What Was The Greatest Summer In Movie History? 1989

The Summer of 1989 – When Everything Changed

Sure, the wall came down,
but is that as impressive as
what happened with movies?

1989 was an impressive year for movies by any measure. It was a year stacked with big movies, not just in the summer, but movies all year long that brought people out in masses that had never been seen before. In spite of all the press that the movie industry puts out about “this is the biggest movie season ever” the truth is movie attendance in any given year is as likely to go down as it is to go up, and it rarely goes in either direction very far (ticket price increases create the “biggest year ever” stories). Since 1980, which is as far back as Box Office Mojo’s numbers go in this regard, there have only been three years where movie attendance has changed by more than 10%. In 1982 movie attendance was up exactly 10% (on the strength of ET no doubt), in 1985 attendance dropped by 11% (just not a great year) and in 1989 movie attendance grew by 16.4%! That is just an insane increase (like a “he has to be on steroids” increase) and it isn’t even the most impressive statistical feat of the year.

Before 1989 what a movie did on their opening weekend was never considered a valuable or insightful number in hollywood. There are a lot of reason not the least of which was most communities only had one theater and that theater only had one screen. So, just because a movie was “released” on a certain date didn’t mean it would be playing everywhere on that date. While that began changing in the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s as multiplexes sprouted up all over a movie’s opening week still wasn’t a great prognosticator of where a movie would end up. In 1982 a movies opening weekend only accounted for an average of 12% of that movies final box office tally, compared to 2011 when the opening weekend accounted for an average of 31% of the final box office. But all of that changed in 1989.

The birth of the second most popular sport in America

On Memorial Day weekend the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise hit theaters and summarily shattered records, taking in $29.35 million (roughly equivalent to The Avengers box office record this May). The number was so big that The Wall Street Journal ran a frontage story about the success (an absolute first, the box office numbers for a single weekend were never publicized before this outside of industry publications). Business analysts talked about how amazing it was and hollywood insiders said it was a record that would likely never be broken. It didn’t hurt, of course that the movie was a lot of fun and was viewed as a triumphant return for the series to what made Raiders of the Lost Ark so special and away from what some viewed as the disappointment of Temple of Doom (an underrated film in my opinion, it got killed for what it wasn’t and too often not enjoyed for what it was).

Three weeks after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released came the long awaited sequel to Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters II opened at $29.47 million squeaking by the recently set record for opening weekend box office. Now a story that had been talked about in industry circles and in business journals moved to the arts section of newspapers which had heretofore been the home of movie reviews, movie listings and often the crossword puzzle (there was no internet, there wasn’t that much cable and people still read the newspaper, it was a simpler time). Ghostbusters II was liked if not loved and while I don’t believe I have ever heard a single person argue that it was even as good as the original people like Peter Venkman so much they were just glad to have him back.

One week after Ghostbusters II something happened. What happened? $40.4 million was what happened. Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson happened. Kim Bassinger happened and Tim Burton happened. Batman happened. The opening weekend for Batman was 27.5% larger than Ghostbusters II. If the latest Batman incarnation would like to match that feat The Dark Knight Rises would need to have a $265+ million weekend. The number was so big that a story that had been industry and business focussed turned into a lead story. Kurt Loder was talking about it on MTV News. Peter Jennings was talking about it on the evening news. It was on the frontage of The New York Times and every other paper in America and just like that the second most popular sport in America came into being, the sport of weekend box office (it is #2 because nothing is more popular than the NFL).

Every Monday morning millions of people hop online when they get to work and read about the weekend box office – hell, my 8 year old son knows that Dark Shadows under-performed by only grossing $28 million last weekend, he can’t tell you anything about the NBA playoffs but he can tell you about that. People even take sides in this strange sport. Batman and DC fans can’t wait because they really thing The Dark Knight Rises will knock The Avengers off its pedestal. And I don’t know who screams louder, the fans that think Tim Tebow isn’t a real NFL QB or the people that believe the Transformer movies are sins against nature in spite of their massive box office numbers. Fans, websites, heated debate and a weekly scoreboard, if that isn’t a sport then neither is NASCAR. And it did not exist before Batman, before the summer of 1989.

And, by the way, Batman is still my favorite comic book adaptation of all time. Maybe only Sin City did as good a job of having the grit of reality while never loosing the surreal feel of a comic book.

