Released: July 13, 1990
Budget: $22 million
Box office: $505.7 million*
The epitome of summer counterprogramming, Ghost quite literally capitalized on the chemistry between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore (not to mention that hunk o’ clay), holding its own in the top five films at the box office for 19 weeks on the way to becoming the No. 1 grossing film of 1990. It received five Oscar nominations, with wins for Whoopi Goldberg as Best Supporting Actress and Bruce Joel Rubin’s screenplay.
*Unless otherwise noted, all figures are global total from BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Released: July 28, 2004 (limited); Aug. 20, 2004 (wide)
Budget: $2.5 million
Box office: $35.8 million
It may not have racked up some of the blowout numbers of films to come in this list, but Zach Braff’s directorial debut struck a chord with twenty- and thirtysomethings struggling to find their way in adulthood. Buoyed by its ”life-changing” soundtrack, the film beautifully balanced humor, romance, pathos, and this dog.
Released: May 13, 2011
Budget: $32.5 million
Box office: $288.3 million
At the height of her Saturday Night Live fame, Kristen Wiig starred in this ensemble comedy that proved boys weren’t the only ones who could master raunchy gags. Alongside breakout star Melissa McCarthy, Wiig and cowriter Annie Mumolo nabbed Oscar nominations for their original screenplay.
The Blair Witch Project
Released: July 16, 1999 (limited); July 30, 1999 (wide)
Box office: $248.6 million
No one saw this found-footage horror flick coming. Its massive haul came in no small part thanks to a trailblazing viral marketing campaign. Cloverfield, Chronicle, the Paranormal Activity franchises, and many more have Blair to thank for their success.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Released: April 19, 2002 (limited); Aug. 2, 2002 (wide)
Budget: $5 million
Box office: $368.7 million
Nia Vardalos’s Little Cross-Cultural Rom-Com That Could had high-power producers in Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, but it followed a purposefully understated distribution model that helped build the film’s reputation over the entire summer of 2002. How do you say ”word of mouth” in Greek? Oh yeah, Windex!
Little Miss Sunshine
Released: July 26, 2006 (limited); Aug. 18, 2006 (wide)
Budget: $8 million
Box office: $100.5 million
A massive $10.5 million deal at Sundance meant expectations were high for the dysfunctional family road trip film. Sunshine delivered, racking up the States’ highest per-theater gross 21 days running and chugging along in the top 10 films for eight weeks (it took three weeks to land there). And the affection carried into awards season when Michael Arndt took home a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and Alan Arkin won a dark-horse Best Supporting Actor statuette for playing the acerbic but loving grandfather.
Released: June 11, 2004 (limited); Aug. 27, 2004 (wide)
Box office: $46.1 million
Catchphrase- (”GOSH!”) and merch-ready (”Vote for Pedro”), and peppered with geek fodder, the Sundance acquisition made Jon Heder a star (albeit only briefly), reminded people that Jamiroquai was a thing, and even inspired a 2012 animated series. In short, Napoleon strapped on those moon boots and danced all the way to the bank.
Released: July 14, 1969
Box office: $60 million
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that Easy Rider revved up audiences. On the marquee: Established Hollywood power players Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, plus a little-known Jack Nicholson (who would eventually earn a Best Supporting Actor nod for the role). The script by the leads shed light on an emerging counterculture, and Hopper’s first time helming is considered influential in what would become the Hollywood New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s.
There's Something About Mary
Released: July 15, 1998
Budget: $23 million
Box office: $369.9 million
Ben Stiller and the Farrelly brothers had both seen success four years prior to Mary (Stiller with Reality Bites, the Farrellys with Dumb and Dumber), but their collaboration on the gross-out comedy zipped up a stratospheric surprise hit for both. We can’t quite put our finger on it, but something just stuck with audiences.
My Best Friend's Wedding
Released: June 20, 1997
Budget: $38 million
Box office: $299.2 million
After a slew of underperforming dramas, Julia Roberts kick-started a career Renaissance with Wedding. Though the film opened in the No. 2 slot (behind the critically eviscerated, insta-punchline popcorn flick Batman & Robin), America’s sweetheart’s return to rom-coms (and the introduction of soon-to-be-genre-staple Cameron Diaz) made the film a steady performer in the top 10 for most of the summer of 1997.
Released: Aug. 17, 2007
Budget: $20 million
Box office: $169.9 million
Thank to Judd Apatow’s anointment and the involvement of Seth Rogen (who cowrote with Evan Goldberg) and Jonah Hill (an Apatow acolyte who had his own designs on become a multihyphenate in the biz), the pieces were in place for a predictable success. Did it seem likely in August 2007 that this scrappy rager of a teen-com would hold the title of highest-grossing high school comedy of all time for the next five years? Nope. And the film that would dethrone it? Hill’s 21 Jump Street. More like Supergood.
Released: Aug. 14, 2009
Budget: $30 million
Box office: $210.8 million
In the wake of a geek-stoking promotional campaign launched at San Diego Comic Con, the South African Apartheid allegory scored $37.4 million in its opening weekend, revitalized science fiction, and launched the careers of director Neill Blomkamp and star Sharlto Copley.
Released: March 21, 1980
Budget: $400,000 (Australian dollars)
Box office: $99.8 million (Australian dollars)
The definitive international sleeper, Mad Max earned about $8 million in North America (roughly $25.2 million today), but its game-changing revenge-action recipe and spectacular stunts helped to pile up receipts around the globe. Before inspiring two sequels (and soon a reboot starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron), Max ultimately brought in the equivalent of nearly $400 million today, a massive return that held the Guinness World Record for Top Budget-to-Box Office Ratio until The Blair Witch Project‘s spooked its way to the top in 1999. And all that’s without discussing how the film catapulted Mel Gibson to international superstardom.
Bring It On
Released: Aug. 25, 2000
Budget: $28 million
Box office: $90.4 million
It was sexy, it was cute?it was popular to boot. The campy, quotable, cheertastic teen flick cemented Kirsten Dunst as a leading lady, set off a nation of spirit-finger wielding fans, and inspired three (far inferior but basic-cable ubiquitous) sequels and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical. It’s not just any film that earns the designation ”the Citizen Kane of cheerleader movies” for nothing.