The 50 Biggest Summer Blockbusters of the Past 50 Years

‘Jaws’ invented the modern summer blockbuster in 1975. As 2023’s ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon proved, the concept is very much alive today.
‘Jaws’ changed the summer movie season when it premiered in 1975.
‘Jaws’ changed the summer movie season when it premiered in 1975. / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Though it’s hard to imagine now, summer was once a slow season for movie theaters. Before central air, it was difficult to convince the public to take a break from outdoor activities to spend the day in a stuffy, windowless room. Even as the venues improved, studios remained hesitant to take risks on summer releases. 

Everything changed in the 1970s. That decade, Hollywood realized that big concepts, thrilling action, and stunning special effects could entice audiences, even in the height of summer. Studios started writing big checks for these so-called “summer blockbusters,” and year after year, the investments paid off. 

A look at 50 years of major summer releases tells us a lot about cinema history. From Jaws to Barbie, here are the biggest summer blockbusters since 1974.

1. The Longest Yard (1974)

The concept of the summer blockbuster didn’t exist in 1974. Still, this Burt Reynolds-led football comedy won the season with $43 million in total box office sales. While that number was nothing to sneeze at 50 years ago, it was far from the summer successes Hollywood would come to expect.

2. Jaws (1975)

Jaws set a new standard for the film industry when it premiered in June of 1975. It was the first movie released in more than 400 theaters, and it became the first to exceed $100 million at the box office, with a final domestic gross of $260 million. Steven Spielberg’s marine monster movie is widely considered the first summer blockbuster, and Hollywood has been striving to recreate the model ever since. 

3. The Omen (1976)

Satanic horror was catnip for theatergoers in the 1970s. Three years after The Exorcist (which, oddly, had a Christmas release) terrified audiences, The Omen earned $60.9 million at the domestic box office. Summer isn’t the typical season for big horror releases, but distributors couldn’t pass up the 6/6/76 UK premiere date.

4. Star Wars (1977)

The original Star Wars proved that the success of Jaws two years prior wasn’t a fluke. It broke the fish tale’s record with a total domestic box office gross of $461 million. Early fans knew George Lucas had achieved something special with his space epic, but few could predict how it would dominate pop culture for decades to come.

5. Grease (1978)

This poppy teen musical about the aftermath of summer lovin’ was a natural fit for a June release. Though it lacked special effects-laden action sequences, it garnered enough attention to earn $190 million stateside.

6. The Amityville Horror (1979)

This eerie horror flick marked the end of the 1970s streak of supernatural blockbusters. Though Alien would go on to make a bigger cultural impact, The Amityville Horror was the greater success at the domestic box office that summer, with $86.4 million in ticket sales.

7. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The second Star Wars film solidified the sci-fi franchise as an undeniable force. It exceeded the high water mark set by the first film, with a domestic gross of $290.5 million. If there was still any debate that a movie could become the event of the summer, Empire settled it. 

8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

After launching separate summer blockbusters in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to recreate their success. Raiders of the Lost Ark took classic tropes from 1930s adventure serials and reimagined them with a supersized budget. The action-packed spectacle earned $248.2 million at the domestic box office and launched the popular Indiana Jones franchise. 

9. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. proved that sentimental family fare could be just as lucrative as action and horror. The movie raked in $435.1 million domestically. In addition to cementing Spielberg as a box-office powerhouse, the film earned him Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations.

10. Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars was considered a safe bet at the box office by the time the original trilogy’s third installment hit theaters. Its domestic gross of $309.3 million exceeded Empire, but fell short of the original film. 

11. Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters was the first of many action-comedy blockbusters that defined ’80s cinema. Eye-catching special effects combined with irreverent humor from its cast of Saturday Night Live alums was a winning formula at the box office in the summer of 1984. This resulted in a total domestic gross of $242.2 million.

12. Back to the Future (1985)

The summer after Ghostbusters premiered, another sci-fi comedy adventure made a splash in theaters. The story of a time-traveling teenager fending off the advances of his mother and playing wingman to his father made for unexpected popcorn fare. Back to the Future earned $210.6 million in U.S. ticket sales. 

13. Top Gun (1986)

In May of 1986, Paramount released an action film starring an up-and-coming young actor named Tom Cruise. With striking stunts and effects that translated the Navy’s famous flight school to the screen, Top Gun was the perfect patriotic summer blockbuster. Its final domestic gross for 1986 was $179.8 million.

14. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

By the 1980s, Hollywood had realized the value of a good sequel. The Eddie Murphy vehicle Beverly Hills Cop II capitalized on the success of the original action comedy, claiming $153.7 million at the domestic box office. 

15. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Director Robert Zemeckis didn’t need to rely on time travel or teen heartthrobs to produce a hit. His follow-up to Back to the Future starred Bob Hoskins as a hard-boiled detective opposite a cartoon bunny. Who Framed Roger Rabbit earned $156.5 million nationwide.

16. Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s Batman was one of many summer blockbusters to signal a new era for movies. It grossed $251.3 million in U.S. ticket sales, $40.5 million of which was from its opening weekend alone. Hollywood has continued to pump out Batman movies in the decades since, and it shows no signs of stopping. 

17. Ghost (1990)

The biggest movie of the summer of 1990 was a steamy supernatural romance. Ghost drew enough moviegoers to theaters to make $217.6 million domestically.

18. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 outsized its predecessor in many ways, including at the box office. James Cameron’s action sci-fi sequel brought in $205.9 million in 1991.

19. Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s weird, dark follow-up to Batman was his last contribution to the franchise. Despite its mixed reception at the time, the movie snagged the title of blockbuster of the summer with a domestic gross of $162.9 million.

20. Jurassic Park (1993)

In a surprise to no one, Spielberg’s technologically groundbreaking dinosaur thriller was a sensation when it premiered. Jurassic Park dominated U.S. theaters with a $47 million opening weekend and $402.8 million total gross. 

21. The Lion King (1994)

The first animated film to appear on the list, The Lion King premiered at the peak of the Disney renaissance. Stunning visuals combined with memorable music by Elton John propelled the movie to the top of the summer box office charts with $422.8 million in domestic earnings. 

22. Batman Forever (1995)

The third Batman film didn’t need Tim Burton or Michael Keaton to earn $184.1 million in the U.S. Despite its strong financial performance, it failed to win over most critics and fans.

23. Independence Day (1996)

With an opening weekend date that matched its title, Independence Day was the quintessential summer blockbuster. The alien invasion flick made $306.2 million in 1996; it also launched Will Smith’s years-long winning streak at the box office. 

24. Men in Black (1997)

Smith proved himself as a major box office draw in another sci-fi hit the following year. Men in Black made $250.7 million domestically after premiering in the summer of 1997.

25. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan is more gritty and grounded than Spielberg’s previous summer blockbusters, but it still managed to be a crowdpleaser. The World War II film pulled in $217 million in nationwide ticket sales. 

26. The Phantom Menace (1999)

To call George Lucas’s first Star Wars prequel “highly anticipated” would be an understatement. Though it had a lackluster critical reception, the hype alone around Phantom Menace made it the movie of the summer, with $474.5 million in domestic earnings. 

27. Mission: Impossible II (2000)

When it premiered in 2000, Mission: Impossible II generated $215.4 million in domestic ticket sales. The Tom Cruise-led action franchise is still going strong two decades later.

28. Shrek (2001)

The undeniable success of Shrek marked a shift away from hand-drawn animation to CGI. With a total domestic box office gross of $267.7 million, its popularity made Dreamworks a major player in the category.

29. Spider-Man (2002)

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first Marvel property to conquer the summer (and the annual) box office. With a $115 million opening weekend and a $403.7 million domestic gross, the movie changed the industry. The endless stream of superhero titles that have filled marquees in the subsequent years can be traced back partly to its impact. 

30. Finding Nemo (2003)

As Disney’s traditional animation division floundered in the early 2000s, Pixar thrived. Finding Nemo was the studio’s biggest hit yet. The underwater odyssey netted $380.8 million nationally in the summer of 2003.

31. Shrek 2 (2004)

Shrek 2 out-grossed the original by hundreds of millions with a domestic total of $441.2 million.

32. Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Even if they were disappointed by the first two prequels, many Star Wars fans couldn’t resist seeing how Anakin became Darth Vader in Episode III. Enough people bought tickets for Revenge of the Sith at the U.S. box office to earn it $380.3 million.

33. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest (2006)

Disney’s swashbuckling adventure film based on their theme park ride of the same name was an unexpected hit in 2003. The second Pirates of the Caribbean film was even more popular, earning $423.3 million in the U.S.

34. Spider-Man 3 (2007)

With the third Shrek, Spider-Man, and Pirates films slated to premiere weeks apart, the summer of 2007 became the season of the threequel. All three franchises had broken financial records, so the summer box office was up for grabs. Spider-Man 3 ended up the victor with a domestic gross of $336.5 million.

