Which Summer Movie Seasons Have Had the Best and Worst Box Office?

Image Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Under normal circumstances, we would be right in the thick of the summer movies season right now. With cinemas shut down instead, let’s ask: which have been the best-performing and worst-performing summer movie seasons leading up to 2020?

For these purposes, “the summer movie season” means the first Friday in May through Labor Day, the first Monday in September. All numbers below have been adjusted for ticket price inflation.

One quick note: where are the 2010s in the list of the best-performing summers?

That decade’s adoption of the yearlong release calendar spaced out the biggest films more evenly, moving would-be summer releases to other months. For example, every prior Batman, Superman, or Star Wars film had been a summer release, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in December 2015 and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in March 2016.  This was often a case of “lose the battle but win the war,” increasing cumulative box office revenues for the year overall while lowering summer revenues.

The Five Highest Summers

  1. 2002, with $5.88 billion in 2019 dollars. Led by Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, 12 films earned at least $100 million that summer. For context, 11 films crossed that same mark last summer, even though ticket prices has risen more than 50% since 2002.
  2. 1999, with $5.82 billion in 2019 dollars. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was such a massive phenomenon that it almost single-handedly propelled the summer box office, earning more than twice as much that summer as its runner-up, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
  3. 2003, with $5.78 billion in 2019 dollars. Finding NemoThe Matrix Reloaded, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were the big winners that summer.
  4. 2004, with $5.75 billion in 2019 dollars. This was a big summer for sequels, with Shrek 2Spider-Man 2, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban taking the top spots.
  5. 2007, with $5.57 billion in 2019 dollars. This was an even bigger summer for sequels. Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix took the top five slots. 

The Lowest Summer

1986, with $3.08 billion in 2019 dollars. Top Gun took the top spot that summer, going on to spend 27 weekends in the top 10. (Its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, is scheduled for release on December 23.) Other films in the top five that summer included Aliens and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Last Summer

Where does last summer’s $4.34 billion rank?

Of all the summers since 1982, summer 2019 ranked #26 out of 38. Again, that’s if adjusting for ticket price inflation. In pure dollars, its rank is far better, coming in at #7.

Last summer was hurt by the record opening of Avengers: Endgame prematurely arriving on the last weekend of spring. Still, a number of movies last summer were unqualified successes, including The Lion KingToy Story 4, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. And Avengers: Endgame was still the fourth-highest earner of last summer, despite technically opening the season prior.