An Obsessive-Compulsive's Guide to the Summer Movie Season

It was 15 years ago that Twister changed America's summer blockbuster season. It didn't do it with cutting-edge special effects or immersive 3D technology or previously unknown storytelling devices. No, Twister altered something more fundamental about summer: its start date.

Before 1996, the summer movie season began with Memorial Day Weekend, at the end of May. There was no official decree, nothing in the Hollywood city ordinances, but that's how it worked. The trend began with Star Wars in 1977, and subsequent Memorial Day releases included Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, Rocky III, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Rambo II, Beverly Hills Cop II, Crocodile Dundee II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part III, Backdraft, Alien 3, Cliffhanger, and The Flintstones.

In the 1990s, with the Memorial Day kickoff firmly established, some studios started opening tent-pole films a week early, to beat the rush. Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Maverick (1994), and Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) all opened the third weekend in May and earned fourth-weekend-in-May-style grosses.

Then, in 1996, Warner Bros. had a crazy idea. Memorial Day was going to be owned by Paramount's Mission: Impossible. What if WB opened Twister not one week early but -- and stay with me here -- TWO weeks early? Twister had Spielberg as an executive producer, it was about natural disasters, and it was fun but kind of stupid: It was clearly a "summer movie." To open it a fortnight ahead of the customary summer movie season would be a bold move. WB said, "Screw it, WE'RE DOING IT." Go big or go home, that's what they say at Warner Bros.

And it worked. Twister opened to $41.1 million, at that time the biggest debut ever for a non-summer release. It went on to be the second highest-grossing film of all of 1996, behind Independence Day. More importantly, it signaled a shift. With Twister having tested the waters, other movies followed suit and opened earlier in May, effectively changing the start of the summer blockbuster season. Fifth Element did it in 1997, followed by Deep Impact, The Mummy, Gladiator, and The Mummy Returns. In 2002, when Spider-Man debuted on May 3 and had the best opening weekend EVER, any question about summer's start date was erased. At the movies, summer starts the first weekend in May.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of this seismic shift in cinematic calendaring, we took a look at the five top-grossing films of each summer since then, with "summer" now being defined as May-August. The five most popular movies from each summer, 1996-2010, gives us 75 movies total. We'll call them The Summer 75. What do these 75 warm-weather flicks tell us about our summertime tastes? Let's investigate.

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