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Top 10 Summer Blockbusters

By Ally Sinyard · July 19, 2011

In the beginning, there was Jaws. And it changed cinema forever. Jaws is pretty much seen as the father of the summer blockbuster because, up until then, movies were only shown in a few theatres. Yes, there were films like Gone with the Wind, but Jaws was an outright cultural phenomenon, aimed at pulling in as many cinema-goers and, thus, cash as possible. It was the first film to use a “wide release” strategy and became the first movie to gross over $100m in box office receipts. Jaws introduced a new kind of cinema that was fast, exciting, pure entertainment.

Since its release in June 1975, summer blockbusters have become key for the financial success of film studios. They are popular with audiences, but often criticised for being all style and no substance, pitted against the more serious, artistic films of the New Hollywood Era. But there can be no denying that these summer blockbusters are a sure-fire way to keep the money rolling in. They are made with the audience in mind, and as wide an age range as possible. They are pure entertainment and will attempt to enlist the biggest stars and the biggest budgets. There will often be a heavy use of special effects, devices to keep the audience’s attention at all times, and they will guarantee that your child will be begging for the Limited Edition lunch box/pyjamas/wristwatch combo.

In this list, I will be looking at the Top 10 Summer Blockbusters in all their outrageous, money-grabbing glory.

10. Back to the Future (July 1985)

Budget: $19m Gross: $381m

Back To The Futureis an example of a relatively modest sci-fi, action film with great FX that achieved much of its success through word of mouth. Due to various scheduling conflicts, Zemeckis had been unable to fully promote the film and had been apparently dissatisfied with the rest of the marketing. He was sure it would flop. Yet the film had the 4th highest opening weekend of 1985 and, thanks to word of mouth, its second weekend was even higher. It went on to gross a worldwide total of $381m and became the highest grossing film of the year. This time-travelling/adventure/sci-fi is a firm favourite with audiences young and old and went on to become one hell of a franchise with video games, theme park rides, sequels, and animated series.

9. Alien (May 1979)

Budget: $11m Gross: $104m

Alien is a bit of an anomaly of this list. Yes, it is a summer blockbuster, but it pretty much went out of its way to avoid being seen as one. It didn’t use any huge stars, the action is all in one setting and the marketing was kept very quiet. It was the film itself that grabbed audiences by the gonads and declared that all of this pre-release hype and nonsense was unnecessary. To be honest, for the type of film that it is, I think it’s an excellent tactic. If audiences know what they’re in for, they’re less likely to get the chills and thrills that Alien delivers. Its sequel, Aliens, is also often referred to as a great summer blockbuster, and it has more in common with the rest of the films on this list, yet Alien stands out for proving that its not always about the campaign.

8. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (July 1991)

Budget: $102m Gross: $519m

Terminator 2 is everything you could want from a summer blockbuster sequel and more: it’s got action, adventure, science fiction, drama, groundbreaking special effects and more complex character developments than you can shake a stick at. And of course Arnie, gawd bless ‘im. It’s also seen as a hugely influential film with regards to sci-fi cinema. It earned a colossal $54m during its Fourth of July opening weekend (never underestimate the power of excellent timing), and it can be no coincidence that, inflation aside, Terminator 2 was the most expensive film ever made (for its time). Should directors always have to spend big to win big? Not in every case, but it certainly seems to help.

7. Jurassic Park (June 1993)

Budget: $63m Gross: $915m

In a recent lecture on Postmodernism I attended, a particular clip from Jurassic Park was used. We were discussing the summer blockbuster, and this was paired with the shots of the empty gift shop. You could see glimpses of such Jurassic Park merchandise as drinks bottles, pyjamas, toys and lunch boxes. This led to the lecturer calling Jurassic Park a walking, talking advert. It sells its own merchandise during the film! You can’t get much bolder than that! Universal also spend $65m alone on the marketing campaign, while only ever showing a glimpse of the dinosaurs in the ads. Tactics like these certainly drew in audiences, and it grossed $82m in its first week. Not only was it groundbreaking in its use of visual effects, Jurassic Park is also another summer blockbuster that ticks all the boxes: funny, intelligent, exciting, visually stunning and of course Jeff Goldblum. What more could you want??

6. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 1981)

Budget: $18m Gross: $384m

Raiders of the Lost Arksaw the teaming up of the two Big Daddies of the summer blockbuster: Steven Spielberg (director) and George Lucas (producer). It was the top-grossing film of 1981 and still stands as one of the highest-grossing films ever made (inflation aside and all that.) It takes a nostalgic look back at the popular Saturday serials of the 1930s and 40s. It is fun, exciting, hilarious and “one of the most […] stylish American adventure movies ever made” (Vincent Canby – The New York Times). Numerous books, comic books, video games, action figures and of course film sequels movies have since been produced and Indiana Jones is a popular household name all over the world. To this day, Raiders of the Lost Ark remains an essential family film and action adventure classic.

5. Star Wars IV: A New Hope (May 1977)

Budget: $11m Gross: $775m

Star Wars didn’t get off to a great start. It was turned away by studios and its test screenings received less than favourable reviews. So, no one could have imagined what a pop culture phenomenon was waiting in the wings. It was released in the summer of 1977 and immediately broke box office records. The blockbuster had suddenly gone interstellar! It earned over $6m in its opening weekend and Fox proceeded to widen its release. Adjusted by inflation, it is the second highest grossing movie of all time, with plenty of profitable sequels, prequels, merchandising and so on to follow.  The overall box office revenue for the Star Wars film stands at over $4.41 billion. Sure, The Empire Strikes Back is the better film but Star Wars is the film that started it all.

4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (June 1982)

Budget: $10m Gross: $793m

It surpassed Jaws, and it surpassed Star Wars. E.T. is one of the best-loved successful summer blockbusters of all time, and no one could have guessed that this little alien would overshadow a Great White and all that Outer Space had to offer! It’s a staple in many a childhood, and clearly, E.T. quite literally touched the heart of millions. Richard Attenborough himself was shocked that his film Gandhi beat E.T. to the Oscars, calling it “inventive, powerful and wonderful. I make more mundane movies.” I think it’s the heart of this film that makes it more than just another blockbuster. You’re not simply sitting back and letting the sights and sounds wash over you – you are letting yourself be won over by one of the cinema’s most wonderful creations.

3. Toy Story 3 (June 2010)

Budget: $200m Gross: $1bn

I cannot quite believe that Toy Story 3 is the most expensive film on this list. Who would have thought that animation cost so much? Anyway, there could never be any doubt that Toy Story 3 was going to be a huge success. Every kid wanted to see it, as well as every big kid that had grown up with the first and second films. But I never would have banked on an animated film grossing over $1 billion, thus becoming the 5th highest-grossing movie of all time! The success of Toy Story 3 led many to declare it the finishing touch on one of the best trilogies ever made. Toy Story up there with Godfather? Why not? It had many an older audience member weeping into their popcorn, mourning their long-past childhoods. I might have been one of them…Overall, Toy Story 3 was a very fitting way to end a lovely, memorable part of my generation’s childhood and welcome us into adulthood.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)

Budget: $185m Gross: $1bn

It’s morbid to say so, but after the tragic death of Heath Ledger, it was clear that The Dark Knight was going to absolutely rule the box office in 2008. Everybody was talking about it. The Dark Knight stands as one of 3 films in the US that has grossed over $500m in the box office. Worldwide it has a revenue of over $1bn. There can be no doubt that The Dark Knight is an outstanding film – one of my favourites, in fact. Yet I often wonder how much of its success is down to the media circus that was created following the death of one of Hollywood’s finest young actors. Watching his outstanding performance does create extra spine-tingles, but I believe that this film deserved every cent and outstanding review that it received. It’s a terrible shame when so some people dismiss it and put the film’s success down to this tragedy. 

1. Jaws (June 1975)

Budget: $7m Gross: $470m

You can thank Jaws for this very article that you have taken time to read. A national marketing campaign had, before Jaws, been a completely unheard of practise. The colossal campaign soon paid off when Jaws became the first of the summer blockbusters. Hollywood cinema was from then on realised as a commodity with profit. HUGE profit. Jaws grossed over $100m in ticket sales (a record for its time), and its gross revenue today stands at over $470m. Until the arrival of Star Wars shortly afterwards, Jaws was the highest grossing box office film. These two films are responsible for creating the cultural phenomenon that became the summer blockbuster. Surprisingly, Jaws was not mauled by critics, as is often the case with Hollywood blockbusters. It actually holds a 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes – now that’s a rarity!