A look at the history and evolution of the summer blockbuster.
Growing up, going to the movies was a rare treat, and summer was pretty much the only time we usually went to the movie theater, at least regularly. Matinees were relatively cheap, and sitting in a dark theater for a few hours was a cool way to beat the heat. I specifically remember watching The Lion King. A lot. Viewing that film for the first time was definitely a core memory: That summer, one of our favorite toys was a Lion King puzzle of the film's theatrical poster. I spent my afternoons obsessed over recreating the opening sequence from the film on our back porch via cassette tape and cringey six-year-old-level interpretive dance. I constantly held up the ever-patient family cat over my head like Simba.
The Lion King truly was a pop-culture phenomenon. In fact, when adjusting for inflation, The Lion King (1994) is still the sixth highest-grossing summer blockbuster of all time, raking in $778.85 million domestically. But what exactly are summer blockbusters, and how did they come to be?
Simply put, a blockbuster is a feature film that is extremely popular and financially successful. Specifically, a summer blockbuster is a highly anticipated, big-budget film released in May, June, July, or August. Studios can also market their movies as a "blockbuster" intended for financial success with wide market appeal and the opportunity for merchandising.
For modern audiences, summer blockbusters may seem ubiquitous during the summer season, but that wasn't always the case. Major Hollywood studios dreaded summer because, for several factors, it was their least profitable season.
Early Theatrical History
What were cinemas like back in the day? Honestly, they were like saunas, especially during the summer. Most people took the opportunity to travel and generally enjoy the great outdoors and didn't want to spend their vacations inside. It wasn't until 1925 that the first theater installed modern air conditioning.
Carrier Corp. founder Willis Carrier knew that if he could make it in New York, he could make it anywhere and installed a "refrigerating plant" in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square. The "centrifugal chiller" made its debut on Memorial Day, and, despite some initial hiccups, theater-goers were impressed by the technology. Particularly impressed was Adolph Zukor, film producer and one of the founders of Paramount Pictures. Allegedly, at the end of the film, Zukor announced in the lobby, "Yes, the people are going to like it."
After its Memorial Day success, the Rivoli announced, "We have invested over $100,000 in a refrigeration plant to keep you cool and comfortable when the world is sweltering." Just for reference, that's over $1.56 million today. By 1930, more than 300 theaters followed suit and advertised that their buildings were "cooled by refrigeration." As patrons started choosing cinemas as an entertaining way to beat the heat, the air conditioning had the dual purpose of keeping the expensive and often unstable equipment from overheating as sound, lighting, and projection technology continually improved throughout the 1930s.
But despite finding ways to make theaters more comfortable in the summer months, film studios still had trouble getting patrons in seats. The summer season was often a waste for film studios; most people still spent their expendable cash and time traveling. Theaters would usually choose to show reruns or what we would call today "indie films" in hopes of a sleeper hit, but that would all change with the introduction of the "blockbuster" in the 1940s.
Origins of the Blockbuster
The etymology of this common summertime staple is actually pretty dark. During World World II, newsreels shown at the beginning of a feature film would detail the war efforts, including the strategic aerial bombings throughout Europe and Asia. This bombing technique could literally bust-up full residential and city blocks.
However, the first time the term "blockbuster" was used to describe a film was Richard Wallace's Bombardier (1943). Trade magazines Variety and Motion Picture Herald called the war film "The block-buster of all action-thrill-service shows!" Advertisements in 1944 described Louis Hayward's war documentary With the Marines at Tarawa as "hitting the heart like a two-ton blockbuster." Additionally, the term was applied to hits like Bataan (1943), No Time for Love (1943), and Brazil (1944).
While there are several theories as to how or why the term "blockbusters" was popularized to describe films, the most likely is as a PR strategy. In trade magazines, publicists wanted to draw on readers' familiarity with blockbuster bombs from WWII as an analogy to describe the potentially huge commercial impact these films could have on the market. Hey, I said it was a dark etymology.
