If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Stranger Things is a shrine to the tentpoles of the 1980s. And epics like E.T. and Star Wars didn’t just imbue impressionable young minds like the Duffer brothers with the imagery that now suffuses their Netflix megahit. They also set the template for a new scale of cinematic success. Forty years ago, movie studios established the model for the summer blockbuster: high-budget, higher-box-office spectaculars that could then become bankable franchises. Today, Stranger Things embodies a new kind of summer blockbuster—one experienced not at the multiplex, but from the comfort of one’s couch.
In other words, the resemblance between Stranger Things and its ancestors isn’t merely aesthetic. It’s also structural, and increasingly widespread. The traditional summer blockbuster is hardly extinct, and certainly doing better than the mid-budget fare that was already endangered before the pandemic shut down theaters. In 2022, though, the event releases we’ve been trained to expect as days lengthen and temperatures climb are no longer confined to a single medium. And while it’s no surprise a streaming-native outlet like Netflix would lead the charge, more traditional entertainment companies have started to follow suit. The shift has been gradual, catalyzed by everything from the general rise of streaming to the trailblazing success of Game of Thrones. By now, though, it’s official: The summer blockbuster has a new home on TV.
This past Memorial Day, audiences could buy a ticket to see Top Gun: Maverick. But in trying to predict its eventual gross, which ultimately added up to a spectacular $160.5 million across the long weekend, experts didn’t look to other major film releases, of which there were none, for competition. Instead, Top Gun’s chief rivals were the first seven episodes of Stranger Things: Season 4 and the first two of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which launched on Netflix and Disney+ the very same Friday that Maverick landed in theaters. Like Top Gun, the other two titles are expensive, lavishly marketed installments of beloved franchises. The difference is that Stranger Things and Obi-Wan don’t require a trip to the theater, or even an additional expense beyond a monthly subscription fee. They’re also television, even if they have the references, running time, and characters of well-known movies.
The blockbuster bonanza of Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff to summer, wasn’t an isolated event. On Wednesday, Disney+ will debut Ms. Marvel, the latest entry in the TV branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The final two chapters of Stranger Things 4 arrive in about a month, just in time for July 4. The two-week stretch from late August to early September is especially overstuffed: starting with the MCU’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, continuing through Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story companion Andor, and culminating with The Rings of Power, Amazon’s vaunted, billion-dollar take on The Lord of the Rings—which comes right before Labor Day, the season’s other bookend.
Both the MCU and the Star Wars apparatus are well-oiled machines that continue running year-round. It’s nonetheless no coincidence that the span from May to September includes an unusually dense concentration of high-profile releases, both from Disney’s crown jewels and their peers that aspire to duplicate that success. “That’s competition you normally see at the box office,” says Julia Alexander, director of strategy at Parrot Analytics, a firm that measures audience demand for media titles. “That’s the summer blockbuster season: Every week, there’s a huge new movie.” Or in this case, a TV show with the budget and noisy rollout typically associated with movies.
There are key distinctions between these projects, some of whom have relationships to traditional blockbusters that are more direct than aspirational. Marvel, the current benchmark for modern IP management, has toggled freely between theaters and streaming since WandaVision flickered to life early last year. The symbiotic relationship has been mutually beneficial: WandaVision teed up Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the MCU’s most recent wide release; Loki introduced Kang the Conqueror, the master narrative’s new arch-antagonist; Ms. Marvel opens with an animated recap of the Avengers movies’ Battle of Earth, explaining its heroine’s desire to cosplay as Captain Marvel at a fan convention. The MCU is already our leading purveyor of standard-issue summer blockbusters, so it’s easy to condition its audience to simply transfer their attention to a slightly different venue.
Star Wars’ transformation is far more symbolic. Rather than split itself between film and TV, Lucasfilm has not produced a tentpole feature since The Rise of Skywalker in late 2019. This isn’t entirely by design, thanks to factors like the pandemic and the delay in production for Patty Jenkins’s Rogue Squadron. But as the Star Wars movies have stumbled, shows like The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett have thrived, effectively transplanting the saga into a surprising new context. For its first two trilogies, Star Wars was the ultimate film franchise. In the wake of its third, it has shifted gears.
Finally, there are the homegrown experiments. HBO’s House of the Dragon is the first of several planned additions to Game of Thrones, which helped prove that dense worldbuilding and elaborate CGI battles could work for TV in the first place. (Another prequel starring Naomi Watts, tentatively titled Bloodmoon, was scrapped after a $30 million pilot.) After last fall’s The Wheel of Time, The Rings of Power will be Amazon’s latest, flashiest attempt to find a Thrones-level hit of its own, per the infamous directive of founder Jeff Bezos. Both Warner Bros. Discovery, the steward of the DC Extended Universe, and Amazon, which recently acquired James Bond studio MGM, do significant business in theaters. They’re still following the footsteps of a show that reached monocultural ubiquity without ever scaling up to the big screen.
TV blockbusters have a less intuitive payoff than their ancestors. Consumers pay directly for their movie tickets, so big spending on stars and special effects can lead directly to big profits. With subscription-based streaming services, the connection is more oblique—but in a competitive environment like the Streaming Wars, there are incentives for companies to shift their resources. “When they’re looking at what to make for their streaming services that are really going to stand out, those are going to be these high-action, high-fantasy, high-octane type series that they think will be really strong growth drivers,” Alexander says. “They really lean on a lot of film IP, or they lean on the type of content that we would’ve seen in theaters 10, 15 years ago.”
There’s also the lingering shadow of the pandemic, which makes a theatrical release less of a sure bet than ever before. Despite the arrival of vaccines, total box office revenue in 2021 was still down a bruising 60 percent compared to 2019; current estimates figure that 2022 will only make up half the difference. Memorial Day weekend was a case in point. Typically a critical window for studios’ and theaters’ bottom lines, this year’s take was still down by a third from three years ago. In this environment, it makes sense for companies like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery to play up TV shows as big-ticket summer offerings, even as the August release calendar is virtually bare. We may be past the days when movies like Black Widow or Dune got concurrent releases on streaming, but streaming series can still serve as a useful hedge on a diminished theater trade.
On the precipice of a potential recession, though, even TV summer blockbusters face an uncertain fate. Following a recent dip in subscribers, Netflix’s CFO hinted the service would start “pulling back” on its famously profligate spending; over at HBO, J.J. Abrams’s Demimonde is reportedly under scrutiny for its $200 million budget. How streaming services will balance the increasing pressure to belt-tighten with the need to stand out is an open question. “Do you cut funding across the board and say, ‘We’re going to make fewer shows in all of our genres—that includes the big superhero, action, fantasy shows that cost $300 million a season to create?’” Alexander asks. “Or do you say, ‘Actually, we’re going to sacrifice creating a lot more of the prestige dramas … because we think we really need to be in the $300 million event-TV space?’”
The contrast is especially obvious given the quirks in TV’s calendar. Thanks to the Emmys’ submission deadline in late May, we’ve just exited an overwhelming onslaught of highbrow premieres. Where movie schedules usually include a several-month gap between awards contenders and more populist summer fare, television has pivoted directly from one to the other, with Stranger Things 4 even serving as a bridge between the two. (Breaking the release into two parts helps juice self-reported ratings and maximize impact, but it also makes sure the season makes this year’s Emmy field just under the wire.) Blockbusters have long had the upper hand over prestige fare at the movies. They may just conquer TV next.