How the Summer of ’82 Changed Movies Forever

The movies of the summer of 1982 left a lasting impression on American culture.

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When Mark Twain popularized the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” he could have been prophesizing about the American movie industry. A lot of pieces of conventional wisdom aren’t conventional or wisdom. Some of the numbers you hear aren’t how the numbers actually worked. And some widely spread “truths” couldn’t be more wrong. It is fair and correct to say that forty years ago, the summer of 1982 reshaped the movies, but it might not be for the reasons that you’ve been told.

The Summer Movie Season: A good place to begin is the notion of the blockbuster summer. For years, conventional wisdom has held out that Steven Spielberg somehow created the big-budget blockbuster summer season with 1975’s Jaws. There’s a grain of truth in that before 1975, the movies that studios were betting to deliver big returns could be released at any point in the year. Many of the biggest hits of all time, like Gone with the Wind and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, were released in December to capitalize on the holidays and winter breaks. The Ten Commandments and 1931’s Frankenstein were November releases. But then you have The Sound of Music in March and West Side Story in October; the highest grossing film of 1963, Cleopatra, was released in June. Even though big movies saw massive success all over the calendar for decades, studios got the notion that perhaps Jaws succeeded on the strength of summer vacation audiences, and slowly started to program that way.

However, for the next few years, the rollouts continued to be spread out. Rocky was 1976’s top grosser, and it had a New York City release in November before going wide in December. Four stunning 1977 successes were spread between May (Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit), November (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and December (Saturday Night Fever). The May films were #1 and #2 for the year, but Star Wars was a legitimate phenomenon. 1978’s #1, Superman, was a December drop, with Grease at #2 from June. 1979 saw Kramer vs. Kramer dominate from a December position, while The Empire Strikes Back (as it was titled at the time) blew away everything starting in May. The final year before 1982 saw Raiders of the Lost Ark open to huge grosses in June.

If you were to meticulously comb through the history of releases, you could see that studios always programmed to kids and teens in the summer. But the truth is that kid and teen dollars alone couldn’t produce a success like Raiders or Star Wars. Nevertheless, the message that the studios got between 1976 and 1981 was that opening in the summer was a better bet, despite evidence that a good movie could open anytime. It’s also a bit absurd to pin the “blame” on Spielberg for Jaws; the film actually has way more character work than shark attacks, with Robert Shaw’s U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue frequently cited as a highlight of the film. Jaws and Star Wars together only cost 2/3 of Cleopatra’s budget from 1963, which also puts a bit of a dent in the big-budget argument.

What is true is that for 1982, the studios attempted to line up a veritable murderer’s row of what they expected to be hits. Some had big budgets or big directors or big stars. But rather that being spread over an entire year, a particularly large concentration of sequels, star vehicles, and expected hits were put on the calendar for May to August. Some soared, some crashed, and some became classics due to a second life on the emerging field of video rentals. Here’s how that went down with a look at the big and/or significant releases for each month of the summer of 1982, May through August.

THE SWORD AND SORCERY BOOM CLUB


The Conan the Barbarian trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Trailer Chan)

Conan the Barbarian (May 14)
Director John Milius co-wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone that brought Robert E. Howard’s pulp sword and sorcery hero to the screen. Even with a modest budget of $20 million, the film was perceived as a bit of a risk for one major reason: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Primarily known as a seven-time Mr. Olympia champion, Schwarzenegger’s biggest screen credit to that point was a central role in the documentary Pumping Iron. Though some critics dinged Arnold’s acting, his sheer physical presence in and brute charisma in Conan overcame any acting challenges. While the movie was successful enough to spawn a 1984 sequel (Conan the Destroyer), it wasn’t a major hit of the year. However, it set Arnold on a path that would see him dominate the action genre for the rest of the decade in films like The Terminator, Commando, Predator, and The Running Man.

