How 2023 changed the summer blockbuster game

Will this year's hits and bombs change how studios approach the season?

a movie clapperboard
The films "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" are changing the blockbuster model
(Image credit: Illustrated / Gettyimages)

When the history of the modern summer blockbuster is written, 2023 will be remembered as a key chapter.

Going into this year's summer movie season, the calendar was packed with established franchises that seemed too big to fail. Instead, a surprising number of these films underwhelmed, while "Barbie" utterly destroyed the competition, recently passing $1 billion worldwide. Many of the summer's spectacle-filled franchise flicks were also trounced by a three-hour, talky biopic, "Oppenheimer."

It has been a game-changing season that could evolve the industry's perception of what a summer blockbuster can be in the first place.

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What is a summer blockbuster, anyway?

Describing a movie as a blockbuster began in the 1940s, and the term derived from a World War II bomb. But "Jaws" is credited with birthing the modern summer blockbuster in 1975. Ever since, Hollywood has leaned on the summer as the season to schedule big-budget event films. From the beginning, studios turned to recognizable intellectual property, and "Jaws" was based on a best-selling novel.

But it wasn't all franchises that dominated the season back then. 1977's "Star Wars," which dethroned "Jaws" as the highest-grossing film ever made, was an original property, and in the following years, audiences flocked to movies that had no franchise attached like "E.T.," "Back to the Future," and "Ghostbusters." It's hard to believe now, but in 1990, the original romantic drama "Ghost" was the highest-grossing summer release, topping sequels like "Die Hard 2" and "Back to the Future Part III." It wasn't part of a franchise, and the only real IP was its leads, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.

Over the years, though, the summer grew increasingly dominated by franchises, and the blockbuster model "became more attuned to pre-existing intellectual properties," relying less on stars than the IP itself, as SyFy's Kayleigh Donaldson explained. The birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with 2008's "Iron Man" helped cement this, ushering in an age dominated by superheroes and interconnected universes. Looking back on that 1990 summer, the top ten highest-grossing films included just three sequels. In 2019, all but two of the top ten films were sequels or remakes — and one of the only non-sequels was based on a "Pokémon" game. In 2013, an original comedy like "The Heat" could gross $157 million over the summer, but in 2023, the Jennifer Lawrence comedy "No Hard Feelings" was lucky to make $50 million domestically.

This can be attributed to a combination of Hollywood becoming more risk-averse as budgets increased and audiences growing more selective about what they see in theaters. Amid the dominance of streaming, there has been a dip in the number of summer hits, and according to FinanceBuzz, there was a 61% decline in movies that grossed over $100 million in summer 2022 compared to 2013. Unlike in the age of "Jaws," consumers can now watch a film at home sometimes mere weeks after it releases in theaters, meaning for many, a movie must be a true event to be worthy of the multiplex. The thinking has been, then, that expensive films in established franchises signal event status, and audiences are more willing to see them because they generally know what to expect.

The summer of faltering franchises

This summer called some of these ideas into question, as supposedly safe IP underwhelmed left and right.

"Fast X," "Transformers: Rise of the Beasts," and "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One" have all been among the lowest-grossing films of their respective franchises at the domestic box office. Disney's "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" and DC's "The Flash" were both flops. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" was a hit, but it still saw a decline from its predecessor. And "The Little Mermaid" has made less than $600 million worldwide, far short of the over $1 billion that some of Disney's prior live-action remakes grossed.

Amid all the disappointments, the story of the summer was "Barbie," the season's highest-grossing film. To be sure, "Barbie" is also based on an established IP. But it wasn't a pre-existing cinematic franchise, and besides, adapting a property aimed at children into an adult-focused, idiosyncratic PG-13 comedy inspired by Powell and Pressburger films that reflects on the nature of death could hardly be considered a safe bet.

Even more shocking was the fact that Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer," which has no IP attached other than being based on a non-fiction book about historical events, became a sensation that outgrossed most of the season's established franchises despite being three hours and consisting almost entirely of dialogue. It's still necessary for a big-budget film to achieve "event" status to succeed, but the combined power of "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" suggested "event" and "franchise" need not go hand in hand.

"Audiences are stating, in no uncertain terms, that IP and connected universes and sequels are not going to save theaters," IndieWire's Tom Brueggeman wrote. Indeed, film journalist Mark Harris argued the lesson is that "you get people back to the movies by giving them what they haven't seen, not what they have" — in other words, the opposite of what Hollywood has typically been offering in the summer. To be fair, the highest-grossing film of the season after "Barbie" is still the Marvel sequel "Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse." But even that film stood out from the superhero competition with its distinctive art style. "Elemental," an original animated film from Pixar, also bounced back somewhat from an initial low opening to gross more than "Fast X" and "The Flash."

This summer could additionally lead to a reckoning over sky-high budgets and the packed nature of the season itself. After all, "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" wouldn't have been such a flop had it not reportedly cost a jaw-dropping $300 million, while "Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One" arguably disappointed largely because it was scheduled one week before the "Barbenheimer" phenomenon. "It's kind of astounding to think that a billion dollars has become, 'Is it a success or is it a flop?," film critic Rachel Ho noted to CBC News.

More than anything, this season has challenged the notion of what a "safe" summer blockbuster investment is in 2023, suggesting that in some cases, greenlighting another expensive sequel in a decades-old franchise might actually be riskier than giving a visionary director free rein to create something new — or, as with "Barbie," at least new-ish.

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Brendan Morrow

Brendan is a staff writer at The Week. A graduate of Hofstra University with a degree in journalism, he also writes about horror films for Bloody Disgusting and has previously contributed to The Cheat Sheet, Heavy, WhatCulture, and more. He lives in New York City surrounded by Star Wars posters.