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Fourth of July blockbuster started with 'Jaws'

The Fourth of July weekend wasn't always a coveted release date for movies. Studios once believed families would rather spend the holiday outdoors at cookouts and fireworks displays.

My, how times have changed.

The Fourth of July weekend now is one of Hollywood's busiest, anchored by an assured blockbuster (often starring Will Smith, whose Hancock opened Wednesday).

Depending upon the calendar, the weekend at theaters can stretch up to five days, resulting in record-setting grosses. Escalating ticket prices — averaging $2.03 in 1975 and $6.88 today — don't hurt, either.

But numbers don't tell the entire story about the greatest Fourth of July box office weekends ever. A film's cultural impact, its influence on industry practices and a longevity that simply doesn't happen anymore are equally important.

With that in mind, here are the 10 most impressive releases for the holiday during the blockbuster era. We'll know Monday if Hancock muscles into the mix.

10. Jaws (1975)

The movie that started the blockbuster imperative, scaring viewers off the beach and into theaters. Steven Spielberg's thriller was No. 1 for the holiday weekend, with $6.1-million — small potatoes until you consider it was in only 675 theaters and the average ticket price was two bucks. By comparison, Hancock is playing on nearly 4,000 screens.

9. Return of the Jedi (1983)

The first movie that surpassed the $20-million mark for the holiday. The record stood for eight years, until Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the first to top $30-million.

8. Batman Returns (1992)

The Terminator's record stood for only one year; the caped crusader (Michael Keaton this time) shattered it, grossing $45.6-million.

7. Independence Day (1996)

The perfect title for the weekend, with an advertising blitz built around an iconic image — in this case, a vaporized White House — a strategy that studios still imitate. Independence Day promoted Will Smith from Fresh Prince to July 4 box office king, earning $50.2-million, a holiday record that would last only a year.

6. Men in Black (1997)

Smith proved his appeal wasn't a fluke, teaming with Tommy Lee Jones in a sci-fi comedy that grossed $51-million, a new holiday benchmark that would be edged out by its squel, Men in Black 2 ($52.1-million), five years later.

5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Marvel Comics' superhero demolished the Men in Black 2 record with $88.1-million in ticket sales.

4. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Sure, $16.7-million is chump change compared with the other blockbusters on this list. But the movie had already been in theaters for three weeks, and that total adjusted for inflation pushes the $40-million mark. E.T. spent six weeks at No. 1, dropped to second place behind The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, then recaptured the top spot for another two weeks. The most recent movie with such legs is Titanic (1999).

3. Transformers (2007)

It wasn't a sequel, and it didn't boast bankable stars, but Michael Bay's movie was loud, enormous popcorn entertainment, posting the third-highest Fourth of July numbers ever ($70.5-million).

2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Easily the worst movie on this list, but never underestimate Johnny Depp's popularity as Capt. Jack Sparrow, or Disney's marketing machine. A holiday weekend take of $135.6-million is a record that may never be broken.

1. Ghostbusters (1984)

In its fifth week of release, Bill Murray's comedy still sold $11.1-million in holiday weekend tickets (around $25-million at today's prices). Ghostbusters stayed on top for seven consecutive weeks, was bumped aside by Purple Rain for a week, then reclaimed No. 1 in August.

Six weeks later Ghostbusters was rereleased and again topped the chart, heading toward a final tally of $238.6-million — a whopping $486-million at today's ticket prices. We'll probably never again witness such box office longevity in an era attuned to opening weekend bonanzas.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Fourth of July blockbuster started with 'Jaws' 07/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 11:10pm]

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