10 Biggest Summer Blockbusters of All Time

It all started with a malfunctioning mechanical shark. Technical difficulties on the set of the movie Jaws caused Steven Spielberg’s shoot to stretch from 55 days to 159 days. As a result, the movie’s meaty December 1974 release date was pushed back to July 1975—and the summer blockbuster was born.

Before Jaws, summer was seen as something of a dumping ground for movies. It wasn’t where the studios made their big moves—that was the holiday season. After Jaws, summer became something different. It became the time when studios released their biggest movies to make the biggest money.

In the 40+ years since Jaws was unleashed on audiences, the summer season has brought us a lot of blockbusters. But not all summer blockbusters are created equal. Here is our official list of the 10 biggest and best summer movie blockbusters of all time…

The Criteria: Choosing Our Summer Movie All-Stars

How do you determine the biggest summer movies of all time? Here are the three factors we used to decide which summer movies made our blockbuster all-star team:
  • Money – To crack this list, movies didn’t just need to make a lot of money. They needed to make more money than any other movie in their respective summer. And it shouldn’t have been close.
  • Mania – The movies on this list weren’t just popular, they captured the collective conversation. These are movies that people talked about all summer long and couldn’t wait to see again. *This “zeitgeist factor” is why most (but not all) sequels were ruled out. Repeats rarely deliver that magic.  
  • Marketing – A final key was the movies needed to have a strong marketing component (either pre- or post-release) that extended the experience beyond the theater and made the film feel “bigger”.

The All-Star Team: 10 Greatest Summer Blockbusters

Here are the most magnificent, mighty and momentous blockbusters in summer movie history:

Jaws 1975

1. Jaws

Year: 1975

Gross: $260 million

Why: The original summer blockbuster still stands as one of the best,. Few movies scream “summer” quite like Jaws, with its beach setting and edge-of-your-seat tension. It holds up amazingly well today and was the beginning of Spielberg’s summer dominance (you’ll see him again on this list).  With tickets prices adjusted for inflationJaws is the seventh highest domestic grossing film of all time.

Star Wars

2. Star Wars

Year: 1977

Gross: $307 million

Why: Because it’s freakin’ Star Wars, man! It kicked off the biggest movie franchise of all time, launched a hugely successful toy line, and became a pop-culture milestone. When Star Wars came out, people had never seen anything like it. They went to see it 3, 4 and 5 times. They don’t come much bigger than this intergalactic classic when it comes to all three categories—money, mania and marketing.

E.T.

3. E.T.

Year: 1982

Gross: $359 million

Why: Spielberg summer magic strikes again (as it would many times over the decades). Like Jaws, the amazing thing about E.T. is that it plays just as well today as it did 30+ years ago. It’s a mesmerizing, magical tale that puts adults and kids alike under its extraterrestrial spell. E.T. made huge money in its time (more than each of the original Star Wars movies) and, adjusted for inflation, E.T. is the fourth highest grossing movie of all time.

Ghostbusters

4. Ghostbusters

Year: 1984

Gross: $229 million

Why: Not only did Ghostbusters bring together laughs and special effects in a way audiences had never seen before, it also launched a marketing juggernaut with the insignia soon popping up everywhere. There were toys, a cartoon, Halloween costumes, and merch as far as the eye could see. Names like Slimer, Zuul, and the Stay Puft quickly became pop-culture reference points.

Batman

5. Batman

Year: 1989

Gross: $251 million

Why: Batman may be the moment when the marketing build-up to summer movies grew to truly massive proportions. In the summer of 1989, the Batman insignia was everywhere—from t-shirts to fast-food cups. Prince had a video on MTV directly tied to the movie. Even as big sequels were started to emerge as Hollywood moneymakers, Batman still swallowed the summer whole. Amazingly, the movie not only lived up to the massive hype the marketing created—it exceeded it.

Terminator 2

6. Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Year: 1991

Gross: $205 million

Why: Because T2 is one of the rare sequels that actually builds on the first film and delivers something truly groundbreaking. In this case, it’s mind-blowing special effects, next-level action sequences, and a star at the peak of his powers. Perhaps the most impressive thing about T2‘s success is the fact that this movie topped the box office with an “R” rating attached to it (it’s the only movie on this list to do so). Somehow despite the restrictive rating, every kid in 1991 knew every one of Arnold’s one-liners.

Jurassic Park

7. Jurassic Park

Year: 1993

Gross: $357 million

Why: Like Batman before it, Jurassic Park took pre-release marketing to another level. Everything was tied to the movie back in ’93 and the logo was everywhere. The movie combined the intensity of Jaws and the wonder of E.T., and it played all summer long to audiences of repeat viewers. The franchise continues to be a top summer grosser today—though none of the later films had the impact of the original (2015’s Jurassic World came close, delivering marketing and money, but lacking the mania).

Spider-Man

8. Spider-Man

Year: 2002

Gross: $403 million

Why: Before both (1) superheroes dominated the box office and (2) everything Marvel was gold, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was seen as something of a risk. To everyone’s surprise, the movie delivered a wildly fun moviegoing experience that stole the summer from a Stars Wars flick (Attack of the Clones), had kids everywhere making web-shooting sounds, and inspired adventurous young couples to experiment with upside-down kissing.

The Dark Knight

9. The Dark Knight

Year: 2008

Gross: $533 million

Why: Here is another ruling-breaking sequel that astonished everyone. A sequel to Batman Begins (which made $200 million in 2005), this dark, gritty take on the superhero genre would have a major impact on the movie world. And in Heath Ledger’s Joker, a role many thought was impossible after Jack Nicholson’s version in the 1989 movie, audiences got something truly jolting. This was the movie you had to see in summer 2008. It’s also easily the darkest movie on this list.

The Avengers

10. The Avengers

Year: 2012

Gross: $623 million

Why: Because no one knew if Marvel could bring all these characters from different movies together successfully in one film. And then they did—and it was a whole lot of fun. The standout sequence was a tracking shot at the end showing all the Avengers doing battle together. This one kept audiences coming back again and again. It also (for better or worse) paved the path for summer after summer of Marvel superhero dominance.

Honorable Mentions

These movies were considered for the list, but either didn’t meet the criteria above or couldn’t quite outmuscle the movies above…

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Back to the Future
  • Top Gun
  • Forest Gump
  • Independence Day
  • Men in Black
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Wonder Woman

AUTHOR: Shad Connelly
ORIGIN: Communications Director @ MONSTERS Unlimited

If you'd like to follow Shad on Twitter  /  @shadconnelly