The Beastmaster (August 20): The Beastmaster was another installment in the decade’s sword and sorcery boom. It wasn’t a major hit, but became the poster child for the concept of a second life on cable and home video. The film was one of the proving grounds for the notion that a film could remain a moneymaker long after it was out of theaters. At one point, TNT considered it the network’s second most popular film to show after Gone with the Wind.

MUSICALS WERE ON THE WANE


The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Annie (May 21)
Musicals were waning on screen by the early 1980s. They wouldn’t go completely extinct, but several of the stories making the jump from stage to screen didn’t deliver big returns. Annie landed in that category. Despite ending up as the #10 moneymaker with $57 million for the year, the plucky orphan had taken $35 million to put on film (almost as much as it cost to make Conan and Rocky III combined). Ironically, the kid-targeted Annie would be beaten at the box office by another musical about, well, a whorehouse. To be continued in July.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (July 23): Annie was a modest hit, but The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was bigger. A big part of that was that Dolly Parton was in the middle of an incredible hot streak. Steadily becoming a bigger and bigger country start throughout the ’70s, Parton emerged as a film presence with 1980’s 9 to 5 while taking the title tune to #1 on both the country and pop charts. The southern-flavored musical was in her wheelhouse, and the story was retrofitted to add a couple of her own songs, including a brief rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” The film came in at #9 for the year. However, the rest of the ’80s saw a slow-down in Broadway adaptations, particularly after A Chorus Line bombed in 1985.

BLOCKBUSTER SEQUELS EQUAL BUSINESS


Rocky III trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Rocky III (May 28)
Based on the major success of the first two Rocky films, Rocky III was something of a sure bet. Sylvester Stallone arrived to shoot at his most chiseled, and his new antagonist was the wildly charismatic Mr. T in his star-making turn as Clubber Lang. Though some critics derided the screenplay, the twist of having Rocky’s old nemesis, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) become his new best friend and trainer (after the death of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey) played extremely well with audiences. Having a massive hit on the soundtrack didn’t hurt either. Rocky punched his way to #4 for the year, making over $120 million in America against a budget of $17 million. It’s not much of a surprise that the franchise went for three more films and continues today with the Creed spin-off series.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (June 4)
1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture put the crew of the Enterprise back in front of fans for the first time in ten years. While it was a solid hit, it had mixed reviews, and some stretches that were badly paced (or, worse, boring). Paramount ordered a sequel with a smaller budget, and Nicholas Meyer made the most of it. Star Trek II brought back one of the series’ most memorable antagonists, Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), and Meyer blended action, suspense, strong characterization, moments of humor, and genuine emotion. The film played like the best of the TV series on a big screen with an even larger villain. It’s fair to say that Khan is responsible for Star Trek not only staying on movie screens, but returning to television by 1987. It’s become a template for many other franchise sequels with its incorporation of franchise-specific mythology and the notion of continually upping the stakes. Audiences voted with their wallets, putting it at #6 for the year.

HORROR DOESN’T NEED OCTOBER


Poltergeist trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Poltergeist (June 4)
A common misconception is that Steven Spielberg as the director, when in fact it was Tobe Hooper. Spielberg was the producer, and he was very hands-on, but intersecting studio contracts prevented him from directing another film while preparing to direct E.T. The irony is that at one point, E.T. and Poltergeist were one movie, a concept called Night Skies, which was a more horror-oriented take on extraterrestrials. Spielberg reconsidered, splitting the story concepts in two films: a suburban horror story and a tale about the friendship between a boy and an alien. Spielberg had talked to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Hooper about Night Skies, and he eventually came on board for Poltergeist. The movie was a major hit, scaring the bejeezus out of an entire generation (The tree! The pool! That damn clown!). It finished #8 for the year, yielded two sequels, an in-name-only spin-off TV series, and a reboot. And, of course, “They’re here!”

Friday the 13th Part III (August 13)
Shot in 3D, Friday the 13th Part III was originally pitched as the end of the series (stop laughing). However, this is the installment where Jason acquires his totemic hockey mask, giving him an instantly recognizable identity apart from other slashers of the screen. The movie did enough business to warrant the franchise continuing (and continuing), and demonstrated that programming to the horror audience, even in summer months, is effective counter-programming to big-budget blockbusters.

