Summer Movie Flashback: Everything You Need to Remember About 1993

Joal Ryan
Movie Talk

Some movie summers are big. Some movie summers are beyond big.

The movie summer of 1993 was outsized all the way, from its successes as tall as a T-Rex to its failures as mammoth as the Austrian Oak.

A look back:

The A Story: "Jurassic Park" rules. Steven Spielberg's dinosaur-paced theme-park ride was the first movie to gross at least $50 million in an opening weekend. Before it was done in theaters (more than one entire year later), it would take in some $357 million domestically, and stomp past "E.T.," yet another Spielberg film, to become the then-worldwide box-office champ. Beyond its moneymaking prowess, the film boasted one of John Williams' most memorable themes, and, oh, yeah, the realest-seeming dinosaurs since real dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

The B Story: "The Last Action Hero" bombs. Outside of "Jurassic Park," no summer movie was more anticipated than this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. The film's big budget made it a big target. So did its big ambition. In retrospect, you can't fault Schwarzenegger for trying to change things up, for trying to meld his action career with his high-concept comedy career. But in 1993, critics pounced, and audiences stayed away. Opening a week after "Jurassic Park" raised the box-office bar, "The Last Action Hero" fell short, and failed to match its reported $85 million production cost domestically.

The Z Story: "Super Mario Bros." bombed, too, but greatness had not exactly been expected from the video game turned live-action mess.

Sleeper Hit: "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." While "The Last Action Hero" led the league in pre-release press, this imminently watchable Hollywood biopic came in well under the radar. Having the good fortune of opening before "Jurassic Park," it debuted at No. 1, and went on to gross a then-respectable $35 million -- the first hit for director Rob Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious").

"Sleepless" Hit: "Sleepless in Seattle" was Nora Ephron's first, and biggest, blockbuster as a writer-director, grossing more than $125 million. In a summer dominated by dinosaurs, the romantic-comedy's biggest special effect was its ability to entertain with talk of "An Affair to Remember" while keeping Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in separate scenes for more than 90 minutes.

Sleeper Miss: "So I Married an Axe Murderer." Hot off "Wayne's World," Mike Myers starred in this romantic comedy that nobody saw. (At least not in theaters.) "Axe Murderer" was and remains the lowest-grossing movie of Myers' career. The few and proud who caught the low-key charmer caught a preview of Myers' Fat Bastard-y Scottish accent.

Kid Stuff: "Free Willy" and "Rookie of the Year" were Top 10 hits; "Dennis the Menace" was big, too. Not one of the films was animated; all of the films starred actual children.

Made for the U.S.A.: Decades before "Iron Man 3" was catering to moviegoers in China with scenes explicitly -- and only -- for that lucrative international market, Hollywood studios were still making movies for the hometown crowd. Two of the summer's Top 10 hits concerned the U.S. presidency ("In the Line of Fire" and "Dave") ; "Sleepless in Seattle" name-checked the Great Northwest (and costarred Baltimore and New York's Empire State Building); Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson scored with a comedy literally titled "Made in America."

Fall, Schmall: Sure, in the end, movies released after Labor Day dominated the Oscars, but the summer more than represented. "The Fugitive," the season's biggest big hit after "Jurassic Park," scored a Best Picture nod, and a Best Supporting Actor statuette for Tommy Lee Jones. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne earned nominations for fierceness in the Tina Turner biopic, "What's Love Got to Do With It." Nora Ephron was in the original screenplay race for "Sleepless in Seattle." And "Jurassic Park" owned the effects categories, winning three Oscars overall.

Soundtrack Standout: "I Don't Wanna Fight," by Ms. Turner from her own film.

Controversy: The Sean Connery-Wesley Snipes thriller "Rising Sun," which, like "Jurassic Park," was based on a Michael Crichton novel, was criticized by those who saw it as anti-Japanese.

The Real Last Action Hero: Before he aged into "The Expendables," Sylvester Stallone scored the final hit of his action prime with "Cliffhanger."

Some Things Never Change for Tom Cruise: In July, the movie star recorded one of the biggest hits of his career with the crackerjack thriller "The Firm;" in August, the controversy magnet was called out by author Anne Rice as being miscast for the then-upcoming adaption of her "Interview With a Vampire." (Rice also ripped into Brad Pitt, and he didn't even have a summer hit to fall back on -- only "Kalifornia.")

Some Things Have Really Changed for Mel Gibson: The actor's directing debut, "The Man Without a Face," was called "sensitive" and "noble."

Some Things Have Really Changed -- Period: The average ticket price was $5.20; Pauly Shore was a bankable leading man ("Son in Law"); and, with Pixar two years away from its first feature, the highest-grossing animated film was a half-century old--a rerelease of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

And Some Things Haven't Changed Yet: John Singleton's"Poetic Justice" and the Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society" were both successes, and led the press to hail the breakthrough of African-American filmmakers. Twenty years on, the percentage of studio films from African-American directors remains in the single digits.

Miscellaneous: Woody Allen emerged from his nuclear breakup with Mia Farrow with the relative hit "Manhattan Murder Mystery;" River Phoenix, who owed his fame to the summer of '86 hit, "Stand By Me," starred in the little-seen "The Thing Called Love," his final release before his death at age 23 the following Halloween; the late Chris Farley had his first significant film role as Connie Conehead's beau in "Coneheads."

Postscript: Led by "Jurassic Park," but also powered by "The Fugitive," "The Firm" and "Sleepless in Seattle," the summer of '93 was the biggest to date. Remarkably for Spielberg, the filmmaker went on to even greater glory that year with the holiday-season release of "Schindler's List." Remarkably for Hollywood, its beach bonanza was achieved without so many of the things we consider musts today: superhero films, super-sized sequels (the summer's top-grossing franchise film, such as it was, was "Hot Shots! Part Deux") and CGI-animated talking animals. At the same time, the summer of '93 succeeded for the same reason all successful movie seasons do: Because people liked the movies. And, chances are, you still like these movies.

Top Box Office: Summer 1993

1. "Jurassic Park," $357,067,947 (Universal)
2. "The Fugitive," $183,875,760 (Warner Bros.)
3. "The Firm," $158,348,367 (Paramount)
4. "Sleepless in Seattle," $126,680,884 (TriStar)
5. "In the Line of Fire," $102,314,823 (Columbia)
6. "Cliffhanger," $84,049,211 (TriStar)
7. "Free Willy," $77,698,625 (Warner Bros.)
8. "Dave," $63,270,710 (Warner Bros.)
9. "Rising Sun," $63,179,523 (20th Century Fox)
10. "Rookie of the Year," $53,615,089 (20th Century Fox)

Watch a clip from 'Jurassic Park':