An Obsessive-Compulsive's Guide to the Summer Movie Season

An Obsessive-Compulsive's Guide to the Summer Movie Season

May 26, 2011

It was 15 years ago that Twister changed America's summer blockbuster season. It didn't do it with cutting-edge special effects or immersive 3D technology or previously unknown storytelling devices. No, Twister altered something more fundamental about summer: its start date.

Before 1996, the summer movie season began with Memorial Day Weekend, at the end of May. There was no official decree, nothing in the Hollywood city ordinances, but that's how it worked. The trend began with Star Wars in 1977, and subsequent Memorial Day releases included Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, Rocky III, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Rambo II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part III, Backdraft, Alien 3, Cliffhanger, and The Flintstones.

In the 1990s, with the Memorial Day kickoff firmly established, some studios started opening tent-pole films a week early, to beat the rush. Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Maverick (1994), and Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) all opened the third weekend in May and earned fourth-weekend-in-May-style grosses.

Then, in 1996, Warner Bros. had a crazy idea. Memorial Day was going to be owned by Paramount's Mission: Impossible. What if WB opened Twister not one week early but -- and stay with me here -- TWO weeks early? Twister had Spielberg as an executive producer, it was about natural disasters, and it was fun but kind of stupid: It was clearly a "summer movie." To open it a fortnight ahead of the customary summer movie season would be a bold move. WB said, "Screw it, WE'RE DOING IT." Go big or go home, that's what they say at Warner Bros.

And it worked. Twister opened to $41.1 million, at that time the biggest debut ever for a non-summer release. It went on to be the second highest-grossing film of all of 1996, behind Independence Day. More importantly, it signaled a shift. With Twister having tested the waters, other movies followed suit and opened earlier in May, effectively changing the start of the summer blockbuster season. Fifth Element did it in 1997, followed by Deep Impact, The Mummy, Gladiator, and The Mummy Returns. In 2002, when Spider-Man debuted on May 3 and had the best opening weekend EVER, any question about summer's start date was erased. At the movies, summer starts the first weekend in May.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of this seismic shift in cinematic calendaring, we took a look at the five top-grossing films of each summer since then, with "summer" now being defined as May-August. The five most popular movies from each summer, 1996-2010, gives us 75 movies total. We'll call them the Summer 75. What do these 75 warm-weather flicks tell us about our summertime tastes? Let's investigate.

The most obvious trend is in the ratings. Among the Summer 75, 49 movies are rated PG-13. Only 10 are rated R, and not one of those was the highest-grossing movie of its summer. (In fact, ranking the Summer 75 according to gross, you have to go all the way down to #27 before you hit an R rating: The Matrix Reloaded.) Five G-rated films are represented, four from Pixar and one from Disney (Tarzan). The remaining 11 PG's are mostly related to Shrek, Harry Potter, or Star Wars.

Sequels are big in the summertime. Everyone knows that. It's in the Bible. Indeed, 31 of the Summer 75 are sequels (or prequels), and another five are remakes (or reboots).

The vast majority of these 75 movies are based on pre-existing properties, including 13 from comic books, 13 from novels, three from TV shows, two from toys (Transformers), and three from an amusement park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean). (No stage plays, board games, or Bazooka Joe comics ... yet.) How many are wholly original -- not based on a book, not a sequel or remake, but written directly for the screen? Just 26, or about one-third.

Films aimed at women have been making great strides in the summertime, and while that's true, those strides have not been enough to make a dent on the list. The Summer 75 has exactly two (2) movies targeted at a female audience: My Best Friend's Wedding and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Movies like Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada were definitely hits, but neither was among the top five earners in its summer.

There are no horror films in the Summer 75. The closest would be a couple of chillers -- Signs and The Sixth Sense -- and a spoof, Scary Movie.

Not much reality, either, as you might expect. Only two members of the Summer 75, Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor, are based on actual historical events. A third, Gladiator, while not a true story, is set in a more or less believable version of history.

Aliens, though. Aliens are big in the summertime. They attack Earth (Independence Day, War of the Worlds, Signs), they send orphans to help us (Superman Returns), and they have wars amongst themselves (the Star Wars prequels). All told, there are 14 movies in the Summer 75 that involve non-Earthlings.

Ten films on the list are animated, including five from Pixar, three from Dreamworks (all with the word "Shrek" in the title), one from non-Pixar Disney (Tarzan), and one from Universal (Despicable Me).

There are 13 movies on the list, representing six different franchises, that have further entries coming out this summer alone: Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Transformers, X-Men, Cars, and The Hangover. The list also includes the franchises of Batman, Men in Black, Twilight, Star Trek, Spider-Man, Superman, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible, all of which have sequels in production. In other words, take a good look at the Summer 75, because you're going to see about 40 percent of those titles on theater marquees within the next two years.

