The summer movie season starts in earnest this week with Walt Disney’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. So we should be seeing the first wave of “Cinema is dead!!!” think pieces dropping any minute now. The crux of many of these pieces is that the theatres are filled with big-budget, low-content would-be franchise-friendly blockbusters that are aimed mostly at young kids, specifically young white males. Presuming for a moment that said statement is remotely true (not really, but I digress), I thought it would be interesting to look at the summer of 1990. The various movies released over the summer 1990 season are of course celebrating their 25th anniversary. Looking over the output, it is worth noting that the summer that followed the first modern blockbuster season (1989, thank you much) was quite different from the summers that would follow it. Specifically speaking, most of the would-be blockbusters were intended specifically for adults. For much of the season, and especially for most of the biggest movies, it was “no kids allowed” at the multiplex. The would-be big films were mostly either R-rated films explicitly intended for adults or PG-13 (or even PG-rated) films that were nonetheless targeted at adults.
Summer started on May 18th of 1990 with the Mel Gibson/Goldie Hawn action comedy Bird on a Wire and the R-rated Robin Williams comedy Cadillac Man. The Gibson/Hawn vehicle was PG-13, but like most of the summer’s output it was specifically targeted at older moviegoers, the same who flocked to the likes of Lethal Weapon and Wild Cats. Those two release would typify most of the summer 1990 output. Memorial Day weekend followed with what was the “event film for kids” of summer 1990, Back to the Future III. The series finale opened with $23 million over the holiday weekend, lower than the $45m debut of Back to the Future II the previous Thanksgiving holiday, but still a rock-solid debut for the $40m PG-rated western fantasy. June would begin with what would be the year’s biggest weekend. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall, which is still one of the most violent films ever released under the “R” designation, opened with a whopping $25.5m on its way to a $119m domestic finish and a $261m worldwide cume on a then near-record budget of $68m.
Said brutally violent R-rated action film set the tone for the summer. It would be filled with the likes of Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2 (which famously had child murderers and human brains being smashed on pavements), and the gore-filled Die Hard 2: Die Harder (where the bad guys crashed a packed jetliner). Now to be clear, there were a few out-and-out kid-friendly options that summer. Even aside from the $44 million-grossing reissue of The Jungle Book, you had the Bill Cosby flop Ghost Dad, the hit would-be franchise starter Problem Child ($53m), an animated Jetsons Movie ($20m), an animated Duck Tales movie ($18m), and the likes of The Witches ($10m). You also had PG-13 entertainments like Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.’s Gremlins: The New Batch (a sequel to a PG-rated original), 20th Century Fox’s Young Guns II (a sequel to an R-rated original), and Disney’s Arachnophobia. But they were not the so-called big movies of the summer. No, with the exception of Gremlins 2 (which flopped with just $28m domestic) and arguably Paramount’s $82m-grossing Tom Cruise racing drama Days of Thunder (intended for adults, but constructed with teen appeal), the would-be “big” movies of summer were all-but-explicitly intended for audiences old enough to buy an R-rated movie ticket.
That includes the aforementioned R-rated action extravaganzas, the adult dramas and comedies (Harrison Ford’s $86 million-grossing Presumed Innocent, Air America, Flatliners, Navy Seals, etc.), and the PG-13 or PG-rated comedies like My Blue Heaven or The Freshmen that weren’t really for kids but merely weren’t vulgar or violent enough for adults. That also includes, in a perhaps accidental fashion, Walt Disney’s Dick Tracy. Yes the primary-colored PG-rated cops-and-robbers melodrama was intended as Disney’s answer to Batman and surely Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted something for kids as well as adults, but the PG-rated movie that director/star Warren Beatty delivered is arguably one of the more explicitly adult comic book movies ever made. It’s a dark, mournful, somber mid-life crisis drama about three people (Tracy, Breathless, and Big Boy Caprice) stuck excelling at a trade and in an environment where they get no pleasure but with no means of escape. The film made $100m domestic, arguably becoming the first $100m flop, but that’s a conversation for this coming June 15th.
And yes that darn-well includes the top-grossing film of the summer, the leggy Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore sensation Ghost. Said smash supernatural romance, which snagged a Best Picture nomination and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Whoopi Goldberg, turned a $12m debut into a $217m domestic total and a $505m worldwide cume, becoming (at the time) the third-highest grossing worldwide grosser after E.T. and Star Wars. It is also a PG-13 film that is absolutely intended for adult audiences. Sure it’s constructed “just so” to avoid an R-rating, and surely Paramount/Viacom Inc. wanted older kids to show up, but the genre melting pot adventure (ghost story/romance/thriller/mystery/comedy/action-er) was absolutely pitched to and intended for adult audiences during the summer of 1990. Even the poster was scary, and anyone who saw it a bit too young surely has many a memory of its taboo chills (the demons taking bad guys to hell), spills (the grisly demise of the primary villain), and “oh wow, they are totally having sex on that pottery wheel!” thrills.
Its triumph wasn’t just an example of an unconventional blockbuster (most pundits pegged Dick Tracy or Total Recall to win the summer) triumphing over the preordained champions. It was indicative of a rare summer movie season where even most of the preordained blockbusters were more-or-less intended for grownups. With the exception of Dick Tracy and Back to the Future III, the so-called “big” movies of summer were in-fact grown up films and hard-R action sequels. I am not going to argue that 1990 was the last summer with adult-skewing blockbusters (1991 had Terminator 2 and City Slickers), and I’m certainly not going to argue that the likes of Robocop 2 or Another 48Hrs were superior to the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II by virtue of their R-ratings. But it has always fascinated me, that the summer that arguably defined the season as a kid-friendly blockbuster factory was followed up by a summer where most of the big movies were R-rated or adult-skewing PG-13 releases. The summer of 1990 had a few outright kid films and a few in-between entries. But for one summer, the so-called big movies were mostly pitched at the grownups. That’s not better, but it is different.
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