The history of the summer blockbuster

September 8, 2021

For over 40 years, movie fans have eagerly awaited the arrival of the summer season, the time when some of Hollywood’s most vibrant and imaginative popular films emerge to battle out who will amass the biggest opening weekend. The nature of so called the “summer blockbuster,” as well as the time of release, has changed over the years, but most have been broadly appealing movies with a clever, easily understood concept. They have featured some of the most memorable action sequences, beloved characters, and enduring universes created in (mostly American) cinema. The memories of seeing the Dark Knight battle the Joker, a Tyrannosaurus walk the Earth again, and the high-speed flight down the Death Star’s trench will live forever in our minds. As will the sweet taste of copious amounts of popcorn and fizzy drinks.

Prior to the 1970s, the summer period was not particularly viewed as an ideal time to release a film, as many cinemagoers would be on holidays elsewhere. Through the 1950s and 1960s, studios would release their costly and therefore heavily promoted films in the last three months of the year. The term “blockbuster” had already been used to describe popular Hollywood releases since 1948 but was not associated with any particular time of the year. To make the crucial link between “blockbuster” and a release before July, something memorable would have to rise from the depths of the ocean…

With its release on June 20, 1975 in a then-massive 400 theaters and a ubiquitous marketing campaign based around its memorable poster, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws grossed over $400 million, becoming the first ‘summer blockbuster’. But it would take another film – one set in a galaxy far, far away – to prove to Hollywood that the age of the summer blockbuster had begun: George Lucas’ sci-fi epic Star Wars. Many connected to the film were quite skeptical of its potential for success, and the studio moved the film from its original Christmas 1976 release date to May 1977 because of production delays. The studio didn’t see the film as a major blockbuster and thought little of its franchise potential, infamously signing away many of its rights, including merchandising, to Lucas. Once Star Wars released to an incredible response by audiences and widespread support from film critics, the response to Star Wars changed the focus of Hollywood’s release schedule and the way they approached contract negotiations so as to emphasize securing the sequel rights to any film that went into production – and to NEVER give up merchandising rights! It was the success of Star Wars – and the possibilities of endless sequels and merchandising revenue – that spurred the development of many summer blockbusters over the course of the 1980s.

Spielberg would dominate the 80’s with both the Indiana Jones series and a certain endearing extra-terrestrial, but other franchises would also emerge with the cast of the original Star Trek series moving to the silver screen and the arrival of the Ghostbusters. But the biggest hit and game changer would emerge from the darkness of Gotham City. Tim Burton’s Batman convinced Hollywood that superhero films that took their source material seriously could become critical and popular successes and also generate massive profits through merchandise and tie-in sales. The same can be said for yet another from blockbuster maestro Spielberg, his 90’s dino-sized hit Jurassic Park. The 1993 classic would usher in an era of CGI-heavy summer blockbusters like Independence Day, Men In Black and the Star Wars prequels.

In the 2000’s Batman would return, no doubt due to Hollywood noticing the brand recognition potential of the cloaked vigilante. This time the comic book materials would be taken under the Batwing of Christopher Nolan in 2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. The immense success of these films would not only kickstart the age of superhero summer blockbusters and the career of director Christopher Nolan, but it would also lead to the term ‘intelligent blockbuster’ being associated with the films of the British filmmaker (see: Inception, Interstellar and Tenet for other, not always as intelligent or successful, examples).

Merchandising, sequalization, brand recognition and franchise potential are key buzzwords in understanding the current climate of summer blockbusters. The seemingly endless stream of superheroes Marvel Studios has been tapping into since 2008’s Iron Man has given them a unique position in delivering box office sureshots, reaching its zenith in 2018 with Avengers: Endgame and its record-breaking worldwide opening of $1.2 billion

But only a few months after Endgame’s April 2019 release, the age of the blockbuster would come to a sudden, jarring halt. The COVID-19 pandemic would cause movie theaters to close and films such as Ghostbusters Afterlife, the new James Bond No Time To Die and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune were delayed for over a year. With all the tumultuous events of 2020, the concept of a “summer blockbuster” could only occasionally drift through our minds like some happy mirage from a pre-pandemic universe. 

Meanwhile studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. have started experimenting with their release strategy, moving from a focus on releasing a film exclusively in theatres to simultaneously releasing said film on their streaming platforms or forgoing a theatrical release all together. Resulting in a mixed bag of, underperforming and sometimes easily forgotten, films like f.i. Marvel’s Black Widow, or the bizarrely enjoyable big budget Troma-inspired gore fest of The Suicide Squad. The question arises if the classic concept of the summer blockbuster can survive without the communal magic of the movie theatre. With solid blockbuster potential in the likes of Mission: Impossible 7, No Time To Die and Dune coming to theatres soon the upcoming period might decide the fate of how we interact with this particular brand of popular cinema.

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