1989, the Year Blockbuster Movie Season Went Mad
For what feels like generations, summer at the movies has meant big popcorn flicks. If there’s a summer that started it all, it has to be the summer of 1989.
Most of the moviegoing public knows Hollywood’s big tentpole seasons. There’s the Oscars push of the late fall/early winter, when studios roll out their major period pieces, dramatic epics and prestige pictures. You start seeing the campaigning for certain flicks as each begins the trek toward the Oscars and Golden Globes. The early spring and early fall are both the “down” months, when studios traditionally trot out their most mediocre fare. Lowbrow action flicks and generic horror movies rule the box office as the “nothing special” months run their respective courses.
But the summer? The summer months are blockbuster season.
For what feels like generations, summer at the movies has meant big popcorn flicks. Long before the behemoth known as the MCU devoured the summer cineplex and even before major franchises like Harry Potter and even Jurassic Park became pillars of the action-packed warmer months, that stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day was branded as the big money showcase of the movie business. And when one considers where that tradition began, if there’s a summer that started it all, it has to be the summer of 1989.
To clarify, summer blockbusters had been around for more than a decade before the last summer of the 1980s. Jaws reshaped the way the industry approached the summer movie season after Steven Spielberg’s shark movie cashed in ($470 million dollars total gross, $7 million opening weekend back in 1975), and 1979 saw a wide swath of classic films from The Shining to The Muppet Movie raking in major bank in what has to be one of the most inimitable summer seasons in Hollywood history. But it’s the summer of 1989 where the popcorn flick as we think of today really gels into a cultural moment. Especially if you’re old enough to remember it and young enough to have been consumed by it.
Beloved franchises would deliver big sequels that year, as popular movies like Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones went for one (supposed) final victory lap to cement their status as decade-defining brands.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opened that May, and fans turned out in droves to watch what seemed to be Indy’s last go-round. With Sean Connery joining Harrison Ford for the hijinks, the film became the first to sell $10 million in tickets on a single day and broke box-office records in its opening week—growing a then-record $46.9 million in its first six days. It outperformed the competition soundly, as highly-touted fare such as Clint Eastwood’s Pink Cadillac and Patrick Swayze’s Roadhouse underperformed throughout May.
But June was a monster, though the first big hit didn’t come from outer space or another dimension. Indiana Jones was followed the weekend of June 2 by the pensive character drama Dead Poets Society. The Robin Williams-led film about a collective of private school boys inspired by their English teacher would become one of the five biggest movies of the year, making $95,860,116 domestically. It was followed the weekend of June 9 by Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, another big-budget spectacle of a sequel.
The fifth cinematic outing for the famed original Star Trek crew led by William Shatner’s James T. Kirk, Final Frontier was a critical dud, but opened at No. 1 at the domestic box office. At $17.4 million, it had the then-best opening weekend for a Star Trek film, but the movie saw a 58-percent drop in week two. It didn’t help that the movie was given scathing reviews—but it also didn’t help that it was released in the midst of a whirlwind of bigger flicks.
Ghostbusters II arrived a week after Final Frontier, smashing box office records to the tune of a $29,472,894 opening. Ticket prices had increased by more than 22 percent between 1984 and 1989, but fans still turned out in droves to watch the quartet catch ghouls; the film narrowly beat Indiana Jones’ first weekend gross despite that film opening on the four-day Memorial Day weekend. The film may not have enjoyed the critical success of its predecessor, but it was a much bigger film—no doubt boosted by the franchise's hyper-marketing in the years since the original: by 1989, that one movie had spawned a popular Saturday morning cartoon, lunch boxes and action figures. The sequel was much more kid-friendly than the darkly comic first film and, as such, there were McDonalds and Hi-C tie-ins throughout the summer of 1989.
