Summer Movie Magic: A History of Blockbuster Films

For over 40 years, movie fans have eagerly awaited the arrival of the summer season, a time when some of Hollywood’s most vibrant and imaginative popular films emerge. The nature of a “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 American film. 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. So come to one of our branches, pick up a favorite blockbuster from the past, and relive the vibrant memories of the blockbuster age. Don’t forget the popcorn!

Launch of the First Megahits

Prior to the 1970s, the summer months were not viewed as a particularly important time for film releases. Through the 1950s and 1960s, studios would release their most heavily promoted films in the last three months of the year. This pattern was typical for most film genres, from Westerns to action films to historical epics. 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 “release before the Fourth of July,” something memorable would have to rise from the depths of the ocean…

In 1974, Peter Benchley published Jaws, a memorable novel about the horrific rampage of a great white shark. Before the novel was even published, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown read it and decided that it would make a good subject for a film adaptation. They hired young director Steven Spielberg, who had mostly worked on television before his hire for Jaws. On Jaws, the first signs of the “Spielberg formula” would develop; Spielberg excised most of the novel’s subplots and chose to focus the script on the shark’s attacks and the Orca crew’s hunt for it. Spielberg also intentionally avoided big-name actors as much as possible and chose character actor Robert Shaw as Quint and Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper. Spielberg wanted the shark to be the film’s only superstar, an ambition that would cause its own set of problems. 

The legendary shark from the movie was brought to the screen by a series of props, named “Bruce” by the production crew. The Bruces were constructed by Bob Mattey, who had manufactured the giant squid seen in the earlier 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and were used in an area referred to as “shark city” during filming. Technological limitations of 1970s special effects forced many compromises during the shoot. The Bruces could only be designed in the attack position of a great white to make the mechanical jaw open; at no point in the film is the Great White’s cruising posture shown. The Bruces were continually damaged by the harsh salt water during filming, and, at one point, the mechanical arm the shark was suspended from broke off, dropping a Bruce right to the sea floor. Because of this, the film was shot in such a way as to play up the suspense of the shark attacks rather than maximize the shark’s screen time. The power of Jaws was as much about anticipation and dread as it was about the shark itself. 

With its release on June 20, 1975 in a then-massive 400 theaters and a ubiquitous marketing campaign based around its memorable poster, Jaws grossed over $400 million and inspired a sinister mythos concerning Great White sharks that continues to this day.

But it would take another film--one set in a galaxy far, far away--to finally prove to Hollywood that the age of the summer blockbuster had begun. George Lucas had already begun work on writing what he then called The Star Wars in 1974, as Jaws was being filmed. Early drafts of the film were different from the completed version in many ways, featuring Han Solo as a green alien lizard, “The Skywalker” as Luke’s title rather than his name, and having Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi survive the story. By late 1975, the script resembled the plot of the finished film, and designer Ralph McQuarrie had been commissioned by Lucas to develop pre-production artwork depicting the characters of the movie, most notably Darth Vader. McQuarrie’s drawings would define the look of Star Wars throughout the original trilogy, help get Lucas more money from 20th Century Fox for the film, and be as much a part of the success of Star Wars as Lucas’ own vision.

Many of the film’s cast and crew were quite skeptical of the film’s 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. In the 1973 deal to make the film, they allowed Lucas ALL merchandising rights and the rights to any Star Wars sequels if he agreed to forgo a raise he was entitled to after the success of his earlier film, American Graffiti. Once Star Wars released to an incredible response by audiences and widespread support from film critics, this was proven to be a most shortsighted decision by 20th Century Fox. The response to Star Wars changed the focus of Hollywood contract negotiations to emphasize securing the sequel rights to any film that went into production--and to NEVER give up merchandising rights! 

The 80s and 90s: The Summer Blockbusters’ Golden Age

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. The sequel to Star Wars, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, would lead off the decade, but Lucas would prove he was not a one-series wonder when Indiana Jones debuted in 1981’s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Directed by Lucas’ friend Spielberg, the screenplay for Raiders had been worked on in 1978 and 1979 following the success of Star Wars. Lucas wanted to reuse his casting strategy from Star Wars and hire a young actor with few credits for the lead and had chosen Tom Selleck, but he was forced to switch to Harrison Ford because of Selleck’s Magnum, P.I. contract. Watching the finished film, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Ford as Indy!

