The Summer Blockbuster: 1996 – 2009

What marked the difference between the blockbusters of the 1970s and 1980s and the 1990s and 2000s were digital special effects. For the first two decades the focus was on practical special effects, as the B-rate science fiction films these blockbusters were inspired by used. When you saw a spaceship zipping through the sky there was a physical model of the ship built and there was usually a matte painting of some sort and through the use of green screen the two elements were combined. As unreal as the scene was all its elements were something tangible. The move to computer generated effects is marked as beginning with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This began a regular tradition of James Cameron being on the cutting edge of film technology.

By 1996, CG effects were old hat. Films from that year included Independence Day and Twister, both of which are remembered more fondly for their special effects than their acting. Independence Day used practical effects for its alien villains and CG for its air battles, while Twister had real actors in real environments but completely CG twisters as well as a CG cow being carried away by it. On the other hand, 1996 saw the first Mission: Impossible film which primarily used practical effects for the majority of its story. These were followed by pictures like Men in Black and The Lost World, one of which began a franchise and the other which continued one. The trend in this period would be to establish franchises using original, and more commonly already established properties from comics and television. The mindset behind anchoring yourself to a franchise was safety. Trying a new formula out meant risk, and risk could mean financial failure. So studio followed the motto of “go with what you know”. This was seen in how franchises like Pirates of the Carribean, The Matrix, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Shrek have become perennial summer movies.

Before the end of the 1990s though, another director established himself as guaranteed box office during the summer: Michael Bay. His movie Armageddon followed many tried and true tropes. There were established actors, up and coming young talent, familiar character actors, a “rah rah” America plot, and lots of explosions. Bay’s name would become a common one on big summer movies, in particular the current Transformers franchise, which while commercially successful is reviewed dismally by critics. It doesn’t seems to phase Bay though, as he keeps churning at the same type of films and following his established formula to a tee. Another name to rise to prominence as a season favorite was Pixar. Pixar was a computer animation studio that, while part of the Disney family, retained much of its creative independence and is almost the anti-Michael Bay. Bay paints in broad strokes while Pixar is incredibly detail oriented, making sure to populate its worlds with minutiae and causes their films to truly breathe. It was Finding Nemo that put them on the summer blockbuster scene, and this was followed by The Incredibles, Cars, Wall-E, and Up. Up achieved a feat very few summer blockbusters can, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Hollywood’s obsession with clinging to the familiar hasn’t always given them typical movies and some times we see old favorites deliver something unexpected. Steven Spielberg played with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for awhile but switched gears to release Saving Private Ryan, an R-rated brutal portrayal of D-Day. The film works alongside Schindler’s List and the earlier Empire of the Sun as a sort of World War II trilogy. All three were quite unexpected from the man who created the blockbuster with Jaws. In the 2000s, Spielberg switched gears and aesthetics once again to tackle classic science fiction stories. He directed A.I., Minority Report, and War of the Worlds, all of which employed a harsh light and not quite as heartwarming look at life as his previous work. Spielberg was joined by Lucas who returned in 1999 to his Star Wars franchise with The Phantom Menace. Audiences were incredibly split on the film and its follow ups: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. This time around the Star Wars universe felt very sterile and absent of the life it previously possessed. With the conclusion of this third trilogy, Lucas seems to have once again retreated to the world he was able to build for himself.

The end of 2000s closed out with very familiar faces on the screen. There was a reboot of the Star Trek franchise, a new Harry Potter, a new Transformers, a new Pixar film, and a second film based on the books of Dan Brown. Hollywood is firmly dug in to produce tried and true concepts, with the occasional allowance of a new idea. Just recently reboots of the Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes franchises have been announced and some of 2010s most anticipated summer films have been sequels to successful franchises and rebootings of old ones (A-Team, The Karate Kid).

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

The Summer Blockbuster: 1975 – 1985

It began with a great white shark.

