At the Amazing 1984 Box Office, Movies Like ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Gremlins’ Grew into Blockbusters

Meantime, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" was at number three, and went on to gross $500 million.

Not considered a seminal year in Hollywood history, 1984 delivered an amazing number of iconic American films. Here’s a sampling of movies that still resonate today: “Beverly Hills Cop,” “The Karate Kid,” “Footloose,” “Purple Rain,” “The Terminator,” “Scarface,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Police Academy,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Stop Making Sense,” “Stranger Than Paradise,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Four 1984 releases ended up with domestic grosses above $400 million (adjusted to 2020 values). Three led the weekend that year (the fourth, “Beverly Hills Cop,” was released in December). The top two, “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins,” in an unusual event, opened in wide release on the same day.

The third-ranked film, in its third week and after two weeks in the top spot, was “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Fourth in its second week was “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” “The Karate Kid” opened two weeks later. Five of 1984’s eight biggest hits opened within less than a month.

This weekend in 1984 was the first to top $100 million — today the adjusted figure would be $295 million. At a time when the widest films played half as many complexes and only a fraction of the screens today, that’s more tickets sold than any weekend in many years. The only recent exception is 2019 juggernaut “Avengers: Endgame,” whose opening weekend is one of the very few in recent years to sell more tickets. But the record set in 1984 was actually topped twice more soon after when “Karate Kid” joined the list of current hit films.

Today it’s hard to imagine a lineup of such major hits all in theaters at the same time, with some opening on the same day. Of course, back then these titles and their manner of release was groundbreaking — and their success led to Hollywood’s current practices.

Look at the top 10 below. It includes eight films that either were sequels (“Indiana Jones” and “Star Trek”) or were original titles that spawned at least one sequel (“Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins,” “Romancing the Stone,” “Breakin’,” “Police Academy”).

That’s the norm these days. In 1984, it was rare. Comedies were more common than they are now. In most years until the turn of the century, comedies made up three to five of most annual 10-biggest-hits lists. The main reason is the growth of the international box office. Humor is tough to export to a one-size-fits-all world.

Six of the top 10 ultimately grossed $200 million or above. (Last year yielded 11 total.) The top three all surpassed $400 million. (Only six achieved that in 2019.) The film industry now spaces out gigantic hits throughout the year. 1984’s healthy spread-the-wealth model seems like ancient history.

Certainly, “Ghostbusters” was a big-budget risk for Columbia at a time when $80 million was considered high-end for a domestic comedy that might not travel. But the risk seemed justified by reuniting Canadian comedy director Ivan Reitman with Bill Murray after “Meatballs” and “Stripes,” joined by the post-“Blues Brothers” Dan Aykroyd as well as “Alien” star Sigourney Weaver. Columbia was also building on the success of the more serious ghost movie “Poltergeist,” as well as recent hit “An American Werewolf in London.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885108aj)Gremlins (1984)Gremlins - 1984Director: Joe DanteWarner BrosUSAScene Still

Directed by indie horror meister Joe Dante, “Gremlins” cost about $30 million, at the low end for a film produced by Steven Spielberg, who was the marquee draw. Neither “Gremlins” nor “Ghostbusters” would have been made without recent science-fiction hits led by Spielberg and George Lucas. Both had non-human characters that stood out among the more conventional ones.

The two films remained at the top of the box-office charts for six weeks, with “Gremlins” nipping at the heels of “Ghostbusters.” “Gremlins” holds the record as the biggest-grossing film never to reach number one since tracking started in the mid-1970s (ahead of adjusted figures for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”). That same summer “The Karate Kid,” a sleeper smash, ended up at almost $250 million while never getting higher than a fourth-place ranking. Yes, that’s called word of mouth. What a concept.

“Ghostbusters” is either the biggest-grossing or second-biggest comedy of all time, depending on how you categorize “The Graduate” (Mike Nichols’ 1967 film is at number 23 of all time among domestic sound films; “Ghostbusters” is at 37). Comedies were often good-sized hits, but few reached the heights of this one, which was the biggest release of the year, and the top film of the 1980s not directed by Spielberg or Lucas. That’s stratospheric.

Also worth noting is that two early spring comedies still placed well: Robert Zemeckis’ “Romancing the Stone” and “Police Academy.” Both films ultimately passed $200 million. More than three-and-a-half decades later, two films, “Indiana Jones” and “Star Trek,” have planned sequels in the works.

The independent, low-budget “Beat Street” (which debuted at Cannes) and “Breakin'” were both successful attempts to exploit the current break-dancing craze (parallel soundtracks built on smashes like “Saturday Night Live” and “Grease”). “Beat Street” was directed by Stan Lathan, produced by Harry Belafonte, and co-written by Andrew Davis (who went on to direct “The Fugitive”). An even bigger hit was “Breakin,'” which cost only around $3 million and went on to gross over $100 million. Six months later, the always opportunistic Cannon managed to launch “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” at Christmas.

June 8 – 10, 1984 (numbers in BOLD are adjusted to 2020 value)

1. Ghostbusters (Columbia) NEW

$13.6 million/$37.1 million in 1,339 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $10,166/$27,808; Final domestic gross: $242.6 million/$667.3 million

2. Gremlins (Warner Bros.) NEW

$12.5 million/$34.1 million in 1,511 theaters; PTA: $8,280/$22,604; Final domestic gross: $153.1 million/$426.2 million

3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Paramount) Week 3; Last weekend #2

$12.0 million/$32.8 million (-27%) in 1,685 theaters (-2); PTA: $7,131/ $19.468; Final domestic gross: $177.9 million/$501.6 million

4. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Paramount) Week 2; Last weekend #1

$9.6 million/26.2 million (-42%) in 1,966 theaters (no change); PTA: $4,894/ $13,361; Final domestic gross: $76.5 million/$213.3

5. Beat Street (Orion) NEW

$5.2 million/$14.2 million in 1,380 theaters; PTA: $3,781/$10,322; Final domestic gross: $16.6 million/$45.3 million

6. The Natural (Tri-Star) Week 5; Last weekend #3

$2.5 million/$6.8 million (-28%) in 982 theaters (-30); PTA: $2,528/ $6,901; Final domestic gross: $48.0 million/$131.0 million

7. Romancing the Stone (20th Century Fox) Week 11; Last weekend #7

$1.6 million/$4.4 million (-31%) in 885 theaters (-171); PTA: $1,771/ $4,835; Final domestic gross: $76.6 million/$213.5 million

8. Breakin’ (Cannon) Week 6; Last weekend #4

$1.2 million/$3.3 million (-51%) in 874 theaters (-194); PTA: $1,429/ $3,901; Final domestic gross: $38.7 million/$105.7 million

9. Streets of Fire (Universal) Week 2; Last weekend #5

$1.2 million/$3.2 million (-50%) in 1,055 theaters (-95); PTA: $1,140/$3,112; Final domestic gross: $8.1 million/$22.1 million

10. Police Academy (Warner Bros.) Week 12; Last weekend #8

$1.1 million/$3.0 million (-37%) in 811 theaters (-257); PTA: $1,342/ $3,664; Final domestic gross: $81.2 million/$226.4 million

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