From Graveyard to Traffic Jam: The Strange Evolution of the Summer Movie

How the summer months went from a movie dead zone to the crowded backbone of the industry.

The story goes that the suits at 20th Century Fox were so certain George Lucas’s Star Wars was going to flop (since, the marketing department insisted, the two words of its title were certain death at the box office), they gave it what Alan Ladd Jr., the film’s sole booster among the Fox brass, dubbed “the dead date, the deadest date in the history of movies.” That date was May 25 – Memorial Day weekend. Yes, once upon a time, nobody wanted to open their movie on Memorial Day; what’s more, they didn’t much care to put their movie into the summer season it kicked off. What changed?

In a word: Jaws. Before the release of Steven Spielberg’s gigantic smash on June 20, 1975, the summer was, according to author (and the provider of that Star Wars anecdote) Tom Shone, “pretty much the graveyard shift for the movie theaters. You would get a lot of exploitation, the really cheap end of the stick, there was no prestige to it whatsoever. It was certainly not the time when the studios looked to make any serious money or really any of their biggest pictures.” A peek at the box office receipts for the first half of the ‘70s tells the story; each year’s biggest hits were, rarely if ever, released in the summer months:

1970: Love Story (December), Airport (March), MASH (January)
1971: Fiddler on the Roof (November), The French Connection (October), Diamonds Are Forever (December)
1972: The Godfather (March), The Poseidon Adventure (December), What’s Up Doc (March)
1973: The Sting, The Exorcist (December), American Graffiti (August)
1974: Blazing Saddles (February), The Towering Inferno, Young Frankenstein, The Godfather Part II (December)

The rest of 1974’s moneymakers steered similarly clear of the season: The Trial of Billy Jack, Earthquake, and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams were released in November, while Airport 1975 and Benji hit theaters in October. Only August’s The Longest Yard shows up in that year’s top ten; that summer’s big Memorial Day release was (gulp) Peter Bogdanovich’s costume drama flop Daisy Miller. (And the success of American Graffiti in August of 1973 was entirely unintentional; Universal dumped it there after threatening to send it straight to television, and were only walked back by an offer from producer Francis Ford Coppola to buy the picture outright.)

This was, simply, the way business was done, pre-1975. Looking at the inflation-adjusted list of the biggest box office hits of all time, the highest-grossing summer release, pre-Jaws, was August 1964’s Mary Poppins – number 27. Otherwise, it looks like this:

Gone with the Wind (December)
The Sound of Music (March)
The Ten Commandments (October)
Doctor Zhivago (December)
The Exorcist (December)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (December)
101 Dalmatians (January)
Ben-Hur (November)
The Sting (December)
The Graduate (December)
Fantasia (January)

The cast of "Jaws"

The pre-Jaws blockbusters, in other words, were big, prestige pictures that studios envisioned as both commercial successes and award-winners, back in an era when those two things were rarely mutually exclusive. Thus (with a few exceptions) studios targeted their big movies for the fall and holiday season, and those movies were primarily geared towards two audiences: sophisticated adults and full families. Teenagers didn’t enter into the equation; while distributors knew there was money to be made from out-of-school kids looking for air-conditioned theaters or drive-in destinations, all they put out for those kids was some summer-time junk, without the expectation of turning any serious coin.

That all changed in 1975, according to Shone’s book Blockbuster, which traces much of what we now think of as big-ticket movie-making — a summer release date, a wide opening, a branded and blanketed marketing strategy — to Jaws. Sometimes, Jaws is attributed with originating those trends, which Shone notes isn’t exactly true; “Movie history is sort of littered with all these ‘firsts’ that turn out to be nothing of the sort,” he says. “People always claim a revolution instigated by a single film or a single filmmaker. Jaws was the lightning strike that powered this revolution in thinking for the studios.” In fact, Universal chairman Lew Wasserman insisted the studio reduce its initial, “unprecedented” 900 theater opening to less than half that number; it looked bad, as only exploitation pictures typically opened wide, so they’d sucker in their audience before the bad reviews got out. Nonetheless, its 409-screen opening was much larger than the customary studio platform release, and it became the first motion picture to gross more than $100 million — “Hollywood’s sound barrier,” Shone writes, “the one nobody said could be beat.”

The next question, after Jaws broke that wide and broke those records, was whether it was an anomaly. Did Jaws do so well in the summer because the summer was a good time to release big movies, or because it was, simply put, a “summer” movie – explicitly about the season, what with all the beach-going and Fourth of July-ing and so on? Innovation and revolution moves at a snail’s pace in Hollywood, so the studios didn’t rush to shift their big 1976 titles to summer, and the year-end receipts reflected it; only two of the year’s top ten, the horror classic The Omen and the all-star WWII extravaganza Midway, opened in the summer months. But the following year, they started taking some chances. Another all-star WWII movie, A Bridge Too Far, aped Midway’s June debut. Columbia positioned their adaptation of Jaws author Peter Benchley’s second novel The Deep as basically a sequel, opening it two years nearly to the day after Jaws’ debut, on June 17. MGM opened the latest Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, in July; it was only the third Bond picture to forgo a fall debut. And Universal decided to ignore the conventional wisdom about Memorial Day by opening Smokey and the Bandit, wide, against Star Wars — and ended up with the year’s second-biggest hit.