It wasn’t until the mid-70s that the concept of summer being a time to release big budget, special effects driven pictures came into the zeitgeist. Looking at the current wave of summer movies, its easy to see that science fiction and fantasy dominate, but back in the 1950s and 1960s the majority of these genre films were low budget and full of poor acting. The novel Jaws by Peter Benchley was purchased by Universal in 1973 and went through two directors before the studio settled on the relatively green Steven Spielberg. Universal’s first choice had been John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) and then Dick Richards, who was fired after continually referring the shark as “the whale”.


To Universal, Jaws was going to be a successful film, but they never expected to be as huge a hit as it became. On June 20th, 1975 the picture was released nationwide, meaning it opened in Los Angeles and New York as well as smaller venues across the country. In the past, a film would open in a larger market and slowly spread across the country. Many film historians see this business move as the one that ensured Jaws‘ success. Up to this point the late 1960s and early 1970s had been dominated by artist driven pictures, and the studios had given up the reigns to young and headstrong young directors with a vision. Directors like Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) had been the kind of filmmakers producing studio pictures, something very unlikely even today. In many ways, by using Spielberg, a contemporary of these young directors, but saddling him with a very studio controlled and non-character driven film, the studios were attempting to reassert their control. But the success of Jaws was nothing compared to Star Wars‘ release two years later.

There’s not much to say about Star Wars that isn’t well-known already. George Lucas, after establishing himself with American Graffiti and THX-1138, released his science fiction epic using the tropes of the serialized films of his childhood. Unlike Jaws, Lucas didn’t have a plethora of studio support behind his film and clashed with his crew, who were veterans of the film industry while Lucas was seen as an upstart. After missing its Christmas 1976 release, 20th Century Fox moved it to May 1977. Early director’s cuts were screened for Lucas’ friends, including Brian de Palma and Steven Spielberg and their reactions were disappointing. Every thing seemed to be pointing at Star Wars being a colossal failure. Lucas finally screened the picture to 20th Century Fox executives and was shocked. They loved it. One executive admitted to crying during the film at how beautiful it was, and Lucas was completely blown away from getting studio approval on a film for the first time in his career.

However, instead of becoming a studio lackey, Lucas began to build his own quiet corner of the film industry and cleverly established production facilities for sound and other technical aspects of film to create a financial safety net.  Filming for The Empire Strikes Back began in 1979, with Lucas letting Lawrence Kasdan direct while Lucas supervised as producer. While the budget for Star Wars has been $11 million ($3 million over budget), Empire had a pool of $18.5 which, after a studio fire, became $22 million. Lucas always seemed to be struggling with the limitations of the contemporary technology to realize his vision. It can be seen in the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie, that Lucas wanted to make something so expansive and ground breaking. It wouldn’t be till 1999’s The Phantom Menace that he got his wish, while audiences felt the heart of the series was lost amidst masturbatory world building.

For most of the 1970s and 80s, Spielberg and Lucas dominated the summer movie. Spielberg went on to give us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. He then teamed with Lucas to create the Indiana Jones franchise, a film series that seemed to up the ante in terms of character based blockbusters. Harrison Ford has said in interviews that he is always much more eager to play Indiana Jones again, than Han Solo. With Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Hollywood underwent a change that would shape the industry for decades to come. The level of violence in Temple challenged the MPAA’s standards and Spielberg desperately didn’t want the film to be slapped with the death sentence of an R rating. These Spielberg/Lucas films depended greatly on the viewer-ship of young audiences, particularly for the merchandising tie-ins. As a compromise, the MPAA invented the rating of PG-13.

One year after Temple, Spielberg released the Robert Zemeckis-directed Back to the Future, a film that combined special effects driven sci fi with the teen comedy. The film proved that you didn’t have to have Spielberg or Lucas directing a film to make it a huge success. Both Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale were terrified that the film had not lived up to their vision and figured it would bomb. Audiences went crazy for it however, and critic Roger Ebert pointed out that at its core it shared a lot of thematic similarities with the beloved It’s A Wonderful Life. As we entered into the mid-80s, Lucas began to fade from the scene as a director and Spielberg would continue to top the grossing-lists. However, there were now a group of directors moving in to prove their own ability to pull audiences in.

Next: 1986 – 1995: Gump, Disney, and Ahnold.