run, blockbuster
and box-office gross -- terms from an era in which the paramount
measure of success was the performance and duration of movies
Lest we forget, a B picture was a low-budget film made to
accompany the feature film, thereby producing a double feature
-- enough to fill three hours of an evening out, or time
to air-cool off on a hot afternoon. The theater circuit
was so named, Epstein tells me, ''because reels of a single
movie could be sent by bicycle from one theater to the next.
Show times were sometimes cut so close that one theater
was showing the first reel of a film while another theater
was showing the last.''
I pick no nits with his thesis of a paradigm-dropping shift
in the industry and its lingo, but one of his etymologies
is speculative. Blockbuster, he reports, was ''coined in
the 1920's to denote a movie whose long line of customers
could not be contained on a single city block.'' Though
an online encyclopedia suggests a similar origin -- describing
a play so successful that competing theaters on the block
are ''busted'' -- no specific citation is given, and without
a citation, you don't have a coinage you can bite on. I'd
say blockbuster is World War II vintage and cite The Los
Angeles Times of July 30, 1942: ''The R.A.F. had lost 29
of the 600 bombers sent against Hamburg Sunday, when 175,000
incendiaries and hundreds of explosive bombs, including
two-ton 'block busters,' were dumped in a 35-minute raid.''
In that same year, the phrase the big picture had its premiere.
In his title, Epstein plays its movie meaning against its
current sense of ''an overview that brings perspective.''
Probably (now I'm the one speculating) the phrase grew out
of the perspective in a painter's ''broad canvas.'' The
Big Picture, with initial caps to signify a theme, was used
in 1931 by a Depression-era baseball official to describe
the distinction that sportswriters bestowed on the St. Louis
Cardinals star Pepper Martin, but its grand-perspective
sense was first brought into play by Lt. Col. Robert Allen
Griffin, in defining the word strategy in 1942: ''The term
applies to the big picture; it is used in direction of campaigns
. . . to win wars.''
Griffin's use of the phrase in the present sense may have
been from an earlier use in an economics context by the
British social scientist Barbara Wootton. His usage is today's
money quote, but when somebody comes up with the hard evidence
of its origin, security strategists, business gurus and
language mavens will consider that a blockbuster.