The Legends of ’82 – How a Change in Hollywood Led to the Best Summer Movie Season in History

It’s been true throughout the history of Hollywood, and especially true in the era of the blockbusters; the Summer season is the best time for movies.  With many young audiences heading out of the classroom into their Summer vacations, the movie theater becomes not just a great place to socialize, but to also escape the sweltering summer heat.  This increase in audience traffic is why the movie industry save their most valuable products for the summer movie season.  Though in the past the long Memorial Day weekend was mostly seen as the ideal beginning of the Summer season for movies, with franchises like Star Wars historically staking a place in that 4-Day window, the beginning of the Summer now has moved even further forward to the beginning of May, with Marvel Studios historically claiming that post.  No matter where Summer begins or ends, the truth remains that these are the days that Hollywood values most during the year, because it’s where their movies will perform the best.  It’s where blockbuster franchises are born and prosper and where movie stars shine the brightest.  It’s also where the studios make their biggest efforts to push their finances into the black, which is especially crucial in this pandemic recovery era.  But, over time, some years have been more monumental than others.  The last truly blockbuster year was 2019, right before the pandemic busted up the theater industry, and it was led by the likes of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), John Wick Chapter 3 (2019) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) just to name a few.  But other years in the past like 2008, 2002, 1996, and 1994 were marked by Summer seasons that were defined by not one but two or more monumental box office successes.  It’s usually within the Summer season where we see the biggest impact a movie can have on shaping an industry, but one has to wonder what can be considered the best Summer season of all time in Hollywood.  There are many contenders, but one in particular stands out, and it’s representative of a movie industry at a crossroads in time.

1982 is a monumental year for many things.  For me it has significance, because it was the year that I was born.  But for the movie industry, it was a turning point year.  You could honestly say that it was the year where the 70’s truly ended and where the 80’s truly began, in a cultural sense.  The seventies was the Disco era, giving us cultural touchstones such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), as well as an era of political turmoil that broiled into harder edged movies like Taxi Driver (1976).  But, the seventies also gave us a little movie called Star Wars (1977), a fun romp of sci-fi adventure that would go on to have a great influence in the years that followed.  Catapulting off the success of Star Wars and another surprise hit from the 70’s called Jaws (1975), the era of the blockbuster was born, and continue to spread and prosper as the new decade began.  Movies from the same masterminds of those past hits, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, continued to make big profits for the studios, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  But, the nadir of the shifting balance with the culture at large didn’t quite hit it’s peak until 1982, when that Summer we saw a proliferation of movies that not only would define that year in particular, but really the entire decade that followed as well.  The movies of Summer 1982 not only defined the narratives that would be told across the rest of the 80’s, but it would also leave an impact on the aesthetic as well.  During the 70’s, the defining style of the era was gritty, cinema verite, pioneered by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as they made movies that were grounded in reality and exploring the darker under-belly of society.  It was a style that worked well for a society that was going through an upheaval, but one that fell out of favor as society wanted to embrace something more colorful and dynamic.

One of the big reasons why the change between the cinematic styles of the 70’s and that of the 80’s occurred is because it was a time when power shifted back to the studios.  During the 70’s, it was the filmmakers who had the most clout in the industry.  They spent the better part of the decade pushing boundaries and challenging norms, which was celebrated by an anti-establishment, counter-culture audience.  It was the era of maverick filmmakers, who made the films their way without the studios interfering heavily in their work.  As long as these movies found an audience and were profitable, Hollywood executives would grant those filmmakers the freedom they desired.  And it was an arrangement that worked out well for the industry.  After reeling from a string of costly flops at the end of the 60’s, Hollywood was at a point where they would hand more power over to these cinematic renegades, because they were more attuned to where the audience was at that point.  But, even this era had it’s limits.  One of the things that led to the end of this maverick era of filmmaking was the increasing frequency of out-of-control productions that were bleeding the studios dry.  There were costly flops from once prominent filmmakers like, like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977).  Some productions that still turned a profit were giving studios pause by virtue of just how chaotic and costly they were to shoot, such as what happened with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).  The final straw became Michael Cimino’s notorious Heaven’s Gate, a flop so costly it financially ruined a once powerful studio (United Artists), and from then on the studios reigned back control from the renegade filmmakers, and have never given it back.  Since then, it’s been the studios that have had the most power over what makes it into the theaters, and naturally what they favored the most were reliable bankable brands and movie stars to build their products around.  Thus, the era of the blockbuster was born, taking the lead from the likes of Star Wars and Jaws.  But, as we would see from the films of the monumental year of 1982, it was a mixture of both the big and small that would define the era of the 80’s.