If That Wasn’t Enough, How About This

I think launching a great american sport is more than enough to make 1989 a viable candidate for best summer ever, but 1989 has a lot more going for it than that. It had…

Blockbuster other than Batman, Ghostbusters II and I.J. and the Last Crusade:

  • Lethal Weapon 2 – fascinating thing about this movie, and it is something nearly all action movies do now but no one did it before this, this movie didn’t have opening credits. Boom, the previews were over and you were smack dab in the middle of a car race. Also, this is the movie that resurrected Joe Pesci’s career (it was pretty close to dead in between Raging Bull and Lethal Weapon 2).
  • When Harry Met Sally – I was in college this summer and I don’t think I went to a party or even just to dinner with a girl who didn’t do the Meg Ryan orgasm thing.
  • Honey, I Shrunk The Kids – I still miss the Strange Brew and SCTV and even Club Paradise Rick Moranis, but if you are 35 or younger you probably think of him as the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids Rick Moranis.
  • The Karate Kid III – This was the Japan one, right?
  • Weekend at Bernie’s – undeniably one of life’s great mysteries, how a movie about two guys carrying around a dead body became a hit.
  • License to Kill – Timothy Dalton becomes James Bond and becomes monogamous.
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – one of the many “this is the last time we will see Kirk and Spock” Star Trek movies.
  • Parenthood – a star studded cast and hey, they made a TV show about it 20 years later. That proves it had to be good, right?
Dramatic Classics:
  • Do The Right Thingagain, one of those things that is hard to explain if you didn’t see it happen, but the degree to which this movie foreshadowed what would happen in LA three years later is truly one of the most telling occurrences I have ever seen. Spike Lee and many living in inner city predominantly black communities could see the riots from a mile away, and the rest of us had our heads in the sand. This is a great movie regardless, but the fact that it came true should just make it resonate with that much more power.

  • Sex Lies and Videotape – this movie actually beat Do The Right Thing at Cannes in 1989 and is a classic in its own right (I’ve had a crush on Laura San Giacomo ever since). Maybe not quite as overtly resonating as Do The Right Thing, but really quite telling and a definite must watch if you haven’t seen it.
  • Dead Poets Society – man was this movie talked up a lot in its time. It has kind of been lost a bit in time, but this summer was much more (or at least more broadly) about Dead Poets than it was about Do The Right Thing or Sex Lies and Videotape.
Cult Classics:
  • Roadhouse – if there was ever another movie that would deserve the Conan description (either brilliant comedy or just laughably horrible, its all depending if the filmmakers knew it was a joke) it is Roadhouse. If you are ever in LA when Doug Benson does a “movie interruption” of Roadhouse (he and other comics sit in the front row with mic’s and make fun of the movie as you all watch it on the big screen) go just to hear them discuss Swayze’s short-sleave karate shirt. Hysterical!

  • UHF – Weird Al Yankovich’s movie about a failing and flailing TV station where you can see Michael Richards pre-Kramer.
  • Turner & Hooch – K-9 had beaten this buddy cop movie with a twist (the dog is one of the partners!) and, to be perfectly honest, I have a hard time remembering which plot points went with which dog. Some people have a real soft spot for this Tom Hanks flick though, personally, I’ll take Volunteers as my Tom Hanks under appreciated pre-Gump movie, but that’s just me.
  • Uncle Buck – John Candy doing a John Hughes movie. It is harmless and at times funny family fun.
  • The Abyss – One of my favorite almost great movies. Like most almost greats this James Cameron passion project was ruined by the ending SPOILER ALERT! If he ends the move with Ed Harris stranded on the bottom of the ocean floor and the last shot, as his eyes are closing and he is about to die, is a bright glow reflected on him (like the poster), the movie is a classic. Instead the sea aliens save Ed, and the whole ship as the come to the surface and fail miserably to live up to what you had expected them to be.
1989 was an amazing year. The spring had Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Field of Drems, The Burbs, Pet Cemetery, Major League and Fletch Lives among other movies. The fall brought Back to the Future II, Harlem Nights, The Little Mermaid, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Steel Magnolias. And Christmas had Christmas Vacation and Tango and Cash (oh, and Driving Miss Daisy, Born on the 4th of July and Glory). It was a terrific year for popular (sometimes forgettable) movies, for classics (a good number of real classics) and would be classics and a summer that launched Box Office Mojo (in a round about way).