With summer comes a familiar parade of cinematic tropes: the classic film reboot, the series that just won’t die, the ongoing, never-ending, isn’t-anyone-tired-of-these-yet superhero movie assault. Why do we get this barrage of summer cinema, year after year after year?
The answer is money. If you want to win an Oscar, the numbers say you should release your movie in November or December. But if you want to blow up the box office? Try the summer. Of the 50 highest-grossing films of all time, 30 came out in May, June, July or August. With school out and vacations on the rise, summers and blockbusters are as inseparable as Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Given summer’s bankable track record, PrettyFamous, an entertainment site from Graphiq, set out to rank the top 100 highest-grossing summer movies of all time. Rather than using raw, worldwide gross figures — which tend to favor recent films — the team used inflation-adjusted domestic receipts. As such, the list might undervalue films that did particularly well overseas, but it will do a better job putting older movies in context. In other words, $100 million in 1977 is much more impressive than $100 million in 2016.
May, Not August
Among the top 100 summer blockbusters of all time, May dominates, while August lags behind. Intuitively, this makes sense — films with longer summer shelf lives tend to do better overall. There’s likely a self-fulfilling cycle at work here too, as studios see May success, then aim to release future movies in the same timeframe.
Adjusted for inflation, the original “Star Wars” remains the highest-grossing summer movie ever, a film that went on to net nearly $2 billion in domestic receipts. In fact, the Star Wars series earns four of the top six slots, including all of the original series and “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
Episodes II and III appear further down the list, but critical reception to “The Phantom Menace” might have doomed the two movies to sub-Star Wars performance. “The Force Awakens” — the series’ 2015 reboot — made more than enough to make the list, but the film was released in December, marking the first time a major Star Wars film wasn’t released in the summer.
Steven Spielberg’s two directing Oscars already put him in rare company, but the man is even better at summer blockbusters than award-winning films. Between “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Spielberg nabs three of the top 10 slots. Several Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones sequels pepper the list as well.
All told, Spielberg notches nine spots among the top 100 films, by far the most of any director. Michael Bay’s five entries come mostly from the smash-hit Transformers series, while George Lucas’ four slots come thanks to the Star Wars franchise.
When it comes to genre, nothing basks in the summer’s lucrative rays quite like kids movies. For every iconic series on the list, there’s an animated feature to match, from “The Lion King” to “Bambi” to “Shrek 2.” Here, Hollywood is taking full advantage of summer vacation and busy parents. What better way to keep the kids occupied than shuffle them off to “Toy Story 3?”
Note: Movies on this list can have multiple genres at once, such as “animated,” “fantasy” and “children.”
After a record-breaking opening weekend, “Finding Dory” looks poised to continue the trend.
Naturally, action-adventure films like “Jurassic Park” do particularly well, as does science fiction and comedy, the familiar staples of summer cinema. Drama — which dominates November and December — nearly disappears during the summer months.
If there’s any surprise here, it might be horror’s poor showing. While the most iconic horror films tend to come out in October, there’s still been a steady stream of summer hackfests over the years, and only one cracks the top 100 (“Alien”).
But has the golden age of summer blockbusters come and gone? The data says no.
Each new decade has a habit of surpassing the last, even when adjusting for inflation. The 2010s are already on pace to surpass the 2000s, and keep in mind that many films will get bumped to make room for the summer hits of 2017, 2018 and 2019.