So, what movies exactly made their mark in the Summer of 1982 that would lead to a change in Hollywood over the next decade.  It’s fitting to start with what was undeniably the biggest hit of the entire year.  Steven Spielberg had been one of the darlings of the latter part of the 1970’s.  His back to back hits of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) gave him the reputation of being Hollywood’s new Golden Boy.  He did experience one career hiccup however, when his big budget comedy 1941 (1979) failed to live up to expectations, but Spielberg’s good friend and colleague helped to pick him up again and offered him yet another career defining hit called Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Afterwards, Lucas was willing to allow Spielberg to helm yet another sure fire hit by offering him the chance to direct his next Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi (1983), but Steven had other plans.  He came across an interesting little script from a writer named Melissa Mathison, who was married to Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford at the time, about a boy who befriends an alien from another world and helps him find his way home.  This charming coming of age story resonated with Spielberg, and he passed on the offer to direct a Star Wars in order to make it, which is no small thing.  Eventually, what resulted was the film E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), and it would not only be another success story for Mr. Spielberg, but a new high water mark that would keep him on top for many years to come.  The original box office gross for ET was record breaking at the time, shattering even the lofty numbers of Star Wars.  Audiences couldn’t get enough of the heart-warming story of the young child of divorce name Elliot (Henry Thomas) whose life is changed with this close encounter.  Everything about the movie hit it’s mark perfectly, with Spielberg’s earnest direction, the groundbreaking visual effects, and the rousing John Williams score.  It was also the blueprint for the movies that would follow in the next decade.  Hollywood would invest more heavily in movies that targeted select audiences, and would instead focus on movies that appealed to all.  Fantasy and Science Fiction would rule the box office throughout the 80’s due to their escapist fare, and the hard-hitting social commentaries of the decade before became more niche in Hollywood, as well as much less ambitious.  Judging by the time it was released, 1982 could’ve been viewed as the Summer of ET alone, but history has shown that there were many more movies that Summer that would leave an impact.

ET was the mega hit of the Summer ’82 season, but several other movies in that year came out that over time have gained followings that are on par with ET.  There were modest hits that came out that summer like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which Trek fans will acknowledge as being the best film in the entire Star Trek series.  Animation icon Don Bluth took advantage of the post-Walt era vacuum at Disney and released his feature debut The Secret of NIMH (1982), helping to shake up the fledgling animation market with his surprise hit.  There were also surprisingly strong entries from the horror film genre that was starting to come into it’s own in 1982, with Summer hits like Poltergeist (1982), Friday the 13th 3D (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which many proclaim to be among the greatest films in the genre ever.  Another surprise hit was a medieval based action movie that helped to make a movie star out of an Austrian born body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger called Conan the Barbarian (1982).  The Summer also saw a major hit with a movie that connected with the coming of age audience emerging in the early 80’s.  Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High established a kind of movie that would proliferate in the years that followed, which was the teenage sex comedy.  With it’s frank discussions teenage angst and sexual awakenings, not to mention a now infamous topless pool scene, Fast Times was a monumental film that would define a generation.  It was reflexive of the cultural shifts taking place in the 80’s, and it would also influence trends that extended for year after including tastes in music and fashion.  It also introduced something into the cultural vernacular that would be known as “Valley Speak” based on the pop lingo that originated on the other side of Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley.  The impact of Fast Times can be seen throughout the remainder of the decade, particularly in the films of John Hughes.  Despite not having the box office numbers that ET had, Fast Times at Ridgemont High demonstrated how even a more modest movie like it would end up putting 1982 on the cinematic map.

What is also interesting is how even the big flops of that Summer would go on to become highly influential films in the long run.  Probably the most noteworthy example is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).  Blade Runner famously did not perform well at the box office, losing it’s studio (Warner Brothers) a significant amount of money.  But, in the years since, Blade Runner has been widely praised as a monumental film within the Science Fiction genre.  It’s dystopian view of the distant future year of 2019 probably turned away audiences at the time looking for lighter fare, which they indeed got with ET, but like all great movies, it found it’s audience over time, and is regarded as a classic now.  Even through the 80’s, you can see the influence of Blade Runner manifesting in other films and shows.  One particularly unexpected place where it would make it’s impact first during the 80’s was in Japanese animation.  Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) very much carries a link back to the aesthetic of Blade Runner, and it’s also strongly felt in latter anime films like Ghost in the Shell (1995).  Though 1982 audiences weren’t quite ready to fill the cinemas for a movie like Blade Runner, it’s impact on the rest of cinema in the years after is undeniable, and it has certainly earned it’s rightful place in cinema history ever since.  To think, that you could have been able at one time to see both ET and Blade Runner in theaters around the same time is quite astounding.  Though not as cinematically significant as Blade Runner, there was another Science Fiction film that nevertheless made a cinematic impact even after failing at the box office.  Disney’s groundbreaking Tron (1982) was a big departure for the family friendly studio and was probably too out of the ordinary for most audiences to take, but what it introduced was a tool that would go on to change cinema forever.  It was the first studio film to ever feature computer generated environments, albeit very primitive compared to now.  Still, it was enough to inspire a new crop of filmmakers who were excited by the cinematic potential of computer animation.  Without Tron, we don’t get to Pixar Animation or the advances made by ILM and Weta Digital who would bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park (1993) or take us into the world of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tron’s neon color scheme would even have a cultural influence on the aesthetic of the excessive 80’s.  With both Blade Runner and Tron, we see how even in it’s box office disappointments the year of 1982 would change the face of cinema forever.

