A summer without the summer blockbuster: A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres, social distancing

Since Jaws, the summer blockbuster has become shorthand for a genre of films with immediate, wide appeal, serving audiences an entertaining concoction of adventure and spectacle. There’s a certain packaging or universally recognised template that has come to define the summer blockbuster.

Devansh Sharma June 25, 2020 11:27:27 IST
A summer without the summer blockbuster: A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres, social distancing

This essay is part of our 'a summer without...' series. Read more here.

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The “summer blockbuster” was born in 1975, with Steven Spielberg's Jaws. The shark thriller was released country-wide, rather than just in select hotspots as had been the norm, and became the first film to rake in over $100 million at the box office. Spielberg followed up with more “summer blockbusters” — E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones franchise, Jurassic Park.

But what really is the summer blockbuster, and how does it make for a genre? I’ve always wondered why a film is referred to as a “blockbuster” even before it releases in theatres. Isn’t its blockbuster status dependent on its commercial success?

Since Jaws, the summer blockbuster has become shorthand for a genre of films with immediate, wide appeal, serving audiences an entertaining concoction of adventure and spectacle. There’s a certain packaging or universally recognised template that has come to define the summer blockbuster.

Spielberg’s films are not the theatrical experiences I grew up on; I saw these on television, long after they’d exited movie halls but not the public imagination. The first bona fide summer blockbuster I experienced was Mission: Impossible 2, in 2000. I had viewed a couple of Hindi films in the theatre before that — films I loved. But watching Tom Cruise perform his stunts like the fate of the world depended on it (which, in the plot, was the case) was exhilarating in a wholly new way.

I relived that exhilaration on watching Mission: Impossible — Fallout two years ago in Mumbai, completely forgetting that I was there in the capacity of a reviewer. Amplified in the IMAX 3D format, the movie transported me back to my six-year-old self. Of course, July-end (when the film released here) isn’t exactly summer in Mumbai — in fact, it was pouring quite heavily — but it was as much a “summer blockbuster” as it could be.

A summer without the summer blockbuster A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres social distancing

A still from Jaws

A summer without the summer blockbuster A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres social distancing

Tom Cruise in a still from Mission: Impossible 2

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Travel, especially outside India, was not part of my childhood. Visiting relatives, an occasional trip to the mountains…this was what my family did in the summers. When many of my school friends would be discussing their extensive summer vacation travel plans, I’d count down the days to the next summer blockbuster release. Adventure, thrill, adrenaline, awe — these were all to be found in the movie hall.

After Mission: Impossible 2, my next summer blockbuster was Shrek, whose subversion of Disney/fairytale tropes lured me back successfully to the theatres for the subsequent films in the franchise. When I went to watch Shrek 3, there were surprisingly no takers for the movie at the theatre in Jaipur. We were told at the ticket counter that if more than five people did not turn up, they would cancel the show. After several rounds of begging and hoping, we did manage to get in, and it was the quietest summer blockbuster experience I have had so far.

For me, the ideal summer blockbuster must have the history/legacy of a franchise, the ability to grip you in the moment, and generate enough of a buzz for the next instalment — and idea that crystallised after watching the Harry Potter and Avengers films. A hall-full of people rejoicing when the Hulk wiped the floor with Loki, or when Molly Weasley killed Bellatrix Lestrange, or sobbing in unison at Snape’s death — these moments came to signify the communal viewing experience that is an indelible part of the summer blockbuster.

A summer without the summer blockbuster A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres social distancing

A still from Shrek

A summer without the summer blockbuster A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres social distancing

A still from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2

A summer without the summer blockbuster A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres social distancing

A still from The Avengers

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The closest India has come to a typical summer blockbuster is perhaps Baahubali. Indian cinema hasn’t spawned as many franchise/tentpole properties as Hollywood, but could be moving there with Rohit Shetty's cop universe in Singham, Simmba and Sooryavanshi.

A film from the past decade that does stand out in my mind as a summer blockbuster, capable of matching Avengers-level buzz, is Ayan Mukerji's Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. It had everything going for it: exotic locales (Paris, Manali, Udaipur), a soundtrack filled with memorable songs (that are still staples at every wedding ceremony), an engaging story to bind all these elements together. I watched it with a bunch of friends, all of us promising to dance to the film’s songs at each other’s weddings, whenever they took place.

A summer without the summer blockbuster A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres social distancing

Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone in a still from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

This year, as theatres remained closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been no summer blockbuster to look forward to. The list of films, from No Time To Die, Black Widow, to Wonder Woman 1984, Fast & Furious 9 and Mulan — summer blockbusters all — moved to later this year or next, reads like a litany of what might have beens.

So here we are in a summer without the summer blockbuster. And as I look half-heartedly for substitutes for what has been a seasonal fixture and enduring childhood memory, I remind myself of a dialogue from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani: "Life mei kuchh na kuchh toh chhootega hi. Toh jahan ho wahin ka mazza lo!".

— All images via Facebook

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