Movie Article

The Evolution of the Summer Blockbuster

The evolution of the summer blockbuster -- We trace the phenomena from ''American Graffiti'' to ''Ghost''

The Summer Movie, that big-budget, no-brain blockbuster that jams theaters between Memorial and Labor days, hasn't always been with us. Movie studios once released more or less the same type of movie year-round, usually opening them in a few cities at a time and gradually rolling them out across the country. Then, in 1973, renegade filmmaker Tom Laughlin rereleased Billy Jack in hundreds of theaters at once, promoted it with saturation TV advertising, and turned it into a hit; soon studios were opening most major movies on more than 500 screens, and with huge ad campaigns. That same year, baby boomers, by jamming theaters to see American Graffiti, convinced studios that they wanted films geared to their interests. Hollywood began turning out extravagant versions of what had once been drive-in fodder — teen movies, sci-fi flicks, destruction derbies. Today the baby boomers have grown up, but Summer Movies continue to pack the theaters. Here are some of the milestones of the genre.

American Graffiti
Opened: August 1, 1973
Opened in: 1 theater
Box Office: $115 mill.

Universal Pictures, thinking it had a lemon on its hands, gave a cautious release to George Lucas' nostalgic look at high school cruising, circa '62. But the $775,000 movie, buttressed by a nonstop soundtrack of golden oldies, triggered the first box office youthquake of the '70s.

Jaws
Opened: June 20, 1975
Opened in: 490 theaters
Box Office: $237 mill. (original release)

With 5 million copies of the novel in print, Jaws was already a best-selling title. But this time Universal took no chances, hyping Steven Spielberg's $8 million shark attack by placing 30-second spots on every prime-time TV show for three nights running. Result: an instant box office feeding frenzy.

Star Wars
Opened: May 25, 1977
Opened in: 32 theaters
Box Office: $295 mill. (original release)

Sci-fi was a dead genre, and Fox opted for a limited initial release. But George Lucas' publicists had wisely hawked their star wares at sci-fi conventions, and when the movie opened, lines stretched around the block. That helped move the official start of the movie summer from July Fourth to Memorial Day.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Opened: June 12, 1981
Opened in: 1,075 theaters
Box Office: $228 mill. (original release)

Executive producer Lucas and director Spielberg joined forces to elevate the cheesy old Saturday-matinee serial into a state-of-the-art thrill ride. For audiences increasingly hooked on cinematic pyrotechnics, this became the standard to beat.

E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
Opened: June 11, 1982
Opened in: 1,101 theaters
Box Office: $359 mill. (original release)

Though it was released by Universal, Spielberg's E.T. was the ultimate Disney movie-a family film for all ages, immediately embraced by baby boomers and their growing numbers of boomer babies. With its rereleases, it is the top-grossing film of all time.

Rambo: First Blood II
Opened: May 24, 1985
Opened in: 2,074 theaters
Box Office: $150 mill.

Sylvester Stallone upped the ante for realistic violence in action movies. Debuting on more than 2,000 screens, Rambo blasted its way to a bloodcurdling $25 million opening weekend.

Batman
Opened: June 23, 1989
Opened in: 2,194 theaters
Box Office: $251 mill.

Batmania ruled, thanks as much to a relentless, six-month marketing campaign as to director Tim Burton's Wagnerian take on the brooding superhero. The film's opening weekend gross was a record $40 million. Jack Nicholson's reported $50 million share was another first.

Ghost
Opened: July 13, 1990
Opened in: 1,101 theaters
Box Office: $218 mill. (to date)

While formulaic blockbuster wannabes like Days of Thunder and Robocop 2 fell short of expectations, this offbeat romance carried the summer. After years of blueprinting the Summer Movie, shell-shocked moguls went back to their script piles looking for ''story-driven'' pictures — that's studio-ese for movies with genuine plots.

Originally posted May 24, 1991 Published in issue #67 May 24, 1991 Order article reprints
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