Beyond the movies themselves, the year 1982 also marked a big shift in the theatrical business that likewise would be influential on the decades of the 80’s.  One other thing that marked the culture of the 1980’s was the rise of the shopping malls, which became the popular hangouts of teenagers in their afterschool socializing hours.  The malls were certainly a symbol of the laisse faire Reagan-era consumerism, but they were not just a place for retail alone.  Most malls across America were anchored by one major tenant that began a huge expansion in the 80’s; the cinema multiplex.  Major chains that sprung up in the years before like AMC, National Amusements, and United Artists, worked with new malls in development to build theaters within the mall that could screen multiple films all at once throughout the day.  These multiplexes replaced the outdated model of movie houses that were single screen, and were located mostly in downtown areas.  The multiplex brought cinema to the suburbs alongside the mall experience.  And as a result, the era of the blockbuster thrived as movies were now playing on as many as 1,000 screens at the same time across the country.  That number would only grow in the years ahead.  Sure, the cineplexes were smaller than the 1,000 seat movie houses, but the sheer quantity of locations enabled the box office numbers to make up the difference and even exceed what had been seen before.  1982 was the year where that difference began to be seen nationwide.  The revenue coming in from the multiplex market was amounting for the greatest volume of tickets sold, and it was reaching markets that had long been out of reach before due to the scarcity of venues.  Now Hollywood was making more money, and they were more keen to make more movies in order to reach more screens nationwide.  The universally beloved ET helped to make business good for both the cineplexes and the malls, as more audiences coming to the mall meant better business traffic for all other retailers, and that in turn led to more developers across the country adding theaters to their malls.  We honestly wouldn’t have had the same kind of volume of monumental hits in one summer season had the multiplex not come into it’s own during that year.  1982 became a benchmark year for it’s movies, but also because of the fact that it was the first true year that benefitted from this new era in theatrical distribution.

When you look back on the year of 1982, it’s the movies that came out during that Summer season that come to mind first.  Naturally, Hollywood still didn’t shake old habits through the rest of the year.  The Academy Awards still played it safe by giving Best Picture to an old-fashioned epic biopic, Gandhi (1982), but the fact that so many of the films of that year remain classics to this day is a real testament to the strength of the year as a whole in cinematic history.  We are now at the point when many of these movies are reaching their 40th anniversary, and it’s remarkable how so many still remain relevant all these years later.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is still an evergreen classic for all ages, never once feeling dated or quaint by today’s standards.  Time has honestly helped to make Blade Runner an even better movie today than it was when it first came out, and it’s esteem continues to grow each year.  Tron remains a touchstone for the advancement of visual effects, and it even managed to spawn a sequel, Tron Legacy (2010) a full 28 years later.  And Fast Times at Ridgemont High stands to this day as one of the movies that defined the 80’s culturally in more ways than one.  And though their cultural influences may not be as noteworthy, the fact that Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, An Officer and a Gentleman and Fitzcarrldo were all sharing space in the multiplexes during that Summer season is pretty astonishing.  The year also gave us the likes of Tootsie, First Blood, Diner, The Verdict, and Sophie’s Choice, so there’s even more to the story of 1982 beyond the Summer months.  What really marks 1982 as a monumental year overall is that it was the turning point in a changing Hollywood.  The renegade years of the 1970’s ended here in 1982, as a new phase of the industry began to take hold.  And with it, the cultural shift into the 1980’s began.  The changes in music, fashion, and the kinds of stories being told all sprang from the movies that were hitting the multiplexes springing up across the country, and 1982 was the year that marked the crossroads.  There were certainly movies before then that were pushing Hollywood in that direction, but the sheer quantity of them all landing in the same year is what made 1982 different.  Much like how 1939 was seen as the best year of cinema for the Golden Age, 1982 is in the same degree being widely seen as the greatest year of the Blockbuster Age, and the strength of the films films from that year that still remain classics is strong proof of it being true.  Hopefully, the are touchstone years like 1982 that are on the horizon for Hollywood as it once again finds itself in upheaval.  For this cinephile, I’ll always be prideful of the fact that I was born in the midst of what many consider to be the greatest Summer at the movies ever.