Like air-conditioning and elevators, the arrival of "Jaws" on June 20, 1975, changed the way we live - at least at the movie theater. Once Steven Spielberg's masterpiece began chasing people off the beach and into the mall, it wasn't just summer movies that changed, but the entire year in film. For proof, one need only look at the previous year.
The summer of '74 marked the last time studios would blithely release an adult-oriented, Academy Award contender during any month with heat-wave potential. Example: "Chinatown." Roman Polanski's now-classic film noir was released in June and went on to 11 Oscar nominations (winning for original screenplay). It also has made one-tenth the money of "Jaws." Respect, yes; huge bucks, no. While "Jaws" often gets tarred for having kick-started the cynical summer-movie machinery, it's not "Jaws' " fault. "The rap against it is long-standing - that it turned the movie business into etc., etc.," said The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, who in 1975 was the film critic for Newsweek. "But every time I see it, I marvel at how good it is." So are a lot of films that have come out in summer. And among the top moneymakers of all time, very few have not been summer releases (Nos. 1 and 2, "Avatar" and "Titanic," came out in December). Qualitatively speaking, though, it's been a progressively mixed bag since 1975.
STAR WARS (1977)
What can one possibly say? A game-changer, an industry and an obsession, it did what Hollywood has hoped for every summer since - generated many bucks and many sequels. All its offspring have been birthed in summer, and two - "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" (1999) and "Episode III: Revenge of the Siths" (2005) - are among the top 20 all-time moneymakers. Go figure.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
An electrifying movie event and the film that cemented Spielberg's status as our pre-eminent maker of spectacle, it also set the stage for one of the more curious aspects of summer blockbusters: Their sequels almost always make more than the original (see "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"). They may make us grind our teeth, but they're profitable.
Following what had been 1983's summer of cheesy sequels ("Curse of the Pink Panther," "Porky's II," "Psycho II," "Superman III," "Staying Alive"), this now-classic comedy starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis ended a decade's worth of summers dominated by Spielberg and George Lucas.
How the heck did this film, which seems to have had no cultural afterlife whatsoever, become the biggest movie of 1990? No competition. "Pretty Woman" had been quick out of the gate earlier in the year, but faded in the stretch as "Ghost" - starring Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg - shut out such masterpieces as "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," "Cadillac Man," "Arachnophobia," "Problem Child" . . . shall we continue?
FORREST GUMP (1994)
Another generally bad year and a worse summer ("The Flintstones," "Beverly Hills Cop III," "Wyatt Earp"), but one that defied the presumptions of the season: While you can still get in an argument about "Gump," it won six Oscars, including best picture, actor (Tom Hanks) and adapted screenplay (Eric Roth).
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
A lot of dubious things were loosed on the public in summer '98 - Michael Bay ("Armageddon"), Lindsay Lohan ("The Parent Trap"), "Dr. Dolittle" and "Godzilla." But there were bright spots, too, including Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight," which resuscitated George Clooney's film career, and "Ryan," which proved that, if nothing else, Spielberg could open a movie whenever he wanted - though most agree that his only competition for that year's best picture Oscar was "Shakespeare in Love," which came out in December, and won.
PEARL HARBOR (2001)
It was a bad year for many reasons, not the least of which being this Michael Bay-directed historical epic, which is inexplicably listed as the third-highest-grossing drama ever released in the summer. Wasn't it a comedy?
Not only does Hollywood have its own reality as regards accounting, it has its own calendar: "Spider-Man," which no one saw coming, opened as a summer movie on May 3. It had the then-biggest weekend-opener ever with $114 million over three days and sort of set the industry back on its heels. It also was pretty terrific and spun off two sequels, the first of which was great, the second not so much.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)
Its summer sequels have raked in more than the original (if you want to call a movie based on an amusement-park ride original). But they've pretty enjoyable thrill rides in their own right, buoyed by Johnny Depp's Keith Richards impersonation.
THE DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN (2008)
It wasn't a passing of the torch, necessarily (we'll see what happens when "Iron Man 2" opens Friday), but both these blockbusters represent what summer movies could, and probably should, be: action-packed and smart. Not too smart, of course. It is, after all, summer.