The highest-grossing movies of the summer tend to be among the highest-grossing movies of the entire year, but not always. There are usually strong showings from spring, fall, and winter releases too, like Avatar and Lord of the Rings. In fact, 2007 and 2008 are the only years in history where the top five movies of the year were all summer releases. And there's never been a year in which summer movies comprised the entire top 10. So don't get too full of yourself, summer! You don't rule the world yet.

Within the Summer 75...

Number of May releases: 29

Number of June releases: 20

Number of July releases: 23

Number of August releases: 3

Number of films supposedly set in the real world as we know it, with no supernatural, sci-fi, or fantasy elements: 17 (e.g., The Perfect Storm, Air Force One; several comedies like The Hangover and There's Something About Mary)

Number of films in which one of the credited speaking roles is the President of the United States: 9 (all fictional except FDR in Pearl Harbor)

Number of superhero-based films: 12 -- 3 DC, 7 Marvel, and one that's neither (Hancock).

Number of films centered on natural disasters: 5 (i.e., The Perfect Storm, Twister, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact)

Number of films centered on animals or in which animals are a significant part of the story: 9 (e.g., The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the Shrek movies, Doctor Dolittle)

Number of films nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award: 6 Saving Private Ryan, The Sixth Sense, Gladiator, Up, Inception, Toy Story 3

Number that won it: 1 (Gladiator)

Appearances by Johnny Depp: 4 (playing Jack Sparrow three times and Willy Wonka once)

Harrison Ford: 2 (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Air Force One)

Will Smith: 4 (Independence Day, Men in Black, Men in Black II, Hancock)

Nicolas Cage: 2 (The Rock, Face/Off)

Eddie Murphy: 6 (three Shreks, plus The Nutty Professor and Doctor Dolittle)

Bruce Willis: 2 (Armageddon, The Sixth Sense)

Mike Myers: 5 (three Shreks and two Austin Powerses)

Tom Cruise: 4 (Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible II, War of the Worlds, a cameo in Austin Powers in Goldmember)

Morgan Freeman: 5 (Deep Impact, Bruce Almighty, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and narrator in War of the Worlds)

Samuel L. Jackson: 5 (three Star Wars prequels and both Iron Man films)

Steven Spielberg (director): 4

Steven Spielberg (producer): 8

Jerry Bruckheimer (producer): 6

Michael Bay (director): 5

The Top 5 Movies of Each Summer, 1996-2010

(All totals are U.S. grosses and are courtesy of Box Office Mojo.)


Independence Day $306,169,268

Twister $241,721,524

Mission: Impossible $180,981,856

The Rock $134,069,511

The Nutty Professor $128,814,019


Men in Black $250,690,539

The Lost World: Jurassic Park $229,086,679

Air Force One $172,956,409

My Best Friend's Wedding $127,120,029

Face/Off $112,276,146


Saving Private Ryan $216,540,909

Armageddon $201,578,182

<p>There's Something About Mary $176,484,651

Doctor Dolittle $144,156,605

Deep Impact $140,464,664


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace $431,088,301

The Sixth Sense $293,506,292

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me $206,040,086

Tarzan $171,091,819

Big Daddy $163,479,795


Mission: Impossible II $215,409,889

Gladiator $187,705,427

The Perfect Storm $182,618,434

X-Men $157,299,717

Scary Movie $157,019,771


Shrek $267,665,011

Rush Hour 2 $226,164,286

The Mummy Returns $202,019,785

Pearl Harbor $198,542,554

Jurassic Park III $181,171,875


Spider-Man $403,706,375

Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones $302,191,252

Signs $227,966,634

Austin Powers in Goldmember $213,307,889

Men in Black II $190,418,803


Finding Nemo $339,714,978

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl $305,413,918

The Matrix Reloaded $281,576,461

Bruce Almighty $242,829,261

X2: X-Men United $214,949,694


Shrek 2 $441,226,247

Spider-Man 2 $373,585,825

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban $249,541,069

The Day After Tomorrow $186,740,799

The Bourne Supremacy $176,241,941


Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith $380,270,577

War of the Worlds $234,280,354

Wedding Crashers $209,255,921

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory $206,459,076

Batman Begins $205,343,774


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $423,315,812

Cars $244,082,982

X-Men: The Last Stand $234,362,462

The Da Vinci Code $217,536,138

Superman Returns $200,081,192


Spider-Man 3 $336,530,303

Shrek the Third $322,719,944

Transformers $319,246,193

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End $309,420,425

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix $292,004,738


The Dark Knight $533,345,358

Iron Man $318,412,101

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull $317,101,119

Hancock $227,946,274

WALL-E $223,808,164


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen $402,111,870

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince $301,959,197

The Hangover $277,322,503

Up $293,004,164

Star Trek $257,730,019


Toy Story 3 $415,004,880

Iron Man 2 $312,433,331

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse $300,531,751

Inception $292,576,195

Despicable Me $251,513,985

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