Unpacking the Summer Blockbuster

Let’s go back in time to the summer of 1975. It’s June 20th. School has been out for over a month, it’s Friday and you have nothing to do. While you’re organizing your vinyl collection or playing with your Pet Rock (or whatever people did for fun in the 70s) you get a phone call from your best friend. Breathless with excitement, your friend tells you how they just saw an enormous crowd at the movie theater. Apparently, they’re in line for that movie that just came out — the one about a killer shark — you’ve been seeing commercials for all month.

The two of you make plans to go to the theater that evening. When you get there, the line has doubled in size, wrapping all the way around the block. As you scream internally, because ticket preordering services won’t be invented for another 14 years, you hear actual screaming coming from inside the theater as terrified audiences watch the carnage unfold on the big screen.

It sounds a lot like the way we watch movies today, doesn’t it? This was what it was like to see Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975) the summer it was released. Every prerequisite for our definition of a summer blockbuster can be traced back to this movie. Released by a major studio? Check. Massive television marketing campaign? Check. High-octane thrills, dynamic characters and spectacular special effects that left audiences speechless? You already know where this is going. Mind you, the term “blockbuster” had existed since Hollywood’s Golden Age as a word used to describe big budget studio films, but when Jaws was released, it took on a more literal meaning when describing a fast-faced, exciting movie that inspires conversation outside of the theater.

There is a plethora of reasons why Jaws was so wildly successful. Having an expensive ad campaign certainly helped, but much of Jaws’ popularity spread via word-of-mouth; you could consider the movie an early example viral marketing. Why it continues to resonate deeply with audiences today as a cinematic touchstone can be traced directly to the quality of its narrative and characters.

When defining a summer blockbuster, the key traits that come to mind are “high concept” and “spectacle.” Jaws has both these qualities: it’s a film about a killer great white shark that terrorizes a small resort town and the three men who set out to defeat it. The film’s simple premise gives it mass appeal and the potential to be taken in multiple creative directions. Though it has some features of a horror movie, Jaws has the structure and conventions of an adventure film. The protagonist, police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), embarks upon a mission to defeat an antagonist that threatens his home and family; in the process, he undergoes a transformation from an ordinary man into a hero. However, while the shark propels the plot towards its thrilling conclusion, it isn’t the singular focus of the narrative — the protagonists are, particularly Brody.

A family man with upstanding morals, Brody is an everyman, a likable character audiences can relate to. Much of the film’s first act fleshes out his personality through quiet scenes of him interacting with his family and the townspeople of Amity Island. By spending so much time with the Brody family, we begin to develop an emotional rapport with them. When the shark finally does show up, the stakes feel higher because we’ve grown invested in the well-being of these characters.

Characters with charisma are the key to a successful summer blockbuster. Without them, films lose that dramatic focus that keeps the audience engaged and the story falls flat. Jaws set the precedent for filling a summer blockbuster with likeable characters, but it was Star Wars (dir. George Lucas) that took it to the next level in the summer of 1977. There’s a lot that can be said about Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), but one thing everyone can agree upon is that the enduring legacy of these characters is immense. Like Jaws, Star Wars also has the conventional structure of an adventure movie where the hero (Luke) sets out on an epic quest to solve a problem (rescue Leia from the Empire), traveling to fantastic locales and fighting villains. Simple on paper, but it’s a plot that has limitless potential and pushes the boundaries of reality — which Lucas did with dazzling special effects that hold up to this day.

Spielberg and Lucas set the bar for summer blockbusters. Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1981), The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvine Kershner, 1980), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1984) and Return of the Jedi (dir. Richard Marquand, 1983) were megahits that created multimedia franchises. Despite the wide range of elements they borrow from across the cinematic spectrum, including the western and sci-fi genres, both Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series are classified as adventure films. So was E.T. (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1982), which like Star Wars blended sci-fi with the traditional adventure narrative. In the movie, the eponymous E.T. is stranded on Earth, separated from his family and hunted by shady government agents who plan to dissect him. The little alien is befriended by Elliot (Henry Thomas), a ten-year-old boy, and together they search for a way to reunite E.T. with his family while evading the clutches of his pursuers. As expected from a Speilberg feature, the story is complimented by its impressive visual effects. The scene in which E.T. uses telekinesis to levitate Elliot and his group of friends’ bikes is so iconic that theme parks have based entire rides around it.

You’re probably starting to notice a trend with all of the movies I’ve covered so far: summer blockbusters can have the features of different genres like horror, sci-fi, and drama, but their primary genre is adventure. This is especially apparent when you look at the film landscape of the 1980s. Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1984) is adventure blended with comedy and horror; Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott, 1986) is adventure with drama and romance; Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985) and Batman (dir. Tim Burton, 1989) are fantasy and superhero flicks respectively, two genres closely interlocked with the adventure genre.

The list of character-driven adventure films extends into the end of the 20th century with films like Independence Day (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1996), Men in Black (dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997), and Shrek (dir. Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson, 2001) — the latter of which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, proving the potential for animated summer blockbusters. Throughout the early and mid 2000s, superhero films began to resurge with Spider-Man (dir. Sam Remi, 2002) and The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008), setting the stage for Iron Man (2008). And the rest, as they say, is history.

Nowadays as studios continue to set unrealistic expectations for their films, “summer blockbuster” has become an ambiguous term. It seems almost feels unnecessary when nearly every film is projected to earn billions during its theatrical run. With more studios targeting spring and fall months for their major releases, the idea that a movie has to be released during the summer to be considered a blockbuster seems laughable. For example, Marvel usually releases a new MCU movie during the spring –– Avengers: Endgame (dir. Anthony and Joe Russo, 2019) being one example.

It also doesn’t help that “summer blockbuster” as a label that denotes quality is beginning to fall out of favor as studios have grown increasingly reliant on chasing whatever business model will make them the most money. Universal’s ill-conceived plan to create their own MCU-like cinematic universe beginning with The Mummy (dir. Alex Kurtzman, 2017) exemplifies this trend-chasing mindset by showing what happens when a studio attempts to replicate the summer blockbuster formula without understanding what makes it successful.

Shamelessly underwhelming with characters that have the emotional depth of a rain puddle, The Mummy is a movie that feels more like a collection of ideas stolen from better films, stitched together into a Frankenstein monster. While the The Mummy is definitely an adventure film, its financial failure and inability to meaningfully connect with its audience make it more of a bootleg summer blockbuster — gauche, fake and poorly constructed — rather than a genuine one.

Audiences don’t need a committee of shareholders to tell them what they like. As movies like Jaws, Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Shrek have proven, audiences gravitate to quality, not necessarily spectacle. Character-driven stories with smart protagonists, engrossing worlds and emotional storytelling always triumphs over soulless products with cookie-cutter plots fresh off an assembly line. What makes the summer blockbuster so unique are the feelings they inspire within us that take us back to a simpler time. It’s the one time of the year where we can feel like kids again — free from school, an entire summer of adventure at our fingertips.