It’s difficult to think of summer without movies coming to mind. Summer blockbusters have become a staple of the warm months — a herald even, that summer has arrived.
As of late, superhero films have been ushering in summer on the silver screen, and before superheroes it was dinosaurs and loveable aliens, with a galaxy far, far away in between. But it was a homicidal shark that began the relationship between summer and blockbusters.
Susan King, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, described the birth of this relationship stemming from the film Jaws.
“Before the release of the Steven Spielberg-directed thrill ride [ . . . ] on June 20, 1975, about a great white shark on a feeding frenzy around fictional Amity Island (Martha’s Vineyard), the summer blockbuster didn’t really exist,” wrote King.
Originally, “blockbuster” was a term coined by the press to describe a powerful bomb that was capable of leveling an entire city block but eventually the term made its way into the entertainment industry and referred to a hit play whose success “busted” other theaters on the block, driving them out of business.
The term has since evolved to describe everything from successful films, to bestselling books and video games. Prior to Jaws, films such as Ben-Hur or Gone With the Wind, which did incredibly well at the box office, were described as being spectaculars, super-grossers or super-blockbusters — precursor terms to blockbuster.
After the release of Jaws though, blockbuster has come to define a type of film — a genre of film, even — that is not just a success at the box office, but a cultural phenomena and an entertainment event.
Prior to Jaws, films usually had a very limited release, only opening in a few major cities at first. The Godfather for example, which was considered a critical and commercial success at its release, only opened on six screens initially.
As word of mouth spread about a film and it built momentum, the studio would widen its release. Word of mouth also served as the only marketing for a film.
Before Jaws came along, marketing and advertising of films was minimal or nonexistent.
Advanced-screenings for Jaws were met with a hot reception, which encouraged the executives at Universal Studios to green-light an incredibly wide release. Jaws opened to 409 theaters on June 20, 1975.
This pioneer wide release was paired with a marketing campaign that incorporated television spots, which all aided in the genesis of the first-ever blockbuster film.
The film made box office history, becoming the first-ever movie to gross US$100 million, and changed how film studios approach movies — beginning the blockbuster trend.
Thrilled by the success of Jaws, film studios all tried to replicate its success by trying to turn films into an event, utilizing marketing and wide releases. Studios also began to plan their entire year around their biggest films, which they called “tent-pole films.”
Films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial are all examples of tent-pole films, which built on the Jaws formula.
Summer blockbuster films have since evolved to include even wider releases and more complex marketing.
The Dark Knight, which shattered record after record, incorporated interactive viral marketing campaigns and opened in 4,366 theaters.
According to Box Office Mojo, an online database of film release information, The Dark Knight made over US$158 million during its opening weekend.
Although Jaws introduced a new genre in a sense, in the form of blockbuster films, and revolutionized how studios approached not only film but also marketing and release methods, the blockbuster film has also been criticized for pioneering the decline in the quality of films.
Michael Peters, a writer for Suite101.com, discussed this decline: “Since the late ’70s, films have desired to entertain, especially in the summer. They have stripped their art house attire and have become ‘dumbed-down’ escapist filled entertainment (with a tremendous amount of merchandise to boot).”
“To some, the summer is the greatest time for movies. For others, it is a definitely an example of all that is wrong with Hollywood.”
Ultimately, though, it is up to the viewer to decide whether a blockbuster is a success or failure — and more importantly, whether the film was worth their time or not. But failure or not, there is no denying that summer is the season of the blockbuster.