Few things are as ephemeral and ever-changing as whatever may currently be hip within pop culture, but the zeitgeist of the summer of 1977 has had a hangover that will doubtlessly vanish anytime soon. Summer’s bittersweet yet magical transience (perhaps it is so magical because it is so fleeting) is something kids know inherently, and something that adults try to relive as often as work can allow: a time to unwind and have unbridled fun, most especially by losing yourself in a summer spectacle at the movies while devouring whole fields of popcorn. However, the film industry didn’t always see summertime as open season at the box office.
Blockbusters themselves were nothing unique to the 1970s; in the silent era, films like THE GOLD RUSH (1925), BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925), and THE KING OF KINGS (1927) all packed theatres, the latter of which was the film that christened Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood. Over the next several decades, films as diverse as GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and EASY RIDER (1969) played in some theatres for months on end, something unheard of now in the age of Netflix.
The success of JAWS, however, in 1975, gave the entire industry whiplash. As Joseph McBride pointed out in his excellent biography of Steven Spielberg, JAWS swam past THE GODFATHER to become the all-time movie bestseller in its first 64 days of release, and ultimately became the first film to make more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. Of course blockbusters had been around for years, but the fact that JAWS made more cash in its first release than GONE WITH THE WIND had made in all of its’ rereleases over the decades (curiously, both movies were adapted from first novels by their respective authors) shocked the film business with how much business they could do.
Nevertheless, most felt that the titanic success of JAWS must’ve been a fluke; in spite of the inevitable efforts to cash in on it with films like ORCA, PIRANHA, THE DEEP, and, of course, all the JAWS sequels, it seemed unlikely that JAWS’ box office watermark could be topped. 1977, however, proved everyone wrong.
Hollywood was expecting (and Columbia Pictures was banking on) Spielberg’s JAWS follow-up, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, to do plenty of business, but the other two films expected to do colossal box office and Oscar clean-up were Friedkin’s WAGES OF FEAR update called SORCERER, and Martin Scorsese’s ambitious musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK.
Both films were tailor-made for their era – bold, downbeat epics made by directors much feted at the time for their daring and class. Had both pictures been released a year or so earlier, with audiences still reveling in these auteurs’ prior dark masterpieces, as well the grim cultural zeitgeist in general, they may have been received rapturously. However, both films’ chances at the box office in the summer of 1977 were permanently waylaid by the film no one saw coming – an old-fashioned space fairy tale called STAR WARS.
George Lucas’ mythological fable of heroes and villains proved the success of JAWS wasn’t a one-time love affair, and with a straightforward, fast-paced fun story to tell (not to mention a proper avalanche of merchandise to boot), all of the major studios realized this phenomenon could go on every summer year after year, which is pretty much what has happened. This may have been the beginning of Franchise Fever in Hollywood, but it truly became virulent with the endless sequels that followed in the 1980s.
Personally, I grew up worshipping the original STAR WARS films, and am a huge admirer of Christopher Nolan’s films today, so it would certainly be wrong and hypocritical to make it sound like commercial movies have been all downhill since 1977. It is disheartening, however, that some of the deepest conversations possible regarding mainstream movies revolve around analyzing just how closely the current Marvel epic is compared to its comic book roots. This sea change remains quite something; in the late sixties, young people lined up around the block to see films like BONNIE & CLYDE or THE GRADUATE, then hung around outside the theatres to analyze what they’d experienced and how it connected to their lives and outlooks. Now, young people are more concerned with how faithful a movie like BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is to its original graphic novel.
In his 2004 re-review of 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, Roger Ebert pointed out that the young people of the time greeted that film with the kind of reception that any given franchise epic receives today. True enough, many were possibly just waiting for the nude scenes, but would today’s youth have the patience to sit through Sam the Lion’s monologue about his long ago love affair, or Lois Farrow’s equally wistful speech about the tragedy of only meeting one person in your life who knows your real worth? I hope so, otherwise we should just dispense with movies and switch to making nothing but commercials.
Television today actually seems to have picked up much of the slack of sophistication gone from many mainstream Hollywood films; if shows like THE WIRE, BREAKING BAD or MAD MEN had been features instead of tv shows, they would share a kinship with movies like THE FRENCH CONNECTION or CHINATOWN than THE AVENGERS, so there is certainly an appetite for such films. We’ve become so compartmentalized now in the age of Netflix that even the most popular shows have a bit of a disconnect because not everyone is tuned in, so audiences would welcome a communal event that the best popular movies can offer, especially in summertime, when we’re all looking for a memorable affair to mark that most fleeting of seasons rather than a quick fling.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper