Monday, June 22, 2009

The Summer Blockbuster Enters Middle Age

You may not realize it, but the concept of the "summer blockbuster" was born 34 years ago — on June 20, 1975, when Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" made its much–heralded debut.

Its opening weekend earned an eye–popping (for those days) $7 million — a figure that is dwarfed by the hundreds of millions that movies like "The Dark Knight" or "Spider–Man" are capable of drawing today.

Of course, a ticket to a movie cost a lot less in those days than it does today, and common sense would tell you that higher ticket prices mean higher box office receipts. But, even so, the earnings of some of today's motion pictures really are astonishing.

Still, that doesn't take anything away from those early "blockbusters."

But I have to wonder why no one figured out until 1975 that summer was a lucrative time to bring out movies that were likely to attract a lot of attention. The biggest box–office draws before "Jaws" came out typically were released around the Christmas holidays. The record–holder — even after the "Jaws" frenzy of '75 — was "The Godfather: Part II," which was released in December 1974.

And the movies that didn't quite earn what "Jaws" did in its opening weekend — "Magnum Force" (1973), "The Jungle Book" (1967), "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) — were not released in the summer. A noteworthy exception, I suppose, was "Psycho," which was released in June 1960.

Even two years later, when "Star Wars" caught everyone by surprise in the summer of 1977 and earned nearly $17 million in its opening weekend, the "blockbuster" marketing concept was not an accepted part of the movie business.

But that, too, has changed. For the last 30 years, the top moneymaking movies have been released in time to capitalize on the summer months — when young people have had time on their hands and money in their pockets.

Will the horrid economy affect the anticipated blockbusters this summer? It's hard to say. So far, only one of the top 10 moneymakers of 2009 — "Up" — has been released since Memorial Day.

I suppose we'll get something of an answer to that when the next "Harry Potter" film is released next month.