In an upside-down summer, ‘Jaws’, ‘ET’ are hits again

NEW YORK (AP) — When historians look back on the top films at the United States (US) box office in the summer of 2020, they may feel like they’ve slipped into a time warp, or maybe Back to the Future.

Over the second weekend in July, Empire Strikes Back — 40 years after it was first released — was again No 1 while Ghostbusters claimed the July 4th weekend, 36 years after opening. Over the June 19-21 weekend and 27 years after it last led the box office, Jurassic Park again ruled theatres.

In a pandemic that has resurrected all kinds of vintage pastimes, from puzzles to drive-ins, even the blockbusters are retro. That is much out of necessity.

About 1,000 theatres in the US are currently open, just about a sixth of the nation’s cinemas. That includes the approximately 300 drive-ins that have, since the multiplexes shuttered in March, hosted the majority of moviegoing.

With all major new releases postponed until at least Labour Day weekend, summer moviegoing has again belonged to the classics — the kinds of films that, for many, remain as indelibly linked to the season as ET is to Elliott.

Brian Keasey, a 44-year-old in Montrose, Colorado, has been going every week, when he’s not playing movies on his backyard screen.

Moviegoers watch a movie preview at Mission Tiki drive-in theatre in Montclair, California. PHOTOS: AP
A customer looks at her smartphone while waiting for a movie to start at Mission Tiki drive-in theatre in Montclair, California
ABOVE & BELOW: Image released by Universal Pictures shows Laura Dern, Joseph Mazzello and Sam Neill in a scene from the 1993 film ‘Jurassic Park’; and Roy Scheider in a scene from the iconic 1975 film ‘Jaws’

“I saw Jaws on the big screen. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen. I saw my childhood on the big screen,” said Keasey a few hours before heading to a double-feature of Ghostbusters and The Rental, a new indie horror film by Dave Franco.

This is American moviegoing in the summer of 2020. A nostalgic trip to the drive-in. A white sheet hung off the patio. The comforting reunion with a great white shark. Keasey said he’s seen Jaws three times this summer, including once on a screen improvised next to a pond.

“It’s the classic summer blockbuster. It’s gorgeous. You can freeze frame any piece of that movie and it’s a perfect slice of 1975 America,” said Keasey. “I feel like those movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s had character development. Now, it’s 100 per cent right out the gate. There’s no room to breathe anymore.”

Among catalogue films, Jurassic Park has led them all with a bit more than USD3 million in ticket sales this summer, according to several people who have seen box-office grosses. The major studios have declined to report ticket sales during the pandemic. The numbers, naturally, are extremely paltry compared to the usual billions generated in Hollywood’s prime season.

The unreported grosses for newer releases like Trolls World Tour and Onward exceed those of the repertory releases. But the likes of Jaws, ET, Goonies and Ghostbusters rank among the summer’s top draws.

That vacuum has led to some unlikely heavyweights at the box office this summer. The low-budget IFC Films horror film The Wretched led all reported films for seven straight weekends in May and early June, a stretch that matches the run of Avatar.

It’s made USD1.8 million in 13 weeks, an impressive total for a film made for less than USD100,000.

Mission Tiki, the four-screen, Polynesian-themed drive-in in Montclair, California, outside Los Angeles and flanked by the San Gabriel Mountains, also turned into the epicentre of US moviegoing.

DeAnza Land and Leisure, which owns Mission Tiki and five other drive-ins, outranks all other circuits with 32 per cent of the market share.

Typically, chains like AMC and Regal would dominate such lists, and urban multiplexes would be the top sellers. But at one point in the spring, when Mission Tiki was one of few operating theatres, the circuit accounted for close to 70 per cent of the national gross.

“It’s ridiculous,” said the company’s Chief Executive Frank Huttinger.

Huttinger, happy for a break from bookkeeping, sounded exhausted on a recent evening. He’s never worked harder, he said.

“For a while there, we were just turning people away. Now that the theatres are operating at half capacity, we’re turning a lot of people away,” Huttinger said. “We get spillover due to sell-outs, so all screens do well, regardless of what you’re playing. Right now, Goonies with Gremlins is just blowing it out of the park.”

First opened in 1947, Mission Tiki’s circuit numbered 40 screens at its height. Now, it finds itself the hottest cinema in Southern California — even if it lacks the usual perks.

“Sometimes, you just can’t help doing something right,” said Huttinger. “But I promise you, nobody’s calling me for the A-list parties.”

Weekend box-office results usually function, like the top 40 radio hits, as cultural signposts. It would be hard to recall the summer of 1981 without mentioning Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the summer of 1977 without remembering Star Wars, summer movies burrow into childhood memories.

This year, it’s possible that Hamilton, on Disney+, has been the most-watched movie of the summer, or that The Old Guard, on Netflix, filled a void. But viewership for those films, too, hasn’t been released. Anyone clinging to a collective moviegoing experience — or the feeling of a must-see movie — has had to make it for themselves.

Given the financial pressures on theatres, most of which have been closed for nearly five months, it’s not at all clear if moviegoing will survive the pandemic intact. Earlier this week, AMC Theatres and Universal Pictures agreed to collapse the exclusive theatrical window from the traditional 90 days to a minimum of just 17 days. Jaws, which birthed the modern blockbuster, played for 196 days.

But the big-screen for many still holds romance. Herb Geraghty, 24, began dating someone shortly before the pandemic lockdown began. They met only over Skype. For their first in-person date, they drove from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the Dependable Drive-In in Moon Township.

They first saw the indie thriller Vast of the Night, and on subsequent trips watched the murder mystery Knives Out and a double-bill of Jaws and Jurassic Park. They got there early, laid out a blanket and had a picnic. The commercials in between showings, Geraghty said, “make me feel like I’m in Grease“. A routine developed, and the relationship stuck.

“We do it pretty much every weekend now,” said Geraghty.