Arts·Cut to the Feeling

In loving memory of the essential summer blockbuster (RIP)

Sure, there are still big movies — but the communal experience that defined the summer blockbuster since Jaws took a bite of the box office in 1975 is dead.

Sure, there are still big movies — but the communal experience that defined the summer blockbuster is dead

Still frame from the 2023 Barbie movie. Ryan Gosling as Ken and Margot Robbie as Barbie driving in a pink car. Ken eagerly holds up a yellow pair of rollerskates while Barbie rolls her eyes.
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie (2023). (Warner Bros.)

Cut to the Feeling is a monthly column by Anne T. Donahue about the art and pop culture that sparks joy, grief, nostalgia, and everything in between.

It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of the essential summer blockbuster. It slipped away after an arduous battle with superhero franchises, streaming services, and an overabundance of content, leaving behind a legacy of unparalleled cinema and safe topics for small talk with strangers you've been seated next to at weddings.

Its arrival in June 1975 was a surprise, delivered via the story of a bloodthirsty shark whose lust for life terrorized both the Jersey Shore and Richard Dreyfuss. Seducing movie-goers with its simple-yet-traumatizing plot, Steven Spielberg's Jaws set the precedent for an annual tradition: from Memorial to Labour Day, each summer would be defined by a handful of films that dictated public discourse, free time, and conversations beginning with, "Did you see . . . ?"

The scope and ambition of its operation was relentless. While the summer blockbuster began as largely action-centric, it quickly diversified into multiple genres, seeking to appeal to the masses through comedy, drama, and science fiction, creating movie stars along the way.

Fuelled by its need to include as many millions of viewers as possible (a feat matched only by its December nemesis, Awards Season Fodder), audiences were graced with stories of harmless and harmful extraterrestrials (Alien, Star Wars: A New Hope), inescapable natural disasters (Twister, Deep Impact), and Will Smith-coined catchphrases ("Welcome to earth!"). To see one was to ensure social relevance for a season; to miss out was to be sentenced to months of laughing along in hopes of fitting in — of trying and failing to understand jokes.

Promotional poster for the film Jaws. A shark lurks below the surface with its mouth open wide as an unsuspecting woman swims above.
Jaws (1975), the original summer blockbuster. (Universal Pictures)

Yet despite its unwavering popularity, the summer blockbuster prioritized quality. Its unwavering need to gain mass acceptance led to explorations of love and comedy (Runaway Bride), sand-ridden hellscapes (Mad Max: Fury Road), and culinary genius in the form of animated rodents (Ratatouille). Like its audiences, the summer blockbuster contained multitudes. And by respecting the complexity of the human psyche, it created a valuable space in which one could lose themself in plots pertaining to sheep-herding bovines (Babe) and Christian Bale's unsettling Batman voice (The Dark Knight).

It also provided us with air conditioning — perhaps the greatest gift of all.

For over four decades, the summer blockbuster provided something that friends, families, and careers often fail to: consistency. In eras defined by economic, social, and political upheaval, the blockbuster could be relied on to show up, to commit, to deliver. It assured escapism without judgment; a one-way friendship in which it granted visitors the privilege of projecting their biggest dreams, fears, and celebrity crushes onto its thousands of IMAX screens.

Still frame from the original Jurassic Park movie. Joseph Mazzello, Sam Neill, and Ariana Richards wander through the grounds of Jurassic Park, dirtied and wearing safari clothes.
Live footage of us looking for a summer blockbuster that will be as universally watched as Jurassic Park (1993). (Universal Pictures)

But nothing gold can stay. And despite the once-comforting assurance that we could rely on it every year, the summer blockbuster's hold on our hearts slowly began to unclasp — replaced by video-on-demand, Netflix, and no less than 6,000 Marvel and DC franchises per annum that dulled the sheen of a season jam-packed with special effects and conventionally attractive famous people.

It continued to fight to hold on — but even the most seemingly infallible titans crumble. Fast and Furious and Jurassic Park instalments aside, the juggernaut that escaped several recessions and the rise of VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray was met with its inevitably insurmountable obstacle: COVID-19.

Film has taught us that the true mark of a hero is to venture forth into the dark night; to stare at the abyss as it stares back, unblinking in the face of its menacing vacuum. With great power comes great responsibility, and in the name of public safety, the summer blockbuster acted once more in the best interest of its people, abandoning protocol to ensure that its patrons stay home, stay safe, and above all, stay alive — even if it had to sacrifice its own life in the process.

In the days leading up to its end, the summer blockbuster existed largely in silence. It greeted new releases with a knowing nod before bowing its head in quiet understanding. It would not be here long enough to see their outcomes; to watch Tom Cruise hurl himself into the air in the name of Mission: Impossible or to see whether Barbie will conquer Oppenheimer at the box office.

Meme of a gravestone that reads "movie" (singular).
RIP (Imgflip)

But, mercifully, it was also spared the devastation of seeing what the "summer blockbuster" has become now: no longer a communal experience shared by all, but simply just another big-budget movie you may or may not watch. The universality of appointment viewing and shared references has given way to convenience and choice — the "must-see" replaced by the "I'll probably see at some point."

Surrounded by its decades-long collection of posters, box office records, and a large pile of 3D glasses, the summer blockbuster waited until nightfall before finally slipping into the ether, the haunting sound of Netflix's opening notes escorting it to a threshold from which few return.

We were lucky to have had its presence for so long. Lucky to be graced with the guidance of a giant whose own vision shaped our own, only for us to leave it abandoned. The summer blockbuster may be gone, but its memory will live forever; its essence as powerful as the first shot of the brontosauri in the original Jurassic Park, sweeping across the screen and promising that outside the realm of reality, dreams can come true.


Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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