History of the Summer Blockbuster

JULY 8, 2019
Jaws was one of the first summer blockbusters.
Jaws (Universal)

Summer has just begun, but the film industry is in the heart of blockbuster movie season. We’ve come to associate summer movies with franchise sagas, tentpole films, and big-budget spectacles, but there was a time when the box office was stagnant during the summer months. Here’s how summer blockbusters became a Hollywood staple.

What is a blockbuster?

In the entertainment industry, a blockbuster is an extremely popular and financially successful film, often made for mass markets with large budgets. The term described the masses of people who would line up for blocks just to see a hit film. Prior to the 1970s, audiences mostly flocked to the movies during the winter, which left the box office as a dead zone during the summer (generally the beginning of May through Labor Day weekend). That all changed with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975.

How did Jaws break the summer movie drought? One of the biggest factors was its unprecedented marketing plan that included tie-ins with the release of Peter Benchley’s same-titled novel, branded merchandise, a soundtrack, and multiple TV and radio interviews with Benchley and the film’s producers. A large part of Jaws’ marketing budget was spent on 30-second TV advertising spots that aired in primetime during the three days leading up to the film’s release.

Another factor in Jaws’ success was its opening weekend wide release. At the time, it was more common for a large studio film to open in a limited number of big-city theaters then trickle into other markets in the following weeks. Jaws became the must-see spectacle of 1975, bringing in over $7 million in its first weekend and has the seventh highest domestic gross of all time (adjusted for inflation) at over $1.2 billion.

Evolution of blockbuster films

After the success of Jaws, other studios used the film as a blueprint for their own summer releases. In 1977, Star Wars garnered even more audience attention and overthrew Jaws as the highest grossing North American film with a then record $1.6 billion (adjusted) gross. The trend only grew from there with studios developing films tailor made for box office success.

According to USA Today, these are the adjusted top grossing summer blockbusters since 1975:

  1. Star Wars (1977)
  2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  3. Jaws (1975)
  4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  5. Return of the Jedi (1983)
  6. Jurassic Park (1993)
  7. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
  8. The Lion King (1994)
  9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  10. Jurassic World (2015)

While many blockbusters are still reserved for the summer, some franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars saga, and The Fast and The Furious, release films throughout the year, often in early spring or during the Holidays. So now we can look forward to big-budget spectacle films throughout the year!

Want to know what goes in to casting background for blockbuster films? Watch Alyssa discuss casting Avengers: Infinity War and Mary talk about Background Actors in Girls Trip.

What is your favorite summer blockbuster cast by Central Casting?

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Hollywood History