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The History of the Summer Blockbuster

by Alex Poquette

A long time ago, in a galaxy not too far away, summer was a time for surfing, dancing, partying, and basically anything but sitting in a dark room staring at a large screen. In fact, down here on earth, summer used to be considered the film business’s slow season. This, of course, now seems ridiculous, as summer is usually when film studios release their big budget “blockbusters” like Independence Day: Resurgence and Star Trek Beyond. This trend of releasing big movies during summer draws its roots from a warm summer day in 1975.

It seemed like an ordinary Friday in the middle of summer, except on this particular Friday, people weren’t going to the beach. In fact, they were terrified to go. Why? Because on this particular Friday, people were watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Considered to be the original “blockbuster” movie, Jaws opened nationwide on June 20, 1975, in an unprecedented 409 theaters. It grossed over $7 million over the course of that weekend. This may not seem like much now, but at the time, it was the highest grossing opening weekend in history. It is actually, generally considered to be the first movie to have a major opening weekend wide release. The more impressive thing about Jaws is that its popularity didn’t die down. In its second weekend, it only dropped 3.6% in amount grossed, and by its 5th weekend it was still making over $6 million at 675 theaters. To put this in perspective, before Jaws, the largest movie of all time was The Godfather and it never opened in more than 323 theaters. Jaws changed the movie game by showing just how profitable summer could be, eventually making over $470 million in total and spawning numerous unnecessary sequels (another common trait of blockbuster hits). Yet, this original “blockbuster” didn’t necessarily seal the deal for summer as the prime season for big box office hits. 1976’s most profitable summer film was The Omen and it only grossed $60 million. It wasn’t until 1977 that summer became Hollywood’s favorite time of the year.


1977 was a big year for movies, with the release of Spielberg’s second hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other classics like Saturday Night Fever and Annie Hall. Yet, nothing is as important to Hollywood filmmaking as George Lucas’s sleeper hit, Star Wars. Released at the beginning of summer on May 25, Star Wars further proved just how important summer could be. A true “blockbuster,” the film literally had people waiting down the block due to its limited opening weekend release, only screening at 43 theaters nationwide (Fox thought that it was going to be a box office flop). Despite Fox’s predictions, the popularity of this summer blockbuster spread far and wide as around 100 extra theaters every week started screening Star Wars, with the film eventually screened in over one thousand theaters by its 8th week. By 1982, it had grossed over $530 million, easily surpassing Jaws’ initial run, making it the highest grossing film of all time. It also took movie money-making to a whole new level when George Lucas realized that the money wasn’t just in ticket sales, but also in toys and overall branding. Star Wars has spawned numerous sequels, prequels, and spin-offs(7 and counting) since its initial release, each making ridiculous amounts of money and further expanding the Star Wars brand. Although Jaws started the summer “blockbuster,” Star Wars is what cemented summer as the premiere time for releasing big movies.


Since 1977, Summer has, again and again, proven itself to be the best season for film releases. The next summer (1978), Grease became the highest grossing musical of all time. In May 1980, The Empire Strikes Back was released, becoming one of the highest grossing sequels of all time. 1981 and 1982 saw the combination of Spielberg and summer with Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (the latter of which became the highest-grossing film of all time).  During the summer of 1984 we got to see a group of humans fighting ghosts to save the world in Ghostbusters, and during the summer of 1988 we saw humans working with cartoons to help save the world in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The Summer of 1989 brought us The Caped Crusader (Batman) while the summer of 1991 brought us Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator 2: Judgment Day). In 1993, Spielberg broke his own record with Jurassic Park which became the highest grossing film of all time.

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Independence Day was a turning point for the summer blockbuster in 1996, bringing worldwide destruction films to the spotlight, a trend which has continued, especially with the increased popularity of comic book films (Marvel’s The Avengers and Batman V Superman are two examples of how comic book movies tend to showcase major destruction). By 1999 Star Wars was brought to a new generation with the release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, once again proving that the franchise is the King of Summer. Between the years 1977 and 2000, there were only five times when the highest grossing film of the year was not released during the summer (Fatal Attraction, Rain Man, Aladdin, Toy Story, and Titanic).

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Summer has recently begun to die down, especially with the two current biggest films of all time being released in December (Avatar and Titanic). Even the newest Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released during the winter; however, summer is still one of the best times to catch a big “blockbuster” flick. Summer 2016 proves this idea with the past releases of Captain America: Civil War and Independence Day: Resurgence, and with the upcoming releases of Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne and Suicide Squad.  Summer is always an exciting time for movie fans, and this one seems to be no exception.

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