How the Summer Blockbuster Was Born

It’s more than just about beating the summer heat, but that does help.
By  · Published on June 20th, 2017

It’s more than just about beating the summer heat, but that does help. 

Even though it has already felt like summer for about a month now, the summer season officially begins this week. It’s a known fact that studios usually release their big blockbuster films during the summer, but it is easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way. Before the 70’s, movie theaters were usually pretty empty during the summer, since people preferred to soak up the sun rather than watch a movie inside. So, as we officially enter the summer season, here’s a brief history of how the summer blockbuster came to be.

JAWS and the Deep Unknown

With the release of Jaws in 1975 came the release of the first “blockbuster.” For its time, Jaws was groundbreaking, making a little over $7 million in its opening weekend, and that number only continued to grow from that point. While people usually spent their summer breaks at the beach or the pool, Jaws changed all of that by inviting people out of the hot sun and into the cool movie theaters. The role of television advertising and release of trailers largely contributed to the promotion of the film. Universal had really invested in promoting Jaws, spending about $1.8 million in advertising, which was groundbreaking in itself. This investment proved effective since after watching these trailers, people lined up around the block before the film’s theatrical release, giving actual relevance to the name “blockbuster” in this case. Jaws was released nationwide, rather than in select cities a handful at a time, and appealed to a wide audience, especially teenagers. With its special effects and mechanical shark, which had not really been experienced on the big screen at that point, Jaws was able to keep audiences coming back to watch the movie a second and even a third time. The engaging plot and suspenseful music, all surrounding a man-eating shark, were enough to keep the experience alive.

After the success of Jaws, studios who once feared the emptiness of movie theaters during the summer now embraced the idea of creating summer franchises that would attract audiences. Jaws went on to have 3 sequels: Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws 4: The Revenge. Even though these sequels were not as successful as the original film, Jaws also had an amusement park ride at Universal Studios, toys, video games, and more, thus sealing its title as a creator of the “blockbuster” genre.”

1975 and Beyond

Once studios realized effective ways to promote and distribute high concept films in the summer, they continued to plan summer releases. Thinking of Jaws as almost an experiment for the studios since it was the first time they attempted to release a big-budget film in the summer, then Star Wars could be considered a confirmation of this experiment’s success. In May of 1977, two years after Jaws was released, came George Lucas’ Star Wars, which is still to this day the ultimate blockbuster franchise. Master of merchandising as well as ticket sales, the first Star Wars grossed over $307 million at the theaters domestically (or a little over $1 billion if adjusted for inflation) and generated toys, collectibles, games, apparel, etc.

Like the release of Jaws, people also waited in lines that circled the block for Star Wars, a tradition that seemed to continue until the internet made it to where reserving seats ahead of time was possible. Unlike Jaws, however, Star Wars was indeed an original, with no previous story in another media format to support it. This was enough to make Fox Studios worry about how it would go over with audiences, along with all of the other technicalities that came with the film’s production. However, after its wide success, the summer release trend was officially born (or validated) and the definition of a “blockbuster” was beginning to shape.

Other notable summer blockbusters that followed Star Wars include its sequels of course, which were released in 1980 and 1983, and the prequel trilogy premiering in 1999. Outside of the Star Wars universe though, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, all three of which were Spielberg directorial successes, were released in the 80’s and 90’s. Thinking of summer blockbusters from this millennium, the original Shrek released in 2001 (if you count April 22nd as the beginning of summer), Spiderman in 2002, and Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003. In 2008, The Dark Knight was released, becoming the highest grossing DC film of all time. More recently, The Avengers was released in 2012, becoming the highest grossing Marvel Comics film of all time.


Blockbusters Today

So what constitutes a blockbuster in today’s world? The literal meaning of the term blockbuster, with people lining up around the block waiting to buy a ticket, is not exactly as relevant anymore. When thinking of all of the characteristics that form a blockbuster, keeping in mind a film’s ability to merchandise well, have the potential for a sequel, and be a “tentpole” for the media corporation in which it derived are all important to consider. Not every blockbuster will have all of these aspects, but will probably have at least one of them. Classifying films within the blockbuster genre as “high concept” movies, or films that can be simply described in a few sentences, is key to most any blockbuster franchise along with its ability to reach a wide audience. As for the summer portion of the “summer blockbuster,” studios in recent years have seemed to mark the summer movie season earlier and earlier. An article from The Atlantic pointed out that the season this year basically started in March, with the release of films like Logan and Beauty and the Beast. Back in 2015, The New Yorker acknowledged the idea that the world may be ready to adapt to all year round releases, and that studios should perhaps rethink the seasonal release strategy.  Summer, however, is not the only season in which studios strategically plan release dates. Usually, Oscar contenders premiere near the end of the year, while films with less dependable success than summer blockbusters release near the beginning of the year.

This is not to say that the actual summer blockbuster is diminishing from existence. It might just be expanding. Summertime is still quite a popular season for going to the movies. This year so far, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 led the season on May 5th while Wonder Woman led a successful opening weekend (that has continued) starting June 2nd and onward. Still left to come are Spiderman: Homecoming on July 7th and War for the Planet of the Apes on July 14th. It is interesting to think about how the summer blockbuster has been shaped over the years, and how summer as a season has become a platform for these films. Thinking of when summer was once unpopular in attracting audiences to the theater, to how it became the ultimate platform for theatrical success, makes me wonder if a shift to another season that is not as popular may be currently on the way.

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Film lover and pop culture enthusiast.