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You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: Jaws and the Summer Movie Season

by Robert Fleegler

Forty years ago this month, Jaws debuted in movie theaters across the country, changing the film industry forever. The anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg's classic blockbuster presents the perfect opportunity to examine the development of the summer movie season that his mechanical great white shark helped create. While it seems like the summer months have always been the center of movie activity, it has only been that way since the 1970s.

In the late 1960s, the major movie studios found themselves in serious financial trouble. After booming during the Great Depression and World War II, theater attendance declined precipitously over the next two decades, largely due to the rise of television. With the emergence of the baby boomer generation and the youth culture, Hollywood studios handed control over to a group of young directors in the hope they could attract this burgeoning market. The "New Hollywood" of the 1970s was born.

Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese took advantage of this opportunity to produce memorable movies such as The Godfather and Taxi Driver. Many film scholars see the 1970s as the heyday of American film, a decade that witnessed a creativity and sophistication not seen before or since. For instance, the Academy Awards best-picture nominees for 1976 included classics such as All the President's Men, Taxi Driver, Network, and Rocky. Somehow, Rocky won.

Spielberg and George Lucas, the pioneers of the summer blockbuster, also emerged during this time and in some ways, helped usher in its end. With the unbelievable commercial success of Spielberg's Jaws in 1975 and Lucas's Star Wars in 1977, studios realized that young people would go see the same film over and over again during the summer. Furthermore, the unprecedented merchandising associated with Star Wars showed that movies could also serve as promotions for other products. The summer movie season was born, with studios releasing their biggest films during kids' school vacation. The movies reversed their financial decline and attendance consistently grew for the next two decades.

Over time, the season has evolved. In the 1980s, one or two films dominated the summer box office. I vividly remember the summer of 1983 and the simultaneous release of Return of the Jedi and Superman III, with both films playing in the same two-theater complex in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida. Though summer films had large opening weekend grosses in the 1980s, they also built their audiences over several with word-of-mouth, as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the #1 film in the country for ten weeks in the summer of 1982, with its gross peaking in the third week. Back to the Future remained at #1 for 13 weeks in 1985.

With the growth of multiplexes, studios discovered they could get people to go back to the theater week after week to see different films. Today, it is rare for a movie to remain in the #1 slot for more than a couple of weeks and a film's commercial success is determined during its first fortnight. In addition, Memorial Day weekend used to be the traditional start of the movie season, but at some point in the 1990s it started to commence earlier in May. This summer's biggest release, Avengers: Age of Ultron, arrived in theaters on May 1.

Though there is always a danger in nostalgia, I believe Hollywood has also become more conservative in its approach to blockbusters. Back in the 1980s, War Games, The Karate Kid, and Gremlins became big summer hits, even though they had no previously known big stars and were not based a on a best-selling novel or comic book. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed out, all but two of the top 25 films of the 2000s were based on a pre-existing franchise. With the kind of financial risk required for major films, few studio executives want to take a chance on something that isn't a sure thing with a built-in audience. The recent disappointing box-office performance of Disney's Tomorrowland will likely reinforce this trend.

Though 2015 is expected to be a banner year at the box office, movie attendance has steadily fallen over the last decade. With the rise of better home entertainment options, many simply choose to watch films at home. One thing remains the same, however: Hollywood's annual profitability will largely be determined over the summer months.

Robert Fleegler is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the 20th Century (2013).