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5 Epic Facts About Summer Blockbusters

There are a few different ways to tell that summer has nearly arrived: a look at the calendar, a glimpse at the thermometer, and the influx of movie trailers on TV. Between May and September, an overabundance of films call to us, offering a two-hour escape from the heat and an adventure only available on the silver screen. Catching the biggest films of the summer is practically an American tradition — but it wasn’t always that way. Here are five things you may not know about the summer blockbuster.

The Word “Blockbuster” Once Had a Different Meaning

The English language is constantly in a state of change, which is why the word now used to describe hugely successful films has veered from its original meaning. The term “blockbuster” emerged in 1942 in the midst of World War II, used to describe exceptionally destructive bombs. As the word implies, blockbusters were powerful enough to destroy entire city blocks, and within a year, writers began using the descriptive word as a way to describe explosive, shocking, or otherwise massive news events.

However, the use of “blockbuster” would soon change; some historians believe the word temporarily fell out of popularity and was considered insensitive following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But by the 1950s, “blockbuster” reemerged, entering common vernacular (possibly thanks to Hollywood film producer Max E. Youngstein) to describe films that generated huge returnsat the box office. The word became so synonymous with movies over the next few decades that by 1985 it was the name of the largest movie rental chain in the U.S. at the time. (Alas, there is now just one remaining location of the Blockbuster chain.)

Summer Used to Be Slow for Movie Theaters

Escaping the scorching heat in a cool movie theater (with a refreshing side of soda and popcorn) hasn’t always been a summer pastime. Prior to the 1970s, movie theaters experienced seasonal slowdowns, since many Americans preferred to spend their summer days outdoors. Knowing this, Hollywood studios of the 1950s and ’60s reserved their biggest releases for the last quarter of the year, pushing films into theaters in October, November, and December with the goal of capturing ticket sales from holiday shoppers. A second major reason to avoid a summer release: Films debuted at the end of the year were freshest in the minds of film awards voters, giving late-year releases a better chance at taking home an Oscar. All this would change in the latter third of the 20th century, however ….

“ Jaws” Created the Summer Blockbuster

Steven Spielberg was a fledgling film director when he released Jaws in 1975, but the movie — his second full-length theatrical feature — would go on to change how Hollywood operated. As the first-ever film to earn $100 million at the box office, Jaws greatly encouraged the idea that summer was the perfect time to catch a film in theaters. In the lead-up to the movie’s release — pushed to June of 1975 due to production delays — Universal Studios spent upwards of $2 million on television trailers to generate excitement, an unusual tactic at the time, and it paid off big. Moviegoers literally lined up around the block to see Spielberg’s tale about a human-hungry great white shark, which made more than $7 million in the film’s opening weekend. But Jaws didn’t just make money; it also gave studios the green light to heavily fund and advertise their projects, and paved the way for future summer blockbusters, such as Star Wars (1977), Grease (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Most Summer Blockbusters Are Action Films

After the Jaws and Star Wars successes of the 1970s, Hollywood was quick to lock in its blockbuster formula, often releasing its most enterprising, big-budget films between May and September. By the 1980s, studios realized that fast-paced action and adventure films drew in the largest audiences, with moviegoers often returning to see the same film again and again. Comic book characters began their blockbuster debuts in the 1990s, dominating screens in the decades ahead with a glut of never-ending sequels and universe expansions.And it’s no surprise: Action films have reigned supreme with summer film fans since 1975, accounting for 46% of all summer blockbuster releases (adventure films rank a close second, at 42%). While it’s possible to cool off with a romantic comedy this summer, don’t anticipate a wide selection — the romance genre historically accounts for just 15% of all summer releases over the past five decades.

“Jurassic Park” May Be the Most Successful Blockbuster Series

Summer flicks bring in the big bucks for film studios; take, for example, 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick, which raked in $1.49 billionworldwide following its May debut. However, one franchise may be the most successful of all time: Jurassic Park. Originally released in 1993, Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi and adventure film grossed $978 million worldwide, catapulting it into the record books as the highest-grossing film ever (a title it held until James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997). The five following Jurassic Park franchise films (all summer blockbusters, released in 1997, 2001, 2015, 2018, and 2022) have, on average, brought in $1 billion in global ticket sales. But even with new spins on the dinosaur-inspired story, Spielberg’s original script remains incredibly popular with new (and old) audiences. Jurassic Park once again hit No. 1 on the box-office charts following a 2020 re-release, nearly three decades after it first wowed summertime crowds.

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