By 1978, the message had been delivered; of the year’s top ten movies, seven came out in between May and August. What’s more, most fell within the confines of what we now think of as summer movies: star vehicles (Grease, Hooper, Heaven Can Wait), teen- and college-geared comedies (Animal House), sequels to previous hits (Jaws 2, The Revenge of the Pink Panther), and, of course, a superhero movie (Superman: The Movie). No longer was summer the dumping ground for youth-centered exploitation movies nobody wanted — the studios realized the smart play, financially, was to rethink them as youth-centered exploitation movies everybody wanted.

Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford

The elements had been knocking around for a while, Shone says; they were just waiting for “the galvanizing effect of a sensibility like Spielberg’s to come along and wrap it into the next dimension.” With Jaws, which was (at its essence) a Roger Corman drive-in monster movie, Spielberg was “making this B picture, but he was making it with the skill of an A director.” And same goes for Star Wars, which was explicitly inspired by Buck Rogers serials and similarly low-brow, youth-oriented product. “So everything looks like a dress rehearsal,” Shone explains, “until they realized that fact, that the audience could skew younger.”

And realize it they did. Most of the post-1975 entries on that all-time highest grossers list hit theaters between May and August: six Star Wars movies, six Batman movies, four Indiana Jones movies, three Jurassic Park movies, three Pirates of the Caribbean, three Transformers, three Shreks, three Spider-Men, three Supermen, three Iron Men, two Avengers, E.T., The Lion King, Forrest Gump, Ghostbusters, Independence Day, Finding Nemo, Back to the Future, The Sixth Sense, Twister, Men in Black, Toy Story 3, Terminator 2, Top Gun, The Matrix Reloaded, and so on and so on. But if you flip it to the version that doesn’t adjust for inflation, it’s much, much more of the same – with a far more pronounced emphasis on recent releases. And that, Shone says, is the real change in our sense of what a summer blockbuster is: an adjustment in definition. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a “blockbuster” was an event, an infrequently applied label for a true breakaway, above-the-pack success. Now, he says, the blockbuster is basically another genre, like the broad comedy or the prestige drama, and that’s mostly a byproduct of market saturation.

Gone with the Wind was a kind of once-in-a-generation phenomenon,” he says. “Jaws and Star Wars came along and they felt like the movies of the decade. By the time Batman comes along [in 1989] we expect one of these [films] every summer, and now we have about 18-20 all crowding into this narrow gully. The frequency has been significantly increased; the industry has rebuilt itself in the image of those films. They were more than just hits. There wasn’t a sense of like, ‘Fox and Universal struck it lucky and good for them.’ I think the industry sensed that the way for them to survive, so they kind of rebuilt themselves and the image of Jaws and Star Wars; it just took a long time for them to either get the formula down.”

But they certainly did, so much so that in 2016, the formula is pretty much ubiquitous: big budgets, recognizable brands, inescapable marketing, and broad plays for all possible audience segments. The boundaries of the summer movie season were expanded; what once began on Memorial Day was pushed back, around the time of Twister, to include the previously dead weeks of early May. Competition for attention in those summer months grew fiercer, and studios thus grew increasingly reliant on established franchises, brands, and stunt marketing. And the summer months were so dense with product that it all began to blur; Blockbuster was written in 2004, but Shone’s observation that each week seems to yield “Yet another record-breaking blockbuster, one which everyone goes to see and then forgets about in a week,” only seems more accurate in the face of an increasingly blockbuster-addicted movie industry.

star-wars-the-force-awakens

“I think what you’re seeing is the blockbuster biology, the blockbuster bloodstream, that is now the lifeblood of movie making,” Shone says. “Whenever I hear the phrase ‘movie industry’ or ‘film industry’ I think, how quaint. That’s such a strange idea. I don’t think they really exist. Any film industry only exists because of those big movies and those big movies are really just what those studios are about. We’re in the blockbuster industry and movies are these things that they make every November to win awards, but that’s not the reason that we’re all here.”

And so the boundaries and definitions of the summer movie continue to expand, and to grow more amorphous. The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars movie to open outside of May — in a Christmas slot, where it cleaned up, becoming the to-do family Christmas activity. (The current second- and third-place unadjusted box office winners, Avatar and Titanic, also came out in December.) The Hunger Games movies, which would seem like no-brainers for summer, were released in November (after the first film’s March debut). Batman v Superman steered clear of the Marvel-ccentric summer by rolling out in March; the superhero semi-spoof Deadpool opened in February, and until last week, it was the biggest domestic performer of the year.

Long story short, what was once the year’s least desirable season is now in danger of becoming its only season. Endless Summer used to be the title of a Beach Boys greatest hits compilation. Yet it’s starting to sound, more and more, like the blockbuster industry’s business plan.