How ‘Planet of the Apes’ Created the Summer Blockbuster Template

Chris Tilly
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi

Jaws is often credited as the original summer blockbuster. While a couple of years later box office phenomenon Star Wars changed the business forever. But another film created the template for those hits, and the many, many more that now fill cinemas during the school holidays. One that was released on April 3, 1968, exactly 50 years ago today. That film is Planet of the Apes.

A science fiction flick that starred Charlton Heston, it revolved around astronauts crash-landing on a planet where apes had evolved and were now the dominant species. They also enslaved their human counterparts, in a story that had powerful parallels with the racial tensions that were tearing America apart at the time.

A classic of the genre that still holds up today, it was like nothing audiences had seen before. And created the formula for what has now become industry standard. Via the five following steps.

1. Concept

The source material.

The ‘high-concept’ movie is a staple of summer. Films based on imaginative, ingenious ideas that can easily be summed up in a sentence are easier to advertise and market. Which is music to the ears of Hollywood executives spending big bags of money on them. So ‘dinosaurs run amok in theme park’ immediately gets green-lit. As does ‘museum exhibits come to life at night.’ And it’s all the better if that concept can be summed up in a title. Like Mars Attacks! Or Snakes on a Plane.

Planet of the Apes manages both, the simple but effective title telling you much of what you need to know. And that intriguing hook doing the rest, with apes walking, talking and behaving like humans — via state-of-the-art make-up — turning it into the movie everyone was discussing in 1968.

Summer is also now filled with films based on existing ‘Intellectual Properties’ (IPs), from comic books, TV shows and video games, to reboots of movies that have gone before. Lending adaptations a pre-existing audience that will flood cinemas on opening weekend.

A fair few of those summer smashes are based on bestselling books, from the aforementioned Jaws and Jurassic Park, to the likes of Forrest Gump, I Am Legend, The Da Vinci Code, and the Bourne movies. Planet of the Apes did it first, however, being an adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Les Planete des Singes. A hit in both the U.S. and the U.K. (where it was called Monkey Planet) which whetted the appetite for the films that followed.

2. Sequels

The first of many sequels.

Sequels aren’t just a possibility when it comes to the modern summer blockbuster. They are now the norm. Sci-fi stories have multi-picture arcs. Superhero flicks feature post-credit stings that set up sequels years in advance. And actors now sign 10-year deals to play the same character over-and-over again. But it wasn’t always that way.

When Planet of the Apes was released, movie follow-ups were few and far between. Horror had some sequel success via the Universal and Hammer monster movies, while several spy flicks did the same. But a sci-fi story stretching out over five films in six years was pretty much unheard of. Until Apes.

Such was the success of the first movie that it was almost immediately followed by Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1970. Charlton Heston was downgraded to a supporting role, while the story followed a new astronaut landing on the planet, and discovering mutated humans with psychic powers living underground.

It was followed by Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973), and while the budgets and box office takings dropped, the films nevertheless had interesting stories to tell, touching on serious issues like racism (frequently), animal rights, and the threat of nuclear war.

3. Spin-Offs

The animated version.

Star Wars spawned live-action TV (the Holiday Special) and animated shows (The Clone Wars, Rebels). The ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ has done much the same. With many other properties following suit. But Planet of the Apes got there first, decades before.

The success of the film and its sequels inspired a live-action TV show called Planet of the Apes in 1974. Airing on CBS, the series ran for 14 episodes, and drew from both the book and the movies. The central storyline concerned a spacecraft entering a time warp, and ending up on the titular planet.

The human astronauts come into conflict with their new simian overlords, and end up on the run with good ape Galen, the three fugitives having weekly adventures in the wilderness. Until the show was dropped because of poor ratings.

An animated kids’ show then launched on NBC in 1975, drawing from the book, the films, and the TV series. Called Return to the Planet of the Apes, it was broadcast on Saturday mornings, and yet again told the story of astronauts crash-landing in ape country. Though this time around the primates were more technologically advanced, a trait that set the show apart from the live-action stories that had gone before.

The cartoon only made it to 13 episodes, however, with both the animated and live-action shows cancelled before reaching any kind of resolution.

4. Merchandise

The toys.

Summer blockbusters frequently make as much from spin-off merchandise as they do from theatrical runs these days. With big titles generating billions from every product imaginable. But yet again, Planet of the Apes kick-started that lucrative approach.

20th Century Fox — who owned the licence — had dozens of companies crafting hundreds of products in the early 1970s, from trading cards and lunchboxes to costumes and colouring books. In 1973, Mego created posable figurines to tie-in with the movies, and such was their success that rival studios quickly followed suit. With officially licensed action figures soon dominating the toy market.

The story of the Apes continued via audio adventures on record. While Planet of the Apes comics also became big business. Marvel published a magazine from 1974 to 1977 that featured adaptations of each film alongside interviews with those involved, and new, completely original stories.

The likes of Dark Horse, Malibu, Gold Key and Boom! then crafted their own Ape comic books, consisting of standalone storylines, and crossovers with the likes of TarzanAlien Nation, Star Trek and King Kong.

5. Reboots

New Planet of the Apes movies were in development for decades after that initial burst of five, but in spite of the fact that Oliver Stone, James Cameron, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all attached at one time or another, Fox failed to get a version off the ground.

Until 2001, when Tim Burton made what was referred to as a “re-imagining” of Planet of the Apes. Which starred Mark Wahlberg as an astronaut who reaches the planet via a wormhole in space, and leads a human uprising against his simian slave-masters. Production was fraught with difficulties, however, the twist ending hated across the board, and in spite of the fact that the movie made money, it failed to launch a franchise.

Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. A reboot written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and directed by Rupert Wyatt, the story was set in the present day, and concerned the creation of the virus that initially triggers intelligence in apes. With Andy Serkis delivering an incredible motion-capture performance as lead primate Caesar.

Rise was both a critical and commercial smash, spawning Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014, and War For the Planet of the Apes in 2017. Both films revolved around the global conflict between man and ape. And both films received rave reviews, with box office receipts to match.

Meaning that the very first film of this kind has now spawned a successful ongoing franchise. And the template it created holds up 50 years on. With Apes films now being released every few summers, alongside the many blockbusters the original inspired.

And if you want to find out more about anything to do with Planet of the Apes, check out our Sacred Scrolls wiki.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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