Thirty Years Later: The Summer Movie Season of 1981

Thirty Years Later: The Summer Movie Season of 1981

Aug 10, 2011

While the excellent Eric D. Snider does his regular "one year later" column, we thought it might be fun to go back even further. Although we're seriously obsessed with new films here at, there's no reason we shouldn't spend a good deal of column space on the "older" fare, too. With that in mind, and because I'm one of the oldest guys here, we're now going to jump back in time a full 30 years -- to late summer of 1981. And wow, was that a fantastic season for films. Seems that the studios had finally learned the lessons laid down by Jaws and Star Wars -- and the big-time "tentpole" releases were enjoying their newfound dominance at the multiplex. (Although back in 1981, an eight-auditorium movie theater was the biggest multiplex you'd find.)

Of course most of the summer was owned by a certain archaeologist's first adventure: Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark opened on June 12 and went on to become the biggest hit of the year with $209 million in domestic coin.The third biggest grosser of the year would open one week later: Superman 2 on June 19. Let's just look at the chart for June, 1981, and enjoy a nice little trip down memory lane...
6/5 Nice Dreams
6/12 Clash of the Titans
6/12 History of the World Part 1
6/12 Raiders of the Lost Ark
6/19 The Cannonball Run
6/19 Superman 2
6/26 Dragonslayer
6/26 For Your Eyes Only
6/26 The Great Muppet Caper
6/26 Stripes
Now THAT'S a movie month! Greek gods, dumb stoners, Nazi musical numbers, cross-country races, superheroic sequels, medieval madness, a dash of James Bond, a light sprinkling of Muppets, and a nice shot of Bill Murray to wash it all down. (I was barely ten in 1981; the only ones I saw theatrically were Clash, Cannonball, Caper, Superman, and (of course) Raiders, which I saw at least four times.) Heavy grossers this month include the aforementioned Raiders and Superman 2, but Stripes also did really well ($85 million), as did The Cannonball Run ($72 million), For Your Eyes Only ($54 million), and Clash of the Titans ($41 million). 
7/1 S.O.B.
7/10 Escape from New York
7/10 The Fox and the Hound
7/17 Arthur
7/17 Endless Love
7/17 Zorro, the Gay Blade
7/24 Blow Out
7/24 Eye of the Needle
7/24 Wolfen
7/31 Under the Rainbow
7/31 Victory
...and July is where we realize that the studios hadn't fully mastered the art of the tentpole release yet. Nowadays Arthur would be released in October, because it's ostensibly for adults, as would Blow Out and Eye of the Needle. We didn't learn until about 1985 that adults hate going to the movies in the summertime. Plus there are some plain old stinkpiles in this batch. My sister and I went to see The Fox and the Hound (still an underrated Disney title), Arthur (we were bored), Zorro the Gay Blade (we didn't get it), and Under the Rainbow, which may have been the one film that inspired my career as a film critic; even as a ten-year-old I could tell that this Chevy Chase farce was a horrible mess.
Money-wise, the winners here were Arthur ($75 million), The Fox and the Hound ($40 million), and the horribly awful Tarzan the Ape Man ($35 million). Escape from New York barely broke $30 million, but that was a solid enough number for 1981. (It deserved better.)
Which brings us to one painful August:
8/7 Student Bodies
8/7 Tarzan the Ape Man
8/14 Deadly Blessing
8/14 An Eye for an Eye
8/21 An American Werewolf in London
8/21 Comin' at Ya!
8/21 First Monday in October
8/21 Honky Tonk Freeway
8/21 Prince of the City
8/28 Body Heat
8/28 Chu Chu and the Philly Flash
8/28 Hell Night
8/28 Private Lessons
My sister and I must have been grounded or something; I don't recall seeing any of these during their theatrical run. But wow. Aside from the sublime horror/comedy from John Landis and a few decent flicks for grown-ups (Prince of the City, Body Heat), August of 1981 pretty much defines the phrase "dumping grounds." To make matters even worse, this month saw the debut of Comin' at Ya!, the flick that (pretty much single-handedly) re-ignited the "new" 3-D craze that would ultimately run rampant in 1982 and especially 1983. (Although these days I'd jump at the chance to see an opening day double feature of Hell Night and Private Lessons.)
So what's the point? Not much, actually. Just that it's slightly amusing to see how the Summer Movie Season has evolved over the past 30 years. Plus it's just a lot of fun to put a bunch of "old" movies in chronological order and try to imagine what we'd be tweeting about thirty years ago today. 
"I can't believe there's no press screening for Chu Chu and the Philly Flash!"
"Cheech & Chong are still going strong! They're so funny!"
"It's so stupid that Snake wears an eyepatch. They don't even explain why!"
"Ugh, a THIRD Muppet movie?"
"Wow, a movie in 3-D? What is this, 1959?!?"
(Feel free to post your own 1981 Summer Movie tweets! Please use the hashtag #1981summermovies.)
P.S. Big thanks to IMDb and Box Office Mojo for giving me the dates to put in order. If you notice any mistakes or omissions, let me know on twitter!

Categories: Features, years later, News
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