Biggest movie blockbusters of all time

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley counts down the biggest blockbusters in movie history.

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON – Smack dab between “The Amazing Spider-Man” opening on July 3 and next week’s launch of “The Dark Knight Rises” lies the height of the summer blockbuster season.

If February is a time to award the rare “art” of cinema, mid-July is a time to celebrate the popular favorites, the popcorn flicks, the blockbusters. The term, quite literally, describes those films that “bust the block” with lines starting at the box office ticket window and stretching around the block.

The biggest movie blockbusters of all time, in terms of sheer dollars, are rated based on the amount they grossed. “Avatar” (2009) leads the pack followed by “Titanic” (1997), “The Avengers” (2012) and “The Dark Knight” (2008).

All four are from the last 15 years.

But those stats can be deceiving.

When you adjust for inflation, the only fair way to compare different eras, “The Dark Knight” falls to No. 29 while “The Avengers” falls to No. 26.

To see which movies comprise the top 25, check out the gallery for a look at those films that have truly put the most butts in the seats. The results may surprise even the biggest movie fans.

GALLERY: Top 25 Biggest Movie Blockbusters

The movie blockbuster has been an evolving, popcorn-munching beast, requiring a special recipe to capture mass audiences. Many have tried. Many have flopped. And while most will not show up during Oscar season, they allow us a dark, air- conditioned escape from the sweltering “dog day afternoons” of summer, and a warm gathering place to huddle together during the cold of winter.

D.W. Griffith invented the notion of the blockbuster with his three-hour epic “Birth of a Nation” (1915). Soon after, Charlie Chaplin launched the highest grossing summer hit of the silent era, making Roaring ’20s audiences roar with laughter in “The Gold Rush” (1925).

Ironically, many of the films we think of as the masterpieces of Hollywood’s Golden Age did not draw big crowds. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) was dwarfed by “Gone With the Wind” (1939). “Citizen Kane” (1941) was slandered by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. “Casablanca” (1942) suffered because the entire male population was fighting in World War II, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) was not appreciated in its time.

Hitchcock upped the ante with “Psycho” (1960), literally locking the theater doors after the start of the movie to prevent audiences from arriving late, as they so often did in the days of serials and double features. He also put up signs warning audiences not to spill the film’s secrets, creating additional buzz that would be impossible in the era of internet spoilers. Attendees say the screams were so loud during the shower scene that you couldn’t hear Bernard Herrmann’s slashing violin score.

After a decade of “sword and sandal” epics like “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “Spartacus” (1960), “The Graduate” (1967) convinced studio execs that blockbusters could be targeted to a younger audience using more dangerous directors and risque themes.

The modern blockbuster can be traced to one line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) was the perfect summer blockbuster, with its Amity beach setting, endless thrills and imitable tune that could be repeated to scare your sister during a family beach vacation.

For an entire generation, Spielberg and friends George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis would carry the blockbuster mantel, turning out “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” (1982), “Return of the Jedi” (1983), “Back to the Future” (1985), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988), “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994).

Each step has created priceless movie memories. Tom Hanks recalled his while accepting the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, describing how he “paused mid-air” with a piece of popcorn while watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977).

Tom Cruise took a similar approach with his opening monologue for the first post- 9/11 Oscars.

What blockbuster moments shaped your life? And what is your favorite movie blockbuster of all time? Tell us on the WTOP Facebook page or Tweet me @JasonFraleyWTOP #blockbuster.

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)