The Top 5 Definitive Summer Movie Years

[4 September 2012]

By Sean McCarthy

Labor Day usually marks the “official” end of the summer movie season, but for all purposes, you can put a fork in 2012’s season. This crop of summer movies was bookended with two monster hits (The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises) and filled with a bunch of films that defined average. We didn’t have a glorious failure like Battlefield Earth, nor did we have any that would bring repeat viewers back into theaters like The Sixth Sense.

So, as a viewer, I can’t help but look at 2012’s season with disappointment. Yes, The Avengers was a summer movie for the ages, but when you start singing the praises Men in Black III solely because it wasn’t the failure people thought it’d be, you know your season wasn’t top-tier. Probably the best movie to reflect 2012’s summer movie season was Pixar’s Brave. It won’t go down as Pixar’s worst, but it’s a long way from their best.

The summer movie season is almost 35 years old. Almost all of them had a recipe that made it a summer movie season. In addition to an all-but-certain smash, other ingredients are needed, both good and bad, to make a definitive summer movie season. In short, you need the following:

  • A single blockbuster to tie everything together.
  • A comedy to break the monotony of explosions, city rubble, and crashed cars.
  • An “out of nowhere” sleeper that gives the big blockbusters a run for their money.
  • A mature hit that dares to step outside the “13-25” target demographic.
  • The following list may not include the best crop of summer movies (‘82 would give any of these years a serious run with E.T., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist and even the beloved cheese-fest Rocky III), but each year was influential in how they defined how studios treat the season and how we respond.


    Notable Crop: Jurassic Park, Sleepless in Seattle, The Fugitive, The Firm, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger, Last Action Hero

    In 1991, James Cameron wowed audiences with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It ushered in a new era of computer-generated graphics (began with 1989’s The Abyss) and signaled how ‘90s action movies would look. Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was the next step. 

    But for as big of an event as Jurassic Park was, almost as important was the other crop of movies. The biggest movies all seemed to be about adult themes and adult situations. You had Tom Cruise trying to escape a corrupt law firm in The Firm going up against a widowed father (Tom Hanks) and a not-so-happy fiancee (Meg Ryan) in Sleepless in Seattle. A getting up there in years Harrison Ford untangled a pharmaceutical conspiracy and helped snag a Best Picture nomination with The Fugitive. Later that summer, Clint Eastwood played an aging secret service agent haunted by previous failures in In the Line of Fire.  Even the easygoing Dave outearned the much-hyped box office belly flop The Last Action Hero.

    Sure, Jurassic Park trounced the competition, but looking back, 1993 saw older audiences setting the tone for the season. It felt like Wilford Brimley’s character in The Firm kicked the teenagers from ‘93 out of their theater seats, paving the way for future mature summer hits like Saving Private Ryan.


    Notable Crop:The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Wall-E, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, Sex and the City, Wanted, Tropic Thunder, Speed Racer

    Almost every summer movie season has a box office smash that’s a hit with both fans and critics. In 2008, we had not one but three smashes that critics and fans gushed over. So much so that at least two, The Dark Knight, Wall-E stirred up “Best Picture” appeals to Oscar voters. The third, Iron Man, stands as one of the best films ever to kick off a summer movie season.

    But even the lower-tier crop of 2008 movies were well received. Wanted and Hancock may not have been classics, but they were far more fun than other second-tier summer action flicks from years past. Even the modest success of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II:The Golden Army won critical raves. Yes, 2008 produced the seizure-educing Speed Racer, but audiences rejected the Wachowski brothers film, demanding more sophisticated fare for their entertainment. As shown in movies like The Avengers and Star Trek, audiences were beginning to demand more than explosions and hype from their summer blockbusters.


    Notable Crop: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Gremlins, Revenge of the Nerds, Purple Rain, Conan the Destroyer

    In comparison to 1984, 1982 may have had the stronger crop of films (E.T., Start Trek II, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), but 1984 deserves to be mentioned because that year seemed to perfect that mix of films that we expect all summers to have. Starting out, the highest grossing film of the summer, Ghostbusters was that rare film that lured both guys and gals into the same theater.

    Along with a blockbuster that appealed to a mass audience, 1984 also gave us the obligatory blockbuster sequel with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It contained little of the original’s charm and gave us some incredibly offensive stereotypes. But Temple of Doom also gave Hollywood a virtual fool-proof formula to make certain sequels clean up despite audience disappointment. Nearly 30 years later, that formula still works as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Pirates of the Carribean, At Worlds End retain the title of “Most Hated Movies to Gross more than $300 million”.

    Finally, 1984 gave us a scrappy underdog sleeper to root for. While Gremlins and Ghostbusters were cleaning up, a little film about a bullied New Jersey transplant and a cantankerous repairman debuted. True, The Karate Kid wasn’t entirely an underdog. It was directed by the same person who directed the Oscar-winning Rocky, but The Karate Kid went on to become a respected hit primarily on word-of-mouth. The same “Davey vs. Goliath” story also helped propel another movie, the gleefully R-rated Revenge of the Nerds to a late box office victory. The success of both movies proved that for as much as Hollywood wanted to shape what were the top movies of the summer, audiences still had the last word.

