The Summer Blockbuster: 1986 – 1995

Coming out of the mid-80s, if you had money invested in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas you were probably incredibly rich. They had success after success, not just in their own films, but in those of directors they were producing and supporting. However, there would be an odd dip that occurred in the remainder of the 1980s. A few film franchises would rise to prominence, Lucas’ stock would plummet, and Spielberg would attempt to try out some non-science fiction and fantasy films.

While science fiction flicks made big box office they also cost big budgets to make. It’s no surprise that many studio attempted to go with smaller budget films and these typically focused on “rah rah” crowd pleasers are mixtures of action and comedy. The Karate Kid franchise was one of those “rah rah” type films that aimed dead center at kids and young adolescents. You have a young man, bullied at school, who is taught how to fight by a wizened karate master. He’s able to overcome the bullies through beating them up. You also had the first three films of the Lethal Weapon series which raised Mel Gibson to prominence and managed to pull in big audiences on a fairly small budget, something studios always like to see. Along with Lethal Weapon, there was Beverly Hills Cop I and II, which vaulted the already popular Eddie Murphy into an even higher level of celebrity. Even today, if you notice every summer seems to have one Eddie Murphy film (this year’s is Shrek 4).

There was also use a big name actor to sell the film, rather than a premise. In 1986, Tony Scott’s Top Gun was released and took Tom Cruise, who had appeared in quite a few films before then, most notably Tony’s brother Ridley’s Legend, to stardom. Top Gun works as both a star making vehicle and a “rah rah” America movie. Tom Cruise’s Maverick leads his flight unit take on North Koreans flying a fictional style of fighter jet on par with the American F-14s. Despite the implausibility that North Korean would ever be able to compete with the US Airforce, the film was a huge hit and a high selling soundtrack. Tom Hanks was the other actor to make his way up to super stardom during the 1980s. Penny Marshall’s Big was his breakthrough, a simple story of a teenage boy who becomes an adult after making a wish. Budget-wise this was an incredibly cheap film to make. No real special effects and no actors who were huge names, at the time. What made the film such a great success was the honest charisma Hanks brings to all his roles. There are few actors that handle a film so naturally. Hanks would be attached to many more summer movies to come, most notably Sleepless in SeattleForrest Gump, and Apollo 13 and  both films that went against the Spielberg/Lucas formula for a blockbuster.

But you can always rely on certain films being a success based on the name attached to them in the director’s seat. James Cameron, unlike Spielberg, didn’t produce a prolific amount of work but it seemed that he didn’t need to to become notable. Cameron made non-summer movies The Terminator and Aliens which set him up for Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Character-driven films weren’t Cameron’s strong suit and he relied a lot on technology, particularly new types of computer generated effects not yet seen by the public. His T-1000, the liquid metal villain of T2 was a huge shift in special effects driven film making. However, his next film, True Lies would be a non-CG focused film with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis fighting Middle Eastern terrorists.

At the end of the day though, you could always rely on familiar names, be it director or franchise to fuel a successful movie. Spielberg put out the third Indiana Jones film at the end of the 1980s and established a new franchise with Jurassic Park. Jurassic was a type of film that really overtook pop culture in 1993 in a way it would be hard for a single film to do now. It was one of the last pre-internet media fueled movies and was in theaters from June of ’93 all the way to October of the same year. Disney also came to the forefront for the first time as a major summer draw. It seems like an obvious company to make summer blockbusters but they had never done so. They got their legs wet with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, both Holiday season releases. Nothing compared to the success of The Lion King. It was a reworking of Hamlet, an odd piece of source material for a summer movie, but it worked. Audiences went again and again and since Disney has had a picture in the running every summer, though now its CG Pixar features.

Next: Batman, Spider-Man, and Star Wars


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