The Reel: The decline of the summer blockbuster

Ben Conniff

It all started back in the summer of 1975.

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” chomped its way to box-office records and set in place a template for summer film releases that studios are still following to this day.

The “summer blockbuster” refers to a high-budget film production, which often constitutes a cultural phenomenon or fast-paced entertainment.

These releases often serve as the basis for a studio’s entire annual marketing strategy.

For years, there was never a problem with this template.

From Paramount to Warner Brothers to Disney to Universal, all the biggest studios have forked over more than $200 million annually in recent years to bring beloved characters to life and to maximize profits.

In the summer of 2000, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” revolutionized the way stories were told about superheroes.

In 2008, “The Dark Knight,” revolutionized the genre again, becoming quite possibly the greatest case for the consideration of superhero blockbusters as viable works of cinematic art.

In the past five years, studios have tried to replicate the success of films like “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” by introducing darker tones in storytelling, humor, often through self-satire, and a heightened approach to realism in their summer releases.

More importantly, these films told compelling stories about fascinating, dynamic characters.

This worked in 2008, but does it hold up in 2013?

Last spring, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas conducted a symposium at the University of Southern California.

Spielberg predicted that “about a half-dozen or so mega-budgeted movies will go crashing into the ground,” causing the industry to “implode,” leading to an alteration of the “whole paradigm.”

The first part of that prophecy came true this past summer.

By and large, films like Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” Universal’s “R.I.P.D.” and Sony’s “After Earth” and “White House Down” all tanked because they valued bombastic action and visual spectacle over a compelling story or dynamic characters.

Even the films that found major financial success like Warner Brothers’ “Man of Steel,” Paramount’s “World War Z,” and Disney’s “Iron Man 3” turned out to be underwhelming.

Missteps in characterization, inconsistency with the narrative and gratuitous levels of violence and destruction plagued these major releases, yet people still flocked to see them.

Therefore, it doesn’t look like studios have heeded enough warning to change their approach to the summer, even if the quality of the stories being told is declining.

The “paradigm shift,” as Spielberg suggested, may not come for a few years, seeing that most blockbusters for the summers of 2014 and 2015 are already in production.

But as the quality of television programming and online content continues to rise, we may see folks forgoing costly ticket prices altogether and just staying home.

The emergence of thoughtful, compelling programming like AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” will be what ultimately causes the shift in the way summer blockbuster films are presented.

Maybe we’ll see the serialization of some major properties. ABC already has an “Avengers” spin-off in the works for this fall.

No matter what, a change is looming as studios head back into the water in search of the success that “Jaws” found all those years ago.