Box Office · Lists

History of the Summer Blockbuster

I recently wrote about the biggest box office bombs in the history of the summer movie season, so I think it is only fair and just to talk about something positive in relation to the topic. So my friend suggested that I breakdown the most iconic and influential films when it comes to the summer movie season, and in particular the development of the modern blockbuster.

First, a little backdrop. Prior to the 1970s, most big films and the majority of film-going were in the winter season. This left the summer pretty barren (relatively speaking). Record-setting films like “Gone with the Wind” (suddenly in the news again), “The Ten Commandments,” “Doctor Zhivago,” and “The Sound of Music” (all of which are still in the top 10 highest grossing after inflation) were all released between November and March. In 1975, a then relatively unknown director by the name of Steven Spielberg released “Jaws,” and the rest, as they say, was history.

1975: Jaws

Burdened by going over-budget (which ended up being $7-9 million, equal to $33-42 million today) and over-schedule, “Jaws” seemed like it was doomed to fail. To add insult to injury, the mechanical shark often malfunctioned, resulting in Spielberg needing to use the idea of the shark more than showing the actual creature. To promote the film, Universal launched an unprecedented $1.8 million marketing campaign (a peanuts $8.6 million today), including $700,000 on TV ads. This was paired with going instantly wide to over 460 theaters (opposed to opening small and branching out, as was the standard practice of the time and for years after). It also revolutionized merchandise tie-ins, with everything from shirts to blankets to books. The result? A record $7 million opening weekend ($33 million) and becoming the first film to cross the $100 million mark domestically.


1977: Star Wars

A success story in more ways than one, “Star Wars” changed the game. While “Jaws” was the first true summer blockbuster, “A New Hope” changed the way studios approached filmmaking. Gone are the days of epic dramas and here to stay were special effects adventure films. The success of the film led to Fox’s stock rising from $6 a share to $25, and at one point was generating over a million dollars in revenue per day for the studio. The film’s return on its $11 million budget (initially making $503 million worldwide) was incredible, eventually replacing “Jaws” as the most successful film in North America (with an equivalent to $930 million in today’s money). None of this is even mentioning the attempts to copy the sci-fi formula by countless number of other films, and the 10 additional live-action films and multiple TV shows that followed.


1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

The second time we see Steven Spielberg, but not the last, he once again directed what became the highest-grossing film of all-time. It was the first film to cross $300 million domestically, and held the worldwide title for a decade until Spielberg broke it again with “Jurassic Park” (but more on that later).


1983: Return of the Jedi

The first film to make over $20 million in its opening weekend, the conclusion to the original trilogy may not have reached the critical or financial heights of its predecessors (although I personally standby it being the best “Star Wars” film), it was still greatly anticipated and showed that film franchises had true staying power in Hollywood. All that being said, Lucasfilm swears that the film has “never gone into profit” (gotta love Hollywood accounting).


1989: Batman

If “Jaws” created the merchandise promotion and tie-in, “Batman” perfected it. In the months leading up to the film’s release in June 1989, “Batmania” was sweeping the nation, with over $750 million in merchandise sales. The film was arguably one of the first films to put together a teaser trailer, dropping simple clips of Michael Keaton in character in December as a response to fans being upset by the comedian’s casting as the Caped Crusader. When it was released the film obliterated the old opening weekend record with $40.5 million (the old mark of $29 million had been set just the week prior by “Ghostbusters 2”), and it went on to gross $411 million, the fifth-highest total ever at the time. However, just like “Return of the Jedi,” Warner Bros. claimed the film lost the studio $35 million, likely just to not have to pay royalties to some of the producers involved.


1993: Jurassic Park

Spielberg is back yet again, this time with his giant dinosaurs. Ever a kid at heart, his film made nearly a billion dollars and set the opening weekend record, and launched yet another franchise that is still stomping to this day.


1999:  Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Arguably the most anticipated film of all-time at the time of its release, the film’s trailers (released into theaters in November ’98 and March ’99) saw fans pay full price tickets for “Meet Joe Black” and “Wing Commander” just to see it. The trailers were eventually put onto the film’s official website and subsequently crashed the servers. It then had the biggest opening day of all-time and was the fastest film to make it to $100 million domestically, doing so in five days. It stayed in the top 10 for eleven weeks, and despite the mixed critical reception still was a cultural phenomenon.


2002: Spider-Man

The grandfather of the modern superhero genre and summer blockbuster. Not only did this create the blueprint for what superhero films could be, it also pushed the start of the summer movie season from Memorial Day weekend to the first weekend of May. It became the first film to make over $100 million in a weekend (crushing the first “Harry Potter’s” record of $90 million by making $114 million over the frame), and led to two equally successful sequels. But, and try and act surprised, despite all this Sony claimed the $821 million the film grossed wasn’t enough to turn a profit, and they were in-turn sued by Stan Lee, who was denied royalties that would have kicked in (they eventually settled out of court).


2008: The Dark Knight

It set numerous records, from midnight grosses, to theater count, and the obligatory top-ever debut ($158 million), but the film is likely better known for Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. It also started the trend of dark, gritty, and “realistic” superhero films, usually ending in awkwardly toned and/or poor products (see “Man of Steel” or “Fantastic Four”).


2019: Avengers: Endgame

In recent years, we have seen the “summer movie season” start in the spring, with big blockbuster releases like “Captain Marvel” and “Furious 7” coming out in March and April. In April 2018, “Avengers: Infinity War” was pushed up from its intended May 4 release in the United States to avoid spoilers leaking from its international release the week before, and then “Endgame” followed suit a year later, moving from May 3 to April 26. It set the record for biggest opening weekend with $357 million, $100 million more than “Infinity War’s” record, and a mark that will likely never be broken. It may have been the peak for the MCU and theatrical films in general, as Marvel and blockbusters continue to dominate a large percentage of the box office grosses.


Thanks for reading! Here’s hoping we can all get back to normalcy soon, and return to the summer movie season with “Tenet” come July. Stay safe!

4 thoughts on “History of the Summer Blockbuster

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