The 1970s breathed new life into the American film industry. It saw the birth of the blockbuster and the “Star Wars” phenomenon. It saw the groundbreaking pioneers of the “New Hollywood” come of age. Viewers were treated to revolutionary visual effects that turned science fiction and horror into genres to be taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics alike. (To see how the nature of what we watch has evolved over time, see the 100 best movies of the last 100 years, according to critics.)
The changes in the film world weren’t only creative. Advances in advertising, marketing, and distribution techniques addressed the new threat of cable television. Studios began releasing movies almost exclusively on Friday nights to get the most they could out of weekend audiences, and “opening weekend” box office receipts became the ultimate measure of cinematic success.
To identify the biggest box office hits of the 1970’s, 24/7 Tempo reviewed box office data from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by consulting firm Nash Information Services, last updated in April 2021. Rankings were out of 4,230 movies for which data was available. Box office figures are not inflation adjusted. The actors and directors for each movie are from IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon.
By the mid-1970s, studios were targeting younger, less sophisticated patrons. “Jaws” (1975) invented the big-budget summertime smash hit, only to see “Star Wars” (1977) nearly double its domestic ticket sales. Spielberg and Lucas may be household names now, but they were 27 and 33 respectively when they changed the film industry forever. (Star power helped sell films, too, of course. See who came out on top on our list of box office stars, every year since 1945.)
Then “Superman” (1978) brought licensed content to life, racking up a record-breaking final budget of $55 million in the process, but still ending up one of the highest grossing films of the decade. The business of making movies would never be the same again.