With “The Avengers” opening as the first blockbuster film of the summer, it is an opportune time to focus on the emergence of the summer movie season. Over the next several weeks, Hollywood will bombard us with one big-budget film after another and the fate of the movie studios will hinge on their success or failure. Though now a fixture of American culture, the summer months have only been the center of movie activity since the 1970s.
In the late 1960s, the movie studios found themselves in serious financial trouble. Attendance had declined precipitously over the previous two decades, largely because of the rise of television. With the emergence of the baby boomer generation and the youth culture, Hollywood studios handed control over to a group of young directors in the hope they could tap this new market. The “New Hollywood” of the 1970s was born.
Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese took advantage of this opportunity to produce memorable films like “The Godfather” and “Taxi Driver.” Many film scholars see the 1970s as the heyday of American film, witnessing a creativity and sophistication not seen before or since. For instance, the best picture nominees for 1976 included, “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver,” “Network,” and “Rocky.” Somehow, “Rocky” won.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the pioneers of the summer blockbuster, also emerged during this time and in some ways, helped to usher in its end. With the unbelievable commercial success of Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 1975 and Lucas’ “Star Wars” in 1977, studios realized that young people would go to the same film over and over again during the summer. Furthermore, the unprecedented merchandising associated with “Star Wars” showed that movies could also serve as promotions for other products. The summer movie season was born, with studios releasing their biggest films during kids’ school vacation. The movies reversed their financial decline and attendance consistently grew for the next two decades.
Over time, the season has evolved. In the 1980s, one or two films dominated the summer box office. I vividly remember the summer of 1983 and the concomitant release of “Return of the Jedi” and “Superman III,” with both playing in the same two-theater complex in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida. Simply by having those two films, that theater dominated the summer box office. Though summer films had large opening weekend grosses in the 80s, they also built their audiences over several with word-of-mouth, as “E.T.” was the #1 film in the country for 10 weeks in the summer of 1982, with its gross peaking in the third week. “Back to the Future” remained at #1 for 13 weeks in 1985 (Shone, Blockbuster, 197). When I wanted to see a particular movie as a kid, my mother frequently told me that I could wait because it would “be playing all summer.”
My mother can’t say that today as the studios rely heavily on the opening two weeks for the lion share of a film’s earnings. With the growth of multiplexes, studios discovered they could get people to go back to the theater week after week to see different films. Today, it is rare for a movie to remain in the #1 slot for more than a couple of weeks. Furthermore, Memorial Day weekend used to be the traditional start of the movie season, but at some point the 1990s it started to commence earlier in May.
Though there is always a danger in nostalgia, I believe Hollywood has also become more conservative in its approach to blockbusters. Back in the 1980s, “War Games,” “The Karate Kid,” and “Gremlins” became big summer hits, even though they had no previously known big stars and were not based a on a best-selling novel or comic book. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has pointed out, all but two of the top 25 films of the 2000s were part of a pre-existing franchise (NYT, June 22, 2010). With the kind of spending required for major films, no studio exec wants to take a chance on something that isn’t a sure thing with a built-in audience.
Though “The Hunger Games” has propelled the box office this year, movie attendance had steadily fallen over the last decade. With the rise of better home entertainment options, many choose to watch films at home. One thing remains the same, though, as Hollywood’s profitability will be determined over the next three months.