    1989 and 1999


    Notable Crop: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, American Pie, Wild, Wild West, The Blair Witch Project

    By 1999, the Internet had graduated the fringes of college campuses and work to become an integral part in everyday life. Almost every big budget movie had its own web site for promotion, but it still seemed like Hollywood had trouble actually using the Internet to promote their movies. Until 1999.

    Unknown to almost every Hollywood operator except the Wachowski brothers, the summer of 1999 actually began on March 31 when The Matrix opened. Originally seen as sort of a sci-fi appetizer to tide audiences until the opening of The Phantom Menace, The Matrix wound up wowing audiences and one-upping the George Lucas franchise in the effects department.

    Even after The Matrix finished its run, the movie took on a new life on the Internet in discussion boards and fan sites as fans discussed what could be done with the movie concept in sequels. All of this fandom eventually made The Matrix the perfect vehicle to introduce the DVD and signal the eventual end of the VHS.

    For as good as the Internet was to The Matrix, it was equally toxic for The Phantom Menace. Back in 1983, if people had a major complaint against the inclusion of the Ewoks, they were basically resigned to griping about it with their friends. But in 1999, every single fan with a dial-up connection who was pissed at the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks, or dismayed by the wooden acting could take to the Web and voice their frustration with millions of fans who were feeling the exact same disappointment.

    Of course, if the Internet was just a soundboard for disgruntled fans, its impact would be slight. What the Internet did was enable filmmakers with smaller budgets and no access to a marketing team to compete with massively hyped films like Wild Wild West and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Enter The Blair Witch Project.

    Weeks before release, audiences were told that what they would be seeing is a documentary about three unlucky filmmakers who ventured into the woods of Maryland to interview people about the Blair Witch. One year after they vanished, their footage was discovered. It was a helluva premise.

    Even at the time of its wide release when word started to get out that it was a movie and not a documentary, some in the audience still weren’t too sure if what they saw was real or fake. And though the movie may not have been the most suspenseful or well executed, the marketing (which relied heavily on the Internet) was a stroke of genius, enabling a movie that cost well below a million dollars to gross more than $150 million in the U.S. alone.

    Finally, the summer of 1999 ended with another sleeper. At the beginning of the summer, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense wan’t even on the radar for most moviegoers. It was an unassuming thriller that relied more on the sense of unease than blood-and-guts gore for chills (and by doing so, grabbing the coveted PG-13 rating). Of course, the most talked-about selling point of The Sixth Sense was the “twist” ending.

    The movie was so beloved that fans and critics started to practice a great amount of restraint on the Web, taking great pains not to ruin the film’s ending. Pages devoted to the movie explicitly warned people not to read further unless they had seen the movie. While The Sixth Sense didn’t exactly invent the concept of the spoiler, it certainly provided a template on how the Internet should handle such cinematic twists.


    Notable Crop: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, When Harry Met Sally, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Dead Poets Society, Do the Right Thing, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Road House, Ghostbusters 2

    Superman and Superman II were classic superhero blockbusters, but for the majority of the ‘80s, superhero movies vanished from the sumer movie landscape. That was until it was announced Tim Burton was set to helm Batman, perhaps the most beloved of all comic book franchises.

    The buzz for Batman took on a life of its own. The hype stretched into comic stores as people debated the choice of Michael Keaton in the title role. Weeks before the release, Batman merchandise became inescapable. MTV jumped on the bandwagon, putting Prince’s “Batdance” in heavy rotation. The hype surrounding the movie became a news event in itself as reporters were dispatched to theaters, interviewing people who were waiting in line for hours. It was an event. And woe to the person who was left out during opening weekend.

    This orchestrated layout of hype—engaging fans, fashion, Hollywood celebrity, fast food, and toy makers—produced a bonafide box office smash. It set the stage of how movies were to be sold to audiences. The next year, Warren Beatty tried a similar approach to promote his project, Dick Tracy. The result: about $100 million less in box office receipts. If the years were switched, if Dick Tracy were to have come out in 1989 and performed just admirably, the way movies are promoted today may have been drastically different.

    While Batman was changing the multiplex, a sleeper hit from that summer was changing the art house. Steven Soderbergh released an independent film with an inescapable name from a small studio called Miramax. Sex, Lies, and Videotape titillated audiences with the title, which was soon used by TV studios as a teaser in everything from political scandals to sitcom episodes.

    Interest in the film came so quickly that people began to venture into smaller, indie theaters normally populated by film geeks and college students. Those who were able to find such theaters found a film that actually contained very little sex. But what they saw was a different style of filmmaking. The modest haul of $26 million gave Miramax an amazing amount of clout and opened up the indie theater to mainstream audiences. Almost 25 years later, films like Moonrise Kingdom and Little Miss Sunshine are now as much a part of the summer moviegoing experience as the superhero movie.

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