The Summer of 1984 Rewrote the Box Office Rules

Soundtracks, big laughs, and franchises set the Tinseltown Tone.


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The movie business has existed in a state of perpetual change ever since the first flickering image was presented onscreen by the Lumière brothers in Paris’s Grand Café in 1895. The ‘20s brought us sound and the ‘30s saw the arrival of the feature-length animated film. The ’70s emerged as a decade of success and disruption, with director-driven dramas, disaster films, and the devil vying for top dollars against boxers, Bond, sharks, and Star Wars. By 1984, the board was getting reset yet again as the year would be the first time that three feature films made over $100 million each on their way to a total take of $4 billion. Here’s how the summer of ’84 rewrote the rules.

1. Summer Started Early

Footloose trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Though we’ve been conditioned since Jaws to think that the biggest moneymakers debut in the summer, or perhaps over the winter holiday, one of 1984’s top ten hits was released in February. That was Footloose, which would finish at number seven for the year despite the considerable list of movies that followed. It also helped cement another big truth about the ’80s that was particularly important when it came to selling movies. That was . . .

2. Big Soundtracks Drove Business

“Let’s Go Crazy” (Uploaded to YouTube by Prince)

1984 is notable for films that had absolutely massive hit soundtracks. In a few cases, the soundtrack albums far eclipsed the success of the films themselves. Hard to Hold, starring Rick Springfield, barely made back its budget, but the eponymous soundtrack album sold over a million copies in America and produced three Top 40 hits, included Springfield’s #5 classic “Love Somebody.” Another example was the soundtrack to Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution; the Prince-led film made almost ten times its budget, barely missing the top ten grossing films list for the year, but the album was a monster: It sold 15 million copies in the States, sat at #1 for months on end, and produced four Top Ten hits (#1 “When Doves Cry;” #1 “Let’s Go Crazy;” #2 “Purple Rain;” #8 “I Would Die 4 U”). Interestingly, the film also supported two additional albums by acts who also appeared in the film: Ice Cream Castle by The Time and the self-titled Apollonia 6. Buoyed by their use in the film, both “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” by The Time cracked the US Top 40.

Among the other major music movers were soundtracks for Breakin’, Ghostbusters, Streets of Fire, Beat Street, The NeverEnding Story, The Woman in Red (which netted the year’s Academy Award for original song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder), Give My Regards to Broad Street, Beverly Hills Cop, Teachers, and Stop Making Sense (from the Talking Heads concert film of the same name). Every one of those albums produced at least one hit song, while Beverly Hills Cop had four (Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On,” Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F,” and Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude”). The compilation soundtrack album remained a major factor in selling a movie well over the next two decades.

As a coda to the key role music was playing in marketing, dance-oriented films were also huge in 1984. The 1983 success of Flashdance paved the way for Footloose, but Flashdance’s deployment of urban music and breakdancing also opened the door for films like Breakin’, its same-year sequel (Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo), and Beat Street. [Writer’s Note: It’s a crime that “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” from Dirty Dancing emerged as an iconic line from the decade while Breakin’s “Ozone! Street Dancer!” remains unappreciated.]

3. Comedy Can Be King

Ghostbusters trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Ghostbusters)

If you looked back at the #1 moneymakers in the United States prior to 1984, rarely would you find pure comedies holding the top spot. Musical comedies, like Funny Girl or Mary Poppins, took the top on occasion, and Blazing Saddles came close in 1974, but you were much more likely to find action or historical epics or spectacle films at the top. In the U.S. in 1984, six of the Top Ten grossing films were comedies or comedic genre mashups. In fact, five of the six were genre hybrids: Splash (fantasy-based romantic comedy); Ghostbusters and Gremlins (both horror comedy); Beverly Hills Cop (fish-out-of-water cop comedy, but with some heavy action set pieces); and Romancing the Stone (romantic adventure comedy). The sole “pure” comedy was Police Academy (and while it did have the action piece of the riot sequence at the end, it’s mostly played for laughs, as opposed to the life-of-death stakes of the violent climactic shootout of Beverly Hills Cop). And of those six, two made more in the U.S. than third place Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Beverly Hills Cop (over $224 million to date) and Ghostbusters (over $229 million).

You also have to note the “SNL effect” of the top two comedies. TV institution Saturday Night Live had been minting future talent for the movies for years at this point, and both Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd) and Cop (Eddie Murphy) were led by SNL alums. In fact, every year of the ’80s had already featured a Top Ten box office comedy starring at least one SNL cast member (1980’s The Blues Brothers with Aykroyd and John Belushi; 1981’s Stripes with Murray; 1982’s 48 Hours with Murphy; 1983’s Trading Places with Aykroyd and Murray), and that pattern would hold through 1989.

For the record (every pun intended), we should also recognize that Ghostbusters and Cop each had one of those hit soundtracks we were talking about. The evidence is pretty clear that, in the Reagan Decade, building a film around an SNL breakout with a packed soundtrack yielded results.

4. Old/New/Old Rule: It’s Always Been About the Franchise

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers)

Two of 1984’s Top Ten films (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) were entries in established franchises. However, six other entries would turn out to be franchise starters: Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Police Academy, and Romancing the Stone. Arguments could actually be made for Splash! (which generated a sequel TV movie) and Footloose (which led to a Broadway musical and a remake). This hopefully puts to rest the notion that franchise fever is a recent thing.

Moreover, whether in theaters or on streaming, six of the eight of the 1984 movies had new entries in those franchises within the past year. Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, the continued Star Trek series on Paramount+, the animated Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai spin-off, Netflix’s Karate Kid continuation Cobra Kai, the forthcoming Beverly Hills Cop 4, and the recent Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny prove that the summer of 1984 still has a hold on the movie-watching public.

5. The Money Had Never Been Bigger

Beverly Hills Cop trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Paramount Movies)

Even with the juggernaut of success that was Return of the Jedi, 1983’s domestic box office didn’t quite crack $2 billion. But 1984 more than doubled that, breaking the $4 billion barrier for the first time. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom all surpassed $100 million during the year, Beverly Hills Cop broke it as its run continued into 1985, and The Karate Kid came close. It wouldn’t surprise you that Hollywood immediately tried to develop everything for sequels, especially since they thought that the biggest franchise of the past several years, Star Wars, had run its course (look, even Hollywood gets naïve). There wouldn’t be a year without a sequel in the Box Office Top Ten until 1993; and there hasn’t been a year without a sequel in the Top Ten since 1996. It’s fair to say that if you consistently, decade after decade, show up for sequels, franchises, and remakes, you’re going to keep getting them.

6. 1984 Provoked a New Rating

Red Dawn (1984) trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by MGM)

One final lasting change wrought by 1984 was the introduction of the PG-13 rating. There had always been a bit of a nebulous gulf between the PG and R ratings. As violent as the shark attacks were in Jaws, for example, that film netted a PG in 1975. However, two blockbusters in 1984, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins (coincidentally, both either directed or produced by Jaws director Steven Spielberg), pushed the limits of their PG ratings. Two violent scenes in particular drove the conversation: Mola Ram pulling out a man’s heart in TOD and Billy’s mom wiping out a group of Gremlins with her kitchen appliances. The MPAA decided to add a PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) in between PG (Parental Guidance Suggested) and R (Restricted; no one under 17 admitted without an adult). Before the end of the year, action film Red Dawn would be the first movie to sport the new rating.

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