While the summer months have long seemed synonymous with blockbuster films, they’re actually a relatively recent development in the grand scheme of things. Jaws is universally acknowledged as the first summer blockbuster, for good reason: Steven Spielberg’s endlessly influential thriller was the first movie to earn $100 million at the box office after it premiered in 1975, and it was the world’s highest-grossing film until it was dethroned two summers later by a certain movie set in a galaxy far, far away. Here are 10 of the biggest summer blockbusters that have followed in its wake. (Blockbusters that debuted in cooler months will have to wait for their own list.)
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977): $775 Million Worldwide
It wasn’t until the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars that the blockbuster model took shape. Prior to their phenomenal successes, studios didn’t have an established formula for when and how to release their biggest offerings: Gone with the Wind (1939) was released in December, while The Godfather (1972) came out in March. That all changed when George Lucas’ space opera (the first Star Wars film to be released, although the fourth chronologically) made even more money than Spielberg’s creature feature. (Jaws, about a great white shark terrorizing a small New England town, grossed $471 million worldwide.) Hollywood has never been the same since.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $793 Million Worldwide
Spielberg didn’t have to wait long before reclaiming his box-office crown, as E.T. surpassed Star Wars just five years later. Made for just $10.5 million, the film's worldwide gross eventually rose all the way to just under $793 million; it also won four of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated, with Spielberg scoring his third Best Director nomination. (One group who may not have been happy about all the wins: M&Ms, which turned down a product-placement opportunity that ultimately went to Reese’s Pieces.)
Back to the Future (1985): $382 Million Worldwide
No discussion of blockbusters would be complete without mentioning the work of Robert Zemeckis, whom Spielberg began mentoring after seeing a student film he had completed. Zemeckis went on to direct more than his fair share of blockbusters (including 1994’s Forrest Gump, which earned him the Academy Award for Best Director), but few have captured the collective imagination quite like Back to the Future. Earning $382 million despite a modest budget of just $19 million, it spawned two sequels, made a movie star out of Family Ties’ Michael J. Fox, and featured prominently in the lives of countless '80s kids who spent their youth dreaming of owning their very own DeLorean.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): $521 Million Worldwide
He said he’d be back, and he was. It can be easy to forget now, but James Cameron’s original Terminator wasn’t that huge at the box office back in 1984, especially compared to the other movies on this list (although it did earn $78.3 million, impressive given that it was made for a mere $6.4 million). Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a different story altogether. With a price tag between $94-102 million, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time. It proved to be a wise investment, however, as it ultimately brought back $520.8 million. Any respectable list of the best movies in the action genre will have it at or near the top, and it remains Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature role.
Jurassic Park (1993): $1 Billion Worldwide
Along with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg holds the rare distinction of having lost the box-office crown … to himself. E.T. held the title for more than a decade until it was dethroned by Jurassic Park, which was destined to be big: Michael Crichton's novel inspired a Hollywood bidding war before it was even published, with Spielberg acquiring the rights for $1.5 million. (As fate would have it, he beat Cameron to it by mere hours.) That ended up being a bargain, as the film made a massive $912 million during its original run (a figure that has since risen to $1.034 billion thanks to occasional re-releases) and launched a franchise that now looks poised to reign as long as the dinosaurs did.
Independence Day (1996): $817 Million Worldwide
There are movie presidents, and then there’s Bill Pullman in Independence Day. And while he may not have been the star of 1996’s biggest movie — that would obviously be Will Smith, with Jeff Goldblum in the passenger seat — his climactic speech is a huge part of what makes this disaster epic so special. The other part is, of course, the revolutionary special effects: Audiences were wowed by Independence Day's eye-popping visuals, which made everything from the destruction of globally recognizable landmarks to the invaders themselves feel uncomfortably real. The results speak for themselves: The movie grossed $817.4 million worldwide, enough to make it the second-highest-grossing ever at the time.
The Sixth Sense (1999): $673 Million Worldwide
The Sixth Sense was a worldwide sensation like few others, with its most quotable line (“I see dead people”) instantly becoming the subject of imitations and parodies. M. Night Shyamalan's supernatural thriller looked beyond the veil and found a certain kind of beauty, as well as phenomenal success: In addition to six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor for kid thespian Haley Joel Osment, and Supporting Actress for Toni Collette), The Sixth Sense made $672.8 million in box-office receipts. Only Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace made more that year, and time hasn’t been quite as kind to its legacy.
The Dark Knight (2008): $1 Billion Worldwide
Even before the untimely passing of Heath Ledger mere months before its release, The Dark Knight was already the most anticipated film of 2008. If you weren't following along at the time, it can be difficult to convey just how excited fans were to see Ledger's take on the iconic Joker — especially because so many of them were skeptical of his casting until the first trailer was released. Suffice to say that they were pleased with director Christopher Nolan’s final product: The Dark Knight set a record by grossing $158 million during its opening weekend, with its total world earnings of over $1 billion making it the year’s highest-grossing film. Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance, and The Dark Knight is now often considered the greatest superhero movie ever made.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (2011): $1.3 Billion Worldwide
Harry Potter was a box-office sensation the moment the first adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s young adult series hit theaters 20 years ago. As tends to be the case, the final movie was also the most anticipated — and the most financially successful. Deathly Hallows — Part 2 set records for highest-grossing opening weekend worldwide on its way to becoming the highest-grossing film of 2011 and third of all time; it has since dropped to number 13.
Avengers: Endgame (2019): $2.8 Billion Worldwide
Over the last decade or so, sequels, reboots, and franchises have come to define summer blockbuster season like never before. Nothing exemplifies that trend quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose interconnected world reached its box-office culmination with Avengers: Endgame. That it came out in April would appear to disqualify it from consideration on this list were it not for the fact that as the summer movie season has become more crowded than ever, it’s also been starting earlier each year.
Endgame set several box-office records: highest opening-weekend gross ($1.2 billion), fastest movie to $500 million, $1 billion, $1.5 billion, $2 billion, and $2.5 billion, and highest-grossing movie of all time with $2.797 billion. A 2021 re-release of Avatar in China means James Cameron's epic now holds the all-time box office record once again, but don’t be surprised if Endgame enters theaters down the road to reclaim its record — Disney, which now owns both properties, will be happy either way.
Featured image credit: Images from Alamy Stock Photo/ Design by Karissa Maggio