However, while Hollywood finally had a term for films with commercial potential with a broad audience, it still had a problem: Putting butts in seats during the summer. Studios were still reluctant to produce and distribute big-budget films during a financially risky season. It wasn't until Universal took a chance on an up-and-coming director and his plans to adapt Peter Benchley's 1974 novel Jaws.
The Modern Blockbuster: A Cultural Phenomenon
According to Guinness World Records, Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is considered the first true summer blockbuster. Not only did people physically queue up around the block to see the movie, but it also became the first film to earn $100 million at the box office. And, thanks to a wildly successful marketing campaign, movie-goers, particularly teens with expendable income, were willing to line up to see Bruce in action two or three times throughout the summer of 1975. Jaws became a cultural phenomenon and laid the foundation of what a true summer blockbuster entails: big-budget thrills with merchandising and franchising potential.
In 1977, George Lucas tested this strategy with Star Wars, the first summer blockbuster based on an original screenplay. Setting box office records, Star Wars expanded on Jaws' success with a theatrical run that lasted over a year. With Jaws and Star Wars as their prototypes, film studios attempted to recreate this level of success by green-lighting large-scale productions with huge franchising potential.
While Jaws' three sequels haven't been nearly as successful, it did launch an attraction at Universal Studios theme parks and revitalized the creature feature subgenre. And George Lucas established an empire that has spawned sequels, novels, television shows, and an entire themed land at Disney theme parks. And, adjusting for inflation, Star Wars and Jaws still hold on to the top two highest-earning summer blockbusters of all time, raking in $2.076 billion and $1.32 billion, respectively. And yes, those are billions with a "b."
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, film studios followed the strategy of releasing big-budget films with wide appeal in the summer. They launched several new franchises, including Alien (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989), Beverly Hills Cop (1984, 1987, 1994), Ghostbusters (1984, 1989), Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990), Batman (1989, 1992), and Jurassic Park (1993, 1997, 2001).
While the last part of the twentieth century focused on sci-fi and comedies, the twenty-first century has focused on fantasy and action, especially within the superhero subgenre.
Some of the most successful summer blockbusters so far include X-Men (2000, 2003, 2006), Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007), Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011, 2017), The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012), The Da Vinci Code (2006, 2009, 2016), Transformers (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2018), The Conjuring (2013, 2016), and 60% of Marvel's The Infinity Saga.
The Future of the Blockbuster
While the summer blockbuster has a firm grasp on the market and audience's attention, that isn't to say that big-budget movies can't be released throughout the year. Even Marvel's Cinematic Universe is looking at a 40% release schedule rate outside the summer months. Some film critics and scholars anticipate that studios need to revert to a year-round vs. seasonal release strategy. Hollywood's current seasonal system means that "blockbusters" are only seen in the summer, Oscar-bait films are seen November-December, and the last six months are kind of a free-for-all. In many ways, this release schedule bottlenecks the market during these critical months.
Interestingly, in the early twentieth century, the summer months were seen as the kiss of death for theaters and film studios. Now, thanks to advancements in technology and the advent of the blockbuster and its hype, summer is Hollywood's most profitable time of year. However, without better pacing and planning, these unseasonable months are a potentially wasted opportunity.
Although current summer seasons have felt very different from usual because of the Covid-19 pandemic (thanks to those still practicing social distancing and being careful), feature films are a summer staple trying to make a comeback. As we (hopefully) move into a world post-Covid, where does the summer blockbuster stand? Personally, I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon. Still, I do think that film studios should consider a year-round schedule for their "big-budget" releases. As the industry recovers from the effects of the pandemic and audiences cautiously return to theaters while still enjoying at-home releases, it will be interesting to see if scheduling practices change.
Do you think the summer blockbuster will change or evolve moving forward? What's your favorite blockbuster memory? Mine would have to be either seeing The Lion King for the first time or lining up with my friends to see a Harry Potter movie at midnight on my birthday. Let me know in the comments!