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An ode to the summer blockbuster: From Jaws to The Hangover and the tropes that delight our memory

Jun 9, 2023 | Feature Films, Filmmaking

summer blockbusters

The summer blockbuster storms into theaters, makes an audience feels like they’ve drank thunder, and then leaves them two hours later with wisps of cloud that melt into the bloodstream and travel to the heart as eternal memory. Critics be damned.    

We connect the blockbuster with an exuberance of youth – with getting a parent to take us to see Space Jam, with riding along in a van full of neighbor kids, with taking our own children to experience something simple that brought us joy. 

Today, we examine the blockbuster tropes that have brought bombastic entertainment to the masses and the films that define a genre. 

The summer blockbuster criteria:

The film doesn’t require each of these subjective points, but should contain several: 

  • Earns over $100 million
  • Built to support a franchise 
  • Over-the-top, expensive special effects (lots of fireballs and pew-pew-pews)
  • Star-driven with multiple A-listers
  • Buzz that results in people literally lining up around the block 

Look good? Let’s start with the genesis of the summer blockbuster. 

The “pop culture phenomenon” blockbuster

Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Jurassic Park (1993)

This is the OG blockbuster. 

Jaws will always claim the title as the first. Its model has been scrutinized, documented, and mimicked for decades. It was the first ever to earn $100 million and started with a simple premise: “What if a monster was eating people at your beach?”

The story: A morally reliable seaside police chief (Roy Scheider), the affable shark nerd (Richard Dreyfuss), and the Captain Ahab-type traumatized shark hunter whose worst fear is to be eaten by a shark (Robert Shaw). Steven Spielberg’s direction and Carl Gottlieb’s and Peter Benchley’s screenplay provided the perfect components for a meaty good foundation. 

The effects: Spielberg was supposed to be working on a budget of around $3 million that ended up rising to a temperature of $12 million. Even in 1974, this was not a big-budget film. While the mechanical shark and shooting underwater cost the production countless delays, it also delivered a climaxed payoff of realistic action-driven terror during the final attack. 

The advertising: Universal Studios spent $700,000 ($3.9 million today) on national tv spots for Jaws for the three nights leading up to the release – they absolutely doused the national networks. It opened on June 20, 1975, in 465 theaters. The “wide release” was a burgeoning concept and the campaign resulted in an instant sweeping hit: Jaws brought in over $7 million its opening weekend and would gross almost half a billion dollars worldwide (over $2 billion adjusted) by the end of its theatrical run.    

Star Wars was released on May 25th, 1977, and utilized the Jaws model – a warm summery release, a young director with ambitious special effects, and a story developed with a sense of epic scale. What the water was to Jaws, space was to Star Wars, and the jungle was to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1984). These films cemented the idea that building deep, large-scale worlds of action-driven suspense could produce awestruck audiences and make studios rich.

Spielberg would replicate the success in 1993 with Jurassic Park: a motley assortment of clashing characters stuck on an island (like the three stuck on a boat in Jaws), creatures that want to eat everyone, and a world built with the most advanced effects of the time. As for shark movies, Jaws would inspire an increasingly campy array of shark films, from 1999’s Deep Blue Sea to 2018’s Santa Jaws.  

The “end of the world” summer blockbuster

Independence Day (1996), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) 

Hello, Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. We see you.

27 years later, Independence Day stands up as one of the most watchable summer blockbusters of all time. You come in from a Fourth of July picnic to use the bathroom and the TV is on with Will Smith out on his lawn in pajamas as he realizes the neighbors are fleeing? You’re not going back outside for a minute.

Okay, so how many ingredients does Independence Day check off?

Bombastic visual effects: Independence Day won “Best Visual Effects” at the 1997 Oscars.

Star-driven ensemble: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum supported by Judd Hirsch, Mary McDonell, Randy Quaid, and Bill Pullman.

Big-ass budget and big-ass gross earnings: The film was made on an estimated $75 million and earned over $300 million at the box office during a theatrical release that played in 2,977 theaters.

A Hollywood Insider article from 2021 asserted that Independence Day “invented the modern blockbuster”. It positioned that the film brought one-liners to popularity, introduced large ensemble casts, and created the “spectacle of mass destruction” concept that we see in so many summer action films today.

On two of those points? Wholeheartedly disagree (Jaws had one of the most famous one-liners). But the spectacle of mass destruction? Independence Day was the first to send aliens to America and destroy entire cities with millions of people on the big screen. There’s the iconic shot of the White House exploding:

The scale of the end-of-the-world concept lives on today: the Infinity Wars saga was entirely built around a character (Thanos) attempting to destroy humanity. Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame sit at #2 and #6 on the all-time list of highest-grossing films. From a release standpoint, the Avengers films nailed it. The last two were released in late April one year apart and went on a nearly identical five-month summer-long run to become two of the biggest summer blockbusters ever made.

The “buddy comedy” summer blockbuster

Starsky & Hutch (2004), Wedding Crashers (2005), The Hangover (2009)

Far Out Magazine said that the summer comedy blockbuster ended with The Hangover. Think about the last 14 years and…yes? Where are you, 2023 buddy comedy blockbuster?!

For about five years, the buddy blockbuster comedy reigned. They were brontosauruses, walking through dense marshes spouting jokes that would end careers today. They were t-rexes, awkwardly crashing through brush and coming-of-age as high-school kids trying to have sex (Superbad), as thirty-something men trying to have sex (Wedding Crashers), as – okay, we’re starting to establish a theme here. 

Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips almost singlehandedly carried this genre. The Hangover was made for an estimated $35 million and grossed almost half a billion. They didn’t require the level of visual effects, and with a solid premise, could generate an enormous profit. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, one of the most beloved millennial comedies of all time, was made for $26 million. 

Now, we occasionally see one of these prehistoric creatures try to rise from the past with a fresh blend of absurd premises and impeccable banter – 21 Jump Street, Booksmart but the buddy comedy summer blockbuster may now only be a relic of the mid-2000s, leaving adults to wonder if they’ll ever return from the shrouded mists. 

The summer blockbuster makes us feel like movies can still be a destination

The rise and evolution of the streaming model have made it feel like the local movie theatre is an abandoned concept. But the feeling it evokes can never really be exchanged or erased – the idea that you and friends share an excitement for an experience that is built for audiences as spectacle. 

When you come home from work one Friday evening, and think about binge-watching eight episodes on Netflix, the warm summer breeze may drift in the window. The curtains will sway and an odd atmosphere will infatuate your veins with electricity. Shimmering in the distance, like the ocean haze in Jaws, will be the movie theater, looking right at you, going: 

Dah-duh. Dah-duh.

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Fable House is a video production company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that specializes in production for film, video, commercials, and TV. Our team are experts in physical production, post-production, and VFX. We produce content for major brands, TV networks like Syfy and Lifetime, and provide production services to Louisiana’s never-say-die indie filmmakers.

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