But the Ghostbusters haul was eclipsed just a week later, when Tim Burton’s classic Batman swooped into theaters. To say the Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson-led superhero movie was highly anticipated would be an understatement; ticket counterfeiting ran rampant, and fans camped out at theaters around the country. In an era when the only major comic book franchise had been Superman, the world was eager to see this dark, decaying take on Gotham City and the Caped Crusader. Batman’s opening would be understandably huge—that’s $40,489,746, folks—as it became the juggernaut in a summer full of big films. The movie helped reinvigorate Warner Bros. after several particularly lean years. And it would become the biggest film of the year, taking in $251,188,924 total.
After July 4, Lethal Weapon 2 saw a $20,388,800 opening weekend—another high-profile sequel that audiences returned in droves for. As expected, the second outing for Danny Glover’s Roger Murtaugh and Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs was bigger than the first, which took home $6,829,949 on its opening weekend back in 1987 en route to a $65,2192,350 total box office. Lethal Weapon 2 would see a total box office of $227,300,000, becoming the sixth biggest movie of 1989.
The most unexpected blockbuster of ’89 was the Disney fantasy-comedy Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The family-oriented film wasn’t a highly-anticipated sequel or an action flick, but it scored $130 million at the box office. Disney brass were nervous about everything from the inexperienced, horror-friendly director (Joe Johnston) to star Marcia Straussman’s hair color. Nonetheless, the movie had a $14 million opening weekend—which was the biggest opening ever for a Disney movie. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would take in over $130 million domestically and $92 million in worldwide release.
The Karate Kid III, like Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II, was already expected to do big numbers as a beloved sequel—albeit on a somewhat smaller scale than those other films. The third adventure for Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso and Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, Karate Kid III underwhelmed most critics (and a lot of fans), but it was still a big movie—taking in $10,364,544 in its opening weekend and a total of $38,956,288 domestically. That was after Columbia moved the Karate Kid III release from June 23 to June 30 to avoid being steamrolled by Batman.
In August, things slowed down but you still saw major hits like the Steve Martin family comedy Parenthood and major horror sequel Nightmare On Elm Street V: The Dream Child (and lest we forget, the spectacular failure that is Friday the 13th: Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, which opened two weeks prior). The hugeness of the summer of 1989 wasn’t just about the box office sums—these were movies that were so hyper-branded that they became pop culture events unto themselves. But also, the best of them (Batman, …The Last Crusade) helped set a standard for the kind of mass-produced but not soulless filmmaking that serves the summer so well.
There’s no doubt what summer would become after 1989. Juggernauts like Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Independence Day would break records in the 1990s on the road to box office immortality. The summer would also become overstuffed with sequels for the next 30 years, as blockbuster movies turned into monster franchises like Mission: Impossible and as established names like Lethal Weapon continued to generate huge returns. Throughout the 1990s, Batman sequels swooped into cineplexes, as did huge brands like Jurassic Park and Men In Black. In the 2000s, franchises would come to dominate the summer almost entirely, via the resurrected Star Wars franchise, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the surging popularity of superhero films like X-Men, Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Batman films.
Throughout the 1990s, as names like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer became synonymous with the hottest months of the year, it became apparent how empty blockbuster moviemaking could be. The season for big movies yielded hollow hit flicks like Con Air and Armageddon; and the hyper-branding associated with so many franchises eventually strangled them to death. The Batman franchise deteriorated; what began as a boldly quirky reimagining devolved into a schlocky two-hour toy commercial by the time of 1997's woeful Batman and Robin ($238 million worldwide). The summer season became less inspired and more obviously calculated.
But in the summer of 1989, there was a magic in watching the Joker dance to Prince songs through downtown Gotham or in seeing Indy bicker with his dad as they fought the Nazis. The big money cash-grabs were what made 1989 big. But it was the quality stuff that made it memorable. And the legacy of that summer reverberates in the best Marvel flicks, the most charming returns from Pixar and the most exciting action epics from J.J. Abrams. As everything has become even more franchise-driven over the past ten years, it’s worth looking back at that one big summer where it felt like everybody was at the movies. Summer is when Hollywood does it big. And there weren’t many bigger than 1989.