I haven’t see “Super 8” yet, but it made me think about the history of the summer blockbuster. The reviews suggest that the film, directed by J.J. Abrams, is deeply influenced by the Steven Spielberg movies of the 1970s and 80s (Spielberg is also producing “Super 8.”) This follows the release of “Paul” in the spring, which was a satirical look back on those films, with Spielberg making a cameo. These films reveal that the Gen X filmmakers that grew up on these movies are now in position to make their own tributes to the classics of their childhoods.
Directors like Abrams and Bryan Singer (X1, X2, Superman Returns) are part of the first generation to grow up with the summer blockbuster. Before the 1970s, Hollywood did not really target young people as an audience and summer grosses were not the driving force behind the film industry’s bottom line. The studios, however, fell into serious financial trouble in the late 1960s as movie attendance gradually declined from its post-World War II peak, largely because of the rise of television. Seeing the emergence of the youth culture in the late 1960s, Hollywood handed over control to young filmmakers who were supposed to be in touch with the cultural revolution of the previous decade.
As a result, directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Spielberg got opportunities to make films with relatively little interference. Because of this freedom, many film scholars see the 1970s as the golden age of film. It is remarkable to think about the best picture nominees for 1976: “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver,” “Network,” “Bound for Glory,” and “Rocky.” Unbelievably, “Rocky” won.
Reversing the nearly three-decade decline in attendance, the success of Spielberg’s “Jaws” in the summer of 1975 and Lucas’ “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977 heralded a shift in the industry. The studios saw that they could get not only get young people to go to the movies, but they could get young people to go to the same film multiple times. By the 1980s, summer became the prime time for big-budget movies and the 16-24 age group became the primary move audience. It has remained that way ever since.