FAMILES FILL THEATERS


E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

  1. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (June 11)
    For a time, it was the biggest box office hit ever released. Made for just over $10 million, Spielberg’s E.T. conquered 1982 with a U.S. gross of $359 million at the end of its first theatrical run. A heart-string puller of the first order, the movie combined laughs, tears, and cheers in a mixture would be termed Spielbergian. If you’re trying to narrow down the concept of “Blockbuster Summer” to a single two-week frame, Rocky III, Poltergeist, Star Trek II, and E.T. all succeeding wildly while bunched together is likely the lasting reason.

THE “AHEAD OF THEIR TIME” GANG


Tron trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Disney+)

Blade Runner (June 25)
June 25, 1982 is a special day because it saw the release of two science fiction classics . . . that a whole lot of people didn’t like at first. Based on Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” Blade Runner was a cerebral, deliberately paced sci-fi film noir that had been sold as an action movie. People associated Harrison Ford with the thrills of two Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and many audience members expected more of the same. What they got instead was director Ridley Scott’s dark and thoughtful vision on what it actually means to be human when replicant androids are almost as close as the real thing. It’s likely that the film underperformed by being a serious, downbeat sci-fi picture that was in release against perhaps the ultimate feel-good sci-fi picture (E.T.) and a genuine action film (Star Trek II). At this writing, seven different cuts of the film exist to due to studio interference, Scott’s director’s cut, and more versions. In the years since its release, the esteem for the film has only grown. Yes, it covered its budget, but the real success was the big artistic swing that it took, which continues to resonate.

The Thing (June 25)
If critics were mixed on Blade Runner, a lot of them outright hated The Thing. John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” had already been filmed as The Thing from Another World in 1951. Director John Carpenter leaned into gory body horror with revolutionary practical effects largely provided by master craftsman Rob Bottin (who had already worked on Star Wars, An American Werewolf in London, and The Howling). Many critics were outright revolted by the film, and even some hardened horror audiences weren’t ready for Carpenter’s vision of radical and violent transformations. The film made back a little over its budget, but the apocalyptic thriller was pummeled by the other high profile releases. The turnaround for The Thing came on pay-cable and home video; the movie found an audience and has been radically reappraised in the years since. It’s now widely regarded as a sci-fi and horror classic that was way ahead of its time. Filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and J.J. Abrams have praised it, and Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged its influence on his films Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight; he’s event noted that certain shot set-ups in Eight intentionally echo The Thing (both of which, of course, star Kurt Russell).

Tron (July 9)
When you talk about big swings in 1982, few were bigger than Tron. Disney made a bet on a film that included an enormous amount of computer-generated imagery long before it was standard. The film’s dialogue is also peppered with terms that wouldn’t become commonly used for years, like “hacking.” Even with never-before-tried effects and a number of computer-generated shots, the film came in at $17 million. It was a modest hit with $50 million. But the idea of an entire civilization “inside” computer networks and the way in which the sights and sounds were brought to the screen would have a seismic impact on future creatives who learned that new horizons of screen visuals could be opened with computers.

THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM FOR A TEEN COMEDY


Fast Times at Ridgemont High trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (August 13)
Fast Times offered the screenwriting debut of Cameron Crowe. It was based on his own book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, which Crowe approached by going undercover as a high school student to get a picture of the life that he missed while on the road as a teen reporter for Rolling Stone. The film became a solid, quotable hit and an ’80s staple, but it’s perhaps most remarkable for all of the young and unknown talent that it featured. In addition to Crowe, it was Amy Heckerling’s directorial debut; the cast included future familiar faces Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Amanda Wyss. Fast Times fit into a decade-long pattern of very successful teen comedies, but stood out for its frank discussion and depiction of tougher issues like abortion.


Featured Image: Shutterstock

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