When it comes to summer, there doesn’t seem to be a lack of activities. From spending the day at the pool to picking up a brand new hobby, summer vacation allows you to fill your days with things you didn’t have time for throughout the rest of the year. Of the endless list of summer activities, one rules them all—going to the movies!
If you haven’t heard the term “summer blockbuster,” then you need to crawl out from underneath that rock. The modern “summer blockbuster” is an expected presence every year, and it arrives like clockwork in all its moneymaking glory. We’re going to take a look at the 40-year history of the summer blockbuster focusing on a few of the films that helped define what the term “blockbuster” has come to mean to the average movie fan.
Before 1975, Hollywood film studios traditionally used the summer as a dumping ground for movies. However, everything changed when one studio made the decision to try something new by releasing their newest film in the summer.
In 1975, a young director named Steven Spielberg was hired to direct only his second feature film, which was about a killer shark terrorizing the inhabitants of the island. The film had many complications, including malfunctioning shark models, a budget that nearly tripled its original cost and a shooting schedule that jumped from 55 days to 159 days. Thankfully the final product was a masterpiece of filmmaking that is still highly regarded 40 years later.
Prior to this, film studios would open movies in a few select markets, slowly expanding to more theaters over time and allowing word-of-mouth to build anticipation. In the case of JAWS, Universal Studios decided to forego the traditional release method. Instead, it proceeded with a campaign usually reserved for negatively regarded movies, which included flooding the airwaves with massive advertising through TV and radio, and opening the film across the country simultaneously to avoid the critics. This approach had never been done to promote a highly anticipated release.
Jaws opened in over 400 theaters at the time, which was a large amount of screens for any movie. The reaction was massive and immediate. Moviegoers wanted to see what all the hype was about, and the majority of viewers wanted to see it over and over again. While the studio didn’t understand it at the time, they had started a trend that would begin to dominate film to this very day. In other words, they were “gonna need a bigger boat.”
Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars also happened to be released in the summer, and movies don’t get much bigger than this. George Lucas, who was friends with Steven Spielberg, was crafting what would become one of the biggest movies of all time, instantly inspiring an entire generation of people in a way the world never saw coming. Star Wars revolutionized science fiction cinema and the entire film industry in general. It exposed how computers and visual effects could improve not only the look, but the story as well.
Did You Know?: George Lucas visited his friend Steven Spielberg on the set of his own blockbuster that year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and was so impressed that they each bet a percentage of their film’s final profits that the other director’s film would be the biggest success. With Star Wars becoming the cinema juggernaut that we know and love today, Spielberg won the bet, forcing Lucas to fork over a small percentage of his movie’s gargantuan take.
Spielberg had by no means been quiet since the days of JAWS, with his films Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (produced with buddy George Lucas) all gaining notoriety and acclaim. However, it was this gem, which cemented his place as one of the premiere directors in film. An adventurous and captivating story about a stranded alien and the boy who befriends and protects him, E.T. was the director’s first truly “family” film. It also remains one of Spielberg’s most popular films to date. Of the film itself, Spielberg calls it “the quintessential story of my childhood,” and its success gave him the maturity and courage to tackle more adult themes and subjects in his filmmaking.
Dan Aykroyd wrote the original story for Ghostbusters, and it would focus on a group of “Ghostsmashers” traveling through time, space, and other dimensions combating huge ghosts. After pitching the movie concept, Aykroyd was asked to give the story a more grounded approach due to budgetary concerns, bringing on future co-star Harold Ramis to help with the story.
Originally, Aykroyd’s friend and fellow Saturday Night Live alum, Jim Belushi was to star alongside him. However, Belushi’s passing meant a casting change was needed, which resulted in Bill Murray coming on board. The main team was set, resulting in an enormous success, both financially and critically. The mix of comedy and special effects was unlike anything that had arrived in theaters before it and would inspire a whole group of filmmakers to this day.
Back to the Future (1985)
Science fiction and special effects would be at the forefront once again a year later when director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg brought time travel to the mainstream. The story follows a teenager named Marty who inadvertently goes back in time, causing him to meet his future parents in high school and to accidentally become his mother’s romantic interest. He then must repair the damage to history by getting his parents-to-be to fall in love with each other and still find a way to return to his current time. The film made stars out of its leads Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, and it created a film legacy.
From the late 70s to late 80s, the only superhero on film was Christopher Reeves’ performance of Superman. By the end of the 80s, however, a new type of superhero film would hit the market and become a box-office hit.
After a decade of Superman films, director Tim Burton took on the task of bringing another of the comic world’s most famous creations to the big screen, with 1989’s Batman. Burton’s ability to produce box office with low budgets had impressed studio executives and earned him the job. After a troubled production, with Burton clashing with executives over multiple areas (including the casting of star Michael Keaton), the film released and became the biggest movie of the year.
