How A Mechanical Shark Changed the Film Industry Forever
by Mandi Harrison
Some of my favorite memories of summer growing up are standing in line at the movie theater, waiting for the next big movie to start. The fizz of cold soda, the smell of popcorn, the sweet candy and the anticipation of what was going to be on the screen was my favorite way to spend a hot summer day. The air conditioning was a huge plus as well. Even now, hundreds (maybe thousands) of movies later, I still think going to the theater is exciting.
The summer movie season as we know it is due to one man: my dude, Steven Spielberg. Before 1975, movie theaters were pretty much vacant during the summer- movie studios figured everyone wanted to be outside enjoying the sun and so there were limited movies released. But that all changed in 1975, with the release of Jaws.
Universal Studios spent over $1 million in advertising, which was unheard of at the time, and did a wide release of the movie, instead of the usual week by week roll-out. Both risks paid off. People, especially teenagers, stood in line and came back 2 or 3 times to watch a shark terrorize a beach community. The film itself had a budget of $7 million, and had a $7 million opening weekend, recouping its production costs in just 2 weeks (Remember how movies make their money back?). It went on to make $260 million in it's first theatrical run, which is about $1 billion when adjusted for inflation. This doesn't even take into account video, merchandise, theme parks and sequels.
So naturally, this one shark made studio heads take notice. People WILL go to the movies during the summer, and in hoards, if there is something that will capture their attention. The next movie to test this theory was released two years later, in 1977. The movie was Star Wars- and I'm pretty sure we all know how that test went.
From there, Spielberg became the king of summer. Starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future (which he produced) to Jurassic Park (OUR personal fave), even through today, Steven Spielberg has earned a place in cinematic history for the magic that he creates. His influence can be seen and felt in many directors' work now.
The term blockbuster (or as it's more commonly called now, tentpole) means something of great size that has great commercial success. In order to achieve that, studios and theaters want to fill as many seats as possible. Parents (most anyway) don't want to take their children to a rated R movie, so the majority of blockbusters are PG-13 and below, marketed towards families and young teens. Kids see the ads and the merchandise, and beg their parents to go. It's a win-win on all levels.
Today, summer seems to mean superhero movies, but until 1989, they were few and not well-received. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton changed that with Batman. From there we saw the X-Men, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, 3 separate incarnations of Spiderman, Wonder Woman and of course, the explosion of the Marvel universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008.
You can't talk about summer blockbusters and not mention Will Smith. Spielberg may have created the the summer blockbuster, but Will Smith kept it alive through the 90's. It was a well-known joke/fact that Will Smith owned the 4th of July box office, with Men in Black 1 & 2, Wild Wild West, Hancock and of course the movie that started it all, Independence Day.
Now, movie studios have their summer release calendars planned years in advance, so that they are not competing for coveted box office gross. No one wins if two major studios release movies on the same weekend. Even though so much is predetermined, that doesn't mean that everything is a win. This method does take into account what is popular and has money in the past, but sometimes doesn't take into account that people change their mind. They can grow weary of too much of one thing and search for something else. That's when the sleeper hit comes in- movies that didn't have much publicity but developed a word-of-mouth following- movies like Bridesmaids, Superbad, Paranormal Activity, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
It seems that summer is starting earlier and earlier, with this year's summer movies starting in April with Marvel's Infinity War. But the end of the summer peak is always the same: the first week of August. The box office always dwindles, due to last minute vacations, back to school shopping and in some places, kids going back to school. Smaller releases and films whose dates got pushed back usually find themselves in the seemingly wasteland of August. It doesn't mean that these movies are terrible, it just means that the studios have used their marketing money elsewhere. This can be a great time to discover a secret gem- Hi 500 Days of Summer!
So as you head to the air-conditioned theater in the summer heat, remember that you owe it all to a man and his mechanical shark!