Two personal, elegant, and special movies that celebrate big birthdays this month: “risk business” Turning 40 on August 5th and August 11th marks the 50th anniversary of the release “American Graffiti.”
Two other personal, stylish, and iconic films are also celebrating their huge successes in August: “Barbie,” which is now worth $1 billion worldwide and growing, and “Oppenheimer,” which just passed $600 million.
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The month of August is generally known for providing Dog Days at the summer box office. It’s the end of the road, the kids are going back to school. There’s no time for a blockbuster to stretch their legs and no one in the mood for anything heavy. The studio’s current release calendar supports this reasoning with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” “Last Voyage of Demeter,” “Gran Turismo”, “Blue Beetle”, and “Strays”.
History tells us that it does not have to be this way. Among the smarter films widely released in August were “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “Body Heat” (1981), “The Fly” (1986), “No Way Out” (1987), “Parenthood” ( 1989), “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), “Unforgiven” (1992), “The Fugitive” (1993), “Natural Born Killers” (1994), “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Collateral” ( 2004), “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005), “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), “District 9” (2009), “The Help” (2011), and Straight Outta Compton (2015).
Some of this may represent revisionist thinking — nearly 40 years ago, “The Fly” wasn’t an expected new work from body horror author David Cronenberg. It was a 1950s horror remake starring the man from The Big Chill and the actress who starred in the sitcom “Sara” for one season. In the future, we might look at a second-tier DC title like “Blue Beetle” in a similar light.
However, summer was not recognized as an essential season for film productions until the debut of “Jaws” in June 1975. Before this hit, many theaters did not prioritize proper air conditioning in the belief that people would rather be outside, anyway. A late summer release means most theaters will play the movie in September or later.
So when Universal dated “American Graffiti” on August 11, 1973, it was without great expectations. The studio and director George Lucas sparred over the title, editing, and release plan; At one point Universal wanted it to be a TV movie. Francis Ford Coppola offered to buy the film, as did the other studios, and that may have been what made the hidden executives recognize the film’s potential.
Once the fighting stopped, the “graffiti” editing style was clever. It has gone on a larger scale than usual with multiple theaters in major cities, with an emphasis on college towns. In current dollars, it cost $9 million to produce and market and grossed $600 million domestically (adjusted), making it #3 of the year. This allowed Lucas to make the movie “Star Wars”. (Universal had the first dibs and turned it down).
Risky Business was an early production of the Geffen Film Company, which made a series of notable films (released by Warner Bros.) by directors such as Martin Scorsese, Albert Brooks, and David Cronenberg.
Buoyed by strong reviews and better audience response, it was #10 of 1983, grossing over $200 million adjusted (more than 10 times its adjusted budget). It opened in third place, then saw a box office increase of seven percent in the second week and 15 percent in the third week. It stayed in the top ten for 13 weeks.
“American Graffiti” and “Risky Business” shared teen threads, a solid score, and a visual style and narrative that felt fresh and gritty. Both also had suburban settings – 1962’s Modesto, California and upscale Chicago – that depicted almost all-white worlds and a male-only perspective. (“Graffiti” was immediately criticized when its ending featured “what happened” to its characters, with no mention of the memorable roles portrayed by Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, and Candy Clarke.)
Barbie and Oppenheimer opened on July 21, after the franchises ran (and burned) this summer. They are new, smart, different, and huge successes. However, there is a lack of confidence in these types of summer blockbusters. Sure, they’re in short supply—a few even get produced—but most skip premieres at film festivals in the fall instead.
The films “Graffiti” and “Risky” along with “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” achieved cinematic immortality. That they are late summer releases is something to keep in mind for studio decision makers.
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