Jurassic Park (1993)
A movie that remains a modern day classic, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was one of the most ambitious movies ever at the time of its release. Bringing dinosaurs into the modern day required a mixture of both practical and computer-based visual effects. It was the mastering of this fusion that again changed the way movies are made now.
Mixing life-sized animatronic creatures with computer generated imagery (CGI) allowed the film to portray the dinosaurs as real-life creatures and to interact with the human characters on screen. Not only was the film a success in all terms, it was a giant leap forward in the way special effects could enhance storytelling.
Toy Story (1995)
Traditional 2D animation had been used for films since the early 1900s. Small advances were made in the 1990’s incorporating computer animation with traditional hand-animated processes to help push animated films into new territory. However, none of these films had the impact that a small film about a couple of toys would have.
Pixar burst onto the scene with the cinematic equivalent of a missile, releasing the first fully computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The film’s nearly unanimous love from both audiences and critics catapulted the film (and Pixar) to the forefront of the film industry.
Independence Day (1996)
A movie primed for a July 4th weekend release, Independence Day exploded into theaters. Led by raising star Will Smith, the film went on to dominate the remaining July 4th box-office weekends throughout the decade.
The story of a full-scale hostile alien invasion and the coming together of the world’s population to defend the planet was a massive success. This victory made Independence Day the biggest movie of the year and revealed how audiences didn’t mind a little planetary destruction as long as the good guys came out on top.
Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
Two very different aquatic tales captivated audiences of different ages in the summer of 2003. With both films grossing over $300 million here in the US, there’s no denying that they ruled the summer box office together.
Finding Nemo once again showed the pure talent and artistry of Pixar. It was their most ambitious film at that time, featuring hundreds of fish and the most realistic animated undersea environments ever put onto film. Finding Nemo kicked off the summer box office with a boom and received praise from critics and audiences alike.
Later that summer, Pirates of the Caribbean cannon blasted its way to #1 at the box office thanks to lead star Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. The film and Depp’s overall performance were the highlights of the summer box office.
Iron Man and The Dark Knight (2008)
Superhero films had made a good comeback in the first decade of the 21st century, with franchises like Spiderman, X-Men and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. In 2008, the box office brought us a battle between age-old rivals, Marvel and DC, with their respective films Iron Man and Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight. Both films dominated at the box office and brought superhero films into the forefront of award winning filmmaking.
Iron Man kicked off Marvel Studios with their first self-financed film, featuring an unknown hero to the majority of audiences. The film was brought to life by director John Favraeu and star Robert Downey Jr., which instantly cemented Marvel’s place in the filmmaking world.
Later that summer, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight burst into theaters lead by a culture shaking performance from actor Heath Ledger as The Joker. The darker film excelled not only at the box office, but also at the awards circuit the following year. Ledger, who had sadly passed away after filming was completed, won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the villain. The film set the bar for what a superhero film could be and challenged all others to rise to that level.
Christopher Nolan was back at the head of the box office two years later with a uniquely original film he co-wrote. Inception is a film about a professional thief who commits corporate espionage by infiltrating the subconscious of his targets. The film featured an all-star cast and mind-blowing visual effects in order to bring the story’s “dream sequences” to life. The film was one of the most highly reviewed films of the year, and it showed Nolan’s box office record-breaking power.
The Avengers (2012)
Marvel’s The Avengers did what no film had done before, it assembled different stars from Marvel’s cinematic universe (MCU) together to form a true superhero team-up. Brought to life by director Joss Whedon, the result was the third highest grossing film of all time. While Whedon’s talent had been on display before (he was a credited writer on Pixar’s Toy Story amongst other things), The Avenger’s put his writing and directing skill in a spotlight. The box office shattering film cemented Marvel Studios as the king of superhero cinema.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The most recent film to dominate the summer box office came from (surprise!) Marvel Studios. However, this film in particular showed the true power of the studio. Helmed by a director known primarily for smaller indie movies, Guardians of the Galaxy was a big gamble for Marvel. Featuring characters based on a comic book unknown by mainstream audiences, it was hard to imagine it resulting in a good film. However, director James Gunn showed what type of skill he had up his sleeve, and the result was one of the most original, off-kilter, goofy and incredible films of the year. Audiences came out in multitudes, and kept coming back for more, which made Guardians of the Galaxy one of the most talked about films of the year and the highest grossing film of 2014.
It’s only midsummer and we’ve already seen the return of Marvel, dinosaurs, Pixar and much more. With so many movies being released, it’s hard to determine who will come out on top, but rest assured the summer blockbuster isn’t going anywhere!
What is YOUR favorite all-time summer blockbuster?