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Is a summer without movie blockbusters a blessing in disguise?

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A scene from 1975 hit Jaws

A scene from 1975 hit Jaws

A scene from 1975 hit Jaws

At this stage of a normal summer, we'd be piling into the multiplexes to watch two-and-a-half-hour blockbusters that cost a fortune to make, are irredeemably dumb but annoyingly entertaining. "That was rubbish," we'd be saying to each other on the way out, guiltily concealing the fact that we'd rather enjoyed ourselves.

July 4 is the prime release date studios traditionally fight over, but that day has passed and there is still nothing much doing in the cinemas, which are only now showing faint signs of life. There will be a few big releases in the late summer, like Christopher Nolan's Tenet, and Disney's live action remake of Mulan, but most of the movies that would have been 2020's summer blockbusters have either already been stream-released, or deferred until autumn. Which seems kind of sad.

The idea of the summer blockbuster is deeply entrenched in cinema-going minds, and when you think of the best ones - Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Star Wars - it's hardly surprising. But, in fact, the summer hit was an invention of the 1970s: before that, July and August was a time for dumping films nobody cared about into cinemas that would be half empty anyway because everyone was at the beach. And funnily enough, it was a film about a beach that changed the face of cinema forever.

Steven Spielberg was not initially keen on adapting Peter Benchley's novel Jaws: it was schlocky, badly written. But it was the book's last 100 pages that changed his mind, as Chief Brody and the demented fisherman Quint take to the waves to hunt the Great White Shark that's been terrorising the coastal resort of Amity. This was elemental stuff, like something out of Moby Dick, and Spielberg decided that by focussing on this he could transform a silly book into a great movie.

He would in the short term have good cause to bitterly regret that decision, as bad weather and malfunctioning mechanical sharks led to long delays and a spiralling budget. But the cleverest people find opportunity in adversity: Spielberg decided to delay the shark's appearance for as long as possible, using John Williams' ominous, Stravinsky-inspired theme music to advertise its malign presence beneath the waves. He also encouraged his stars - Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw - to act naturalistically to counteract the dead-eyed rubberness of the shark.

He handled it all brilliantly, and when Universal executives saw a sneak preview of the finished film in March 1975, they knew they had something special on their hands. As the credits rolled, the film's co-writer Carl Gottlieb noticed a group of studio executives repair to the Gents for an urgent conflab. Before Jaws, studios had released films gradually, in crab-like fashion, seeing how they did in limited openings before giving them a wider run. But that group of suits took the fateful decision to unleash Jaws simultaneously in 450 American cinemas: the summer blockbuster was born.

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Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Made for what seemed an astronomical $9m, Spielberg's film smashed box-office records to gross $70m. Suddenly all the studios wanted their own Jaws, and the idea of pouring huge resources into the marketing of big-budget crowd-pleasers became the order of the day. Spielberg, and his friend George Lucas, would emerge as the masters of this new age.

Released on May 25, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope surpassed Jaws at the box office, revived the space opera and launched a mighty franchise that's still rumbling along today. But as film budgets crept upwards and the search intensified for formulaic projects that would deliver success on a massive scale, a gradual ossification overtook Hollywood thinking that has only worsened in the intervening years.

Lucas and Spielberg had been part of the generation of young guns that emerged in the early 1970s. They, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin and others had been given a free rein by the big studios, who were terrified of losing a young audience alienated by the counterculture from traditional Hollywood fare. The result was brilliant, daring mainstream films like The Godfather, Carrie, The Exorcist and Taxi Driver, that did brisk business while pushing creative boundaries.

Once the blockbuster craze took hold, that rush of creativity dwindled, and never again would Hollywood producers be so ready to back new scripts and untried talent. In fairness, though, some of this new breed of blockbusters were pretty inventive themselves, and in 1981 Spielberg and Lucas joined forces to release one of the most winning summer hits of them all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was inspired by their mutual love of 1940s adventure serials, and combined action and humour to compelling effect. Its hero, Indiana Jones, was an archaeologist who travelled the world retrieving precious artefacts from thieves and fascists - "Nazis," he would memorably say in a later instalment, "I hate these guys". Lucas was reluctant to cast Harrison Ford, until Spielberg persuaded him otherwise.

Steven Spielberg also had a hand in one of the most winning comic blockbusters of them all, but Back to the Future was only released in the US in the summer by accident. Its star, Michael J Fox, was working on the TV sitcom Family Ties, which meant he could only shoot at night, and Back to the Future finished shooting months behind schedule, in late April of 1985. A deft and hasty edit saw the film released in the summer of that year: the rest, as they say, is history.

James Cameron would become another blockbuster specialist. Aliens, his 1986 sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror, brilliantly combined all that icky alien biology with thrilling action and grimy space combat. Released on July 18, 1986, it was one of the stand-out hits of that summer, and in 1991 Cameron achieved even greater success with the endlessly inventive T2: Judgment Day.

Independence Day, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, Mad Max: Fury Road - all are classic summer hits. But for every great summer blockbuster, there are a hundred bad ones, and even the joy that great summer films have brought us should not conceal the fact that the overall effect of blockbusters on Hollywood's output has been catastrophic.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, the big studios have become ever-more risk averse, more and more reluctant to take a punt on a new idea. Sequels, spin-offs and films based on existing ideas and characters have become the order of the day, and as a consequence most of the good writers have migrated to episodic TV dramas.

All of this can be traced back to the mid-1970s, and the accidental invention of the summer blockbuster. Perhaps we shouldn't be missing them that much after all.

Indo Review