35. The Dark Knight (2008)

Despite strong ticket sales, Spider-Man 3 received less than stellar reviews, and many saw it as the end of the superhero boom. This prediction was proven wrong a year later. The Dark Knight—the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—earned $535.2 million domestically in 2008. It ushered in a new era of grittier, “prestige” superhero movies. That same summer, the current Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with Iron Man.

36. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

The second Transformers movie was a mega hit, raking in $402.1 million in theaters nationwide.

37. Toy Story 3 (2010)

A decade of hits for Pixar culminated in the third film in their flagship franchise. In addition to a strong financial showing, with $415 million in domestic ticket sales, Toy Story 3 earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination—a rare achievement for an animated feature. 

38. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

The final chapter of Harry Potter was the most lucrative of the original film series, making $381.2 million at the U.S. box office. The previous seven movies were also monetary successes, but as many of them were released around the holidays, they’re absent from this list.

39. The Avengers (2012)

Packing several leading superheroes into one film was a risk when The Avengers premiered in 2012, but it paid off. The Marvel movie earned an impressive $623.4 million domestically. Its success guaranteed that the MCU would be a regular player at the summer box office for the next decade. 

40. Iron Man 3 (2013)

A year after The Avengers broke box office records, audiences were still hungry for Iron Man. The last film in the character’s original trilogy made $409.0 million nationwide.

41. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

In 2014, Marvel proved it didn’t need Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America to fill theater seats. Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t feature any established characters from the MCU, and it was based on an obscure comic, but it had no trouble earning $333.2 million in the U.S. 

42. Jurassic World (2015)

With Jurassic World, star Chris Pratt reigned king of the summer box office two years in a row. Like the original movie, the Jurassic Park reboot was an earth-shaking hit, reaching $652.3 million in domestic earnings alone.

43. Finding Dory (2016)

Thirteen years after Finding Nemo became the top blockbuster of the summer, the sequel did the same with a domestic gross of $486.3 million.

44. Wonder Woman (2017)

By 2017, the MCU had become big enough to influence DC. The DC Extended Universe hasn’t been a consistent heavyweight at the box office, but Wonder Woman was an early hit with $412.6 million in U.S. earnings.

45. Incredibles 2 (2018)

The 2010s were a big decade for sequels at Pixar. The follow-up to The Incredibles made $608.6 million domestically.

46. The Lion King (2019)

Disney’s “live action” (or rather, realistic CGI) remake of The Lion King replicated the original in many ways. It even recreated its status as the top summer blockbuster of its year. Earning $543.6 million domestically, it outgrossed the 1994 movie, not adjusting for inflation. 

47. The New Mutants (2020)

The summer of 2020 was a strange time for movies. Pandemic closures and social distancing led many moviegoers—and studios—to opt for streaming over a traditional theatrical experience. The X-Men film The New Mutants was one of the few tentpoles to hit theaters that year. Even with abyssmal domestic earnings of $23.8 million, it became the top-earning title released in the summer months.

48. Black Widow (2021)

Movie theaters had reopened by mid-2021, but the box office was still struggling to return to its pre-pandemic state. Black Widow—one of the first MCU films following the Avengers saga—beat its competitors that summer with only $183.6 million in domestic ticket sales. 

49. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

After a shaky few years for the film industry, Tom Cruise helped revive the summer blockbuster. Like the original Top Gun that thrilled audiences in the summer of 1986, Top Gun: Maverick demanded to be viewed on the big screen. Its $718.7 million domestic box office haul single-handedly changed the conversation around the importance of theaters in the streaming age. 

50. Barbie (2023)

The summer blockbuster is still evolving 50 years after the term was coined. In the summer of 2023, Barbie crushed expectations by grossing $612.3 million at the domestic box office. Internationally, Greta Gerwig’s comedic take on the doll brand earned more than $1 billion (a.k.a. “a Barbillion”). It broke the records for highest-grossing live action comedy and highest-grossing film by a solo woman director. It was also the first top summer movie in 20 years that wasn’t part of a preexisting film franchise.

Barbie’s success was amplified by the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, which saw its release coincide with Christopher Nolan’s deeply serious biopic about the inventor of the atomic bomb. While Oppenheimer didn’t best Barbie at the box office, it was a summer hit in its own right, reaching nearly $1 billion worldwide.

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A version of this story ran in 2023; it has been updated for 2024.