The 1980s saw the release of many iconic summer blockbusters from Spielberg and other directors. Two years stand out for their particularly noteworthy release slates. 1982’s release schedule featured numerous movies that would go on to be considered classics, including Spielberg’s own E.T., the Extra-terrestrial; Tron, one of the earliest films to utilize CGI; the best of the Star Trek film series, Star Trek II, the Wrath of Khan; and The Secret of NIMH, one of the first films to lead the “animation renaissance” of the 1980s. 1989 also featured a vast lineup that included Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters II, and the biggest hit of the summer, Batman. Of all the films from that summer, it was Batman, with its dark tone, brilliant production design, and memorable performances by Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker that left the greatest legacy in pop culture. Its massive success would convince 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 albums

In the 1990s, Spielberg had another major success with 1993’s Jurassic Park. Based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, it marked a major advance in the use of CGI in film production. Incredible attention to detail was paid to every aspect of Jurassic’s production, including the selection of design materials to make the set appear as much like a functional wildlife park as possible. There are surprisingly few CGI shots of dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park. Industrial Light and Magic’s own site lists slightly fewer than 60 shots in the movie that feature CGI. Animatronics, by Stan Winston Studios, were featured extensively in one of the film’s signature sequences, the T-Rex’s night attack. What does stand out is the near-flawless transition between CGI and animatronics to make the dinosaurs seem like living creatures from long ago, giving the film a legacy of invoking terror and wonder in its viewers that few movies can equal. 

Excelsior! The Superhero Age of Blockbusters 

CGI would go on to become a dominant influence in the blockbusters of the 1990s, used extensively in action scenes in Independence Day and Men in Black. But by the beginning of the 2000s, CGI had begun to be featured so extensively in films, TV series, and commercials that interest in watching a movie solely for the special effects was beginning to wane. Even George Lucas’ creation of Jar-Jar Binks, the first CGI main character to interact with live-action actors in a movie, was met with criticism when The Phantom Menace debuted in May 1999. Hollywood would face an even more difficult crossroads after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 with the climate of uncertainty and fear they provoked. What would be the new blockbuster that would get audiences back into movie theatres?

Superhero films had proved to be individual successes before the 2000s. DC Comics had already been well represented by Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies and the 1989 Batman film. But these were considered the most popular characters in comics. Marvel had not yet had a summer-defining blockbuster of its own, and even other DC characters, like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, were absent from the silver screen. Production on Sony’s Spider-Man began in 1999, as screenwriter David Koepp and veteran horror director Sam Raimi signed on. The film was originally slated for a summer 2001 release but was delayed to summer 2002. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as several sequences were revised to write the use of the Twin Towers out of the script after the 9/11 terror attacks. The film went on to widespread critical acclaim with its release, earning praise for its memorable action sequences, that incorporated web-slinging and rapid movement, and its great casting, which included Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. Even more importantly for Hollywood, Spider-Man became the first movie to earn over $100 million on its opening weekend of May 5, 2002. The Age of the Superhero had begun.

The two decades since Spider-Man would see many superhero series debut and become the biggest summer blockbusters of their years. 2005 saw Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy launch with Batman Begins and continue with 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. The three films stand out for their memorable performances (especially Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight), realistic atmosphere, and being a rare superhero saga with a true ending. Fox’s X-Men series, which predated Spider-Man, saw many popular summer releases over the years, with X2: X-Men United, opens a new window, Days of Future Past, and the dark comedy Deadpool films standing out. But the greatest lasting success in superhero films would belong to Marvel Studios itself. Starting with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel would go on to incorporate all of its releases into a continuity it called the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (MCU), creating a world where all its heroes and villains could interact and do battle. Here was finally a world where Captain America's, opens a new window and Iron Man’s splintering relationship would come to violence, a universe where Thor and the Hulk would do battle in a gladiatorial arena, a time when the Guardians of the Galaxy would do battle with the minions of Thanos for possession of the Infinity Stones. All the heroes would come together in a final battle against the mighty Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, a vibrant blast that gave all of Marvel’s heroes--even Ant-Man--exciting roles in defeating the universe’s greatest threat. Endgame debuted to crowded theaters like the blockbusters of the 1980s, to a worldwide opening of $1.2 billion! It was a wonderful time to be a Marvel fan.

Shifting Horizons: The Future of Blockbuster Releases

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 US movie theaters to close in March 2020, and movies such as Ghostbusters Afterlife, scheduled for the 2020 summer, 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. 

2021 has seen the beginnings of a return to summer theatrical releases, powered by movies delayed from the prior year. The first “all-in” theatrical release without a streaming option was A Quiet Place Part II, which opened with a $58 million box office over Memorial Day weekend. This was a considerable success after a year of closed theaters, but theatrical exclusives are still rare. The next major one was F9, which has already made over $300 million worldwide, but this highly hyped The Fast and the Furious sequel has been promoted since last year’s Super Bowl. A few more theatrical exclusives are scheduled for release over the 2021 summer, Jungle Cruise and Snake Eyes among them. 

2022 will be the first year when we’ll see a return to a more packed list of summer blockbusters. The first week of May will see the release of Thor: Love and Thunder, which will also incorporate characters from Guardians of the Galaxy. Mission Impossible 7 and John Wick: Chapter 4 will also come out in May. June will see the release of Lightyear, the space saga of the “real” Buzz Lightyear that the Toy Story action figure character was based on. Jurassic World: Dominion and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts will also roll out in June. July features the fifth Indiana Jones film; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; and Black Adam, a sequel to Shazam! These and other movies released in 2022 will herald the dawn of a new era of summer blockbusters.