A typical summer blockbuster film is heavy on action, light on plot, and big on cutting-edge digital effects.
According to the calendar, summer doesn’t actually begin until June 21, but for children and adults, the Memorial Day weekend is the “real” start of the season. That is when many open their swimming pools, uncover their grills, and head to the beach. It is a time for parades, barbecues, and backyard fun. It is also when studios kick off their summer box-office bonanza.
Years ago, a summer night at the movies meant packing up the pajama-clad children in the family station wagon and heading to the local drive-in for a double feature that usually included less-than-stellar titles, since major studios avoided summer releases on the premise that moviegoers would rather occupy themselves with outdoor activities. However, the whole concept of the summer movie changed in 1975, evolving into what we call the summer blockbuster and transforming Hollywood in the process. The phenomenon surfaced in June 1975 when Jaws took a giant bite out of box-office revenues by becoming the first to reel in $100 million in domestic sales (today’s definition of a blockbuster), slaughtering then-ruler The Godfather, with $85 million, and turning all subsequent releases that year—including the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—into mere fish food. With its big thrills and chills, most of which were accomplished by an animatronic great white shark and suspenseful camera shots, the film kept people out of the water and in the theaters as they returned for a second, third, and fourth viewing.
Soon after, the summer film lineups began shining as brightly as the summer sun, thanks in no small part to the use of spectacular effects. Just as Jaws redefined the summer film and made a fairly unknown director, Steven Spielberg, a household name, so, too, did a science-fiction flick called Star Wars, which made Spielberg’s friend George Lucas a movie legend. Star Wars remains the highest grossing summer movie and the second highest grossing movie of all time (nearly $460 million in domestic box office). Lucas further capitalized on the season, and continued to kick off a sequel and prequel of summer hits, particularly with the VFX-packed trio Episodes I, II, and III.
The typical summer blockbuster formula is simple: heavy on action, light on plot and character development, and big on digital effects—eye candy that may be sweet enough to recoup today’s huge budgets...or not, as was the case with June 2004’s Around the World in 80 Days (produced for $110 million; lost $115 million) and July 2001’s Final Fantasy (produced for $137 million; lost $124 million). Yet, year after year, studios continue to stream big bucks into projects, hoping that with enough spectacular effects and edge-of-your-seat action, any property can be turned into a huge financial success.
Last year saw a weak crop of summer films, no doubt contributing to the year’s 7 percent drop in movie attendance. While the 2006 summer premiere is only beginning, the lineup thus far looks promising, with mutant superheroes, pirates with panache, talking animals, cars with personality, and daring spies on impossible missions— all containing cutting-edge CGI. Indeed, the new digital techniques are spectacular enough to warrant coverage within the pages of Computer Graphics World. But, will the films themselves attract lines of moviegoers that snake around the block (a telltale sign of a true blockbuster)? If the Memorial Day weekend was any indication, then it should indeed be a summer of hot hits. Do you have your ticket?