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What’s the Secret Behind Spielberg’s Box-Office Mojo? Sharks, Dinosaurs, and Aliens

Not many directors can claim to have 8 movies in the top 100 highest-grossing blockbusters of all time. In fact, none can, except, of course, for Steven Spielberg. But what makes these movies so damn successful? How does he do it again and again? After all, Spielberg hasn’t followed one formula again and again, and he doesn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. So what’s going on? Here we offer up some explanations.

1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (No. 6 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Few directors mix sci-fi and lo-fi as expertly as Spielberg. Sure, this is a fantastical flick about a funny-looking alien, but what makes E.T. so successful is that, beyond the special effects, the adventure, and the bad-guy Feds in space suits, this is really just the story of a boy and his best friend. As heart-wrenching as it is heart-pounding, E.T. is quintessential Spielberg: everyone loves this movie.

2. Jurassic Park (No. 16 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Remember the very first time you saw that T. rex? How cool was that? Jurassic Park was the first film to feature hyperrealistic CGI creatures — and this sent moviegoers stampeding to the theaters as if fleeing a raptor attack. Scary beasts, smart dialogue, and a tight script based on Michael Crichton’s ingenious premise make this a perennial favorite — and one of Spielberg’s best thrill rides. No wonder it’s one of the highest-grossing movies ever.

3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (No. 29 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Surprise! This is the biggest moneymaker of all the Indy flicks — and if you’re wondering why that should be a surprise then you obviously haven’t seen it. There could be a few reasons for this result, but the answer is probably pure anticipation: almost twenty years had elapsed since The Last Crusade. But here’s the real moral of the story: Indiana Jones and Spielberg at their worst are still better than almost anyone’s best.

4. Jaws (No. 56 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Peter Benchley’s novel terrified beachgoers, but it was Spielberg’s shark who kept millions out of the water. Jaws is one of Hollywood’s first summer blockbusters and the flick that put Spielberg on the map, and its brilliance lies in its masterful execution of suspense and its realism. The shark is a real monster. You could — theoretically — encounter one. And the buildup to finally seeing it onscreen is intolerable and yet fun. Audiences don’t get to see the beast in its man-eating glory until about an hour and a half into the movie.

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (No. 70 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Few leading men have had the charisma of Harrison Ford in his prime. Rugged and handsome, with a sharp wit and a killer smile — men wanted to be him, and ladies, well, wanted him. Take that mass appeal and pair it with Spielberg’s overactive imagination, and you’ve got one of the most successful franchises in film history. Many have tried to duplicate the adventure-anti-hero formula since, but nothing beats the original.

6. War of the Worlds (No. 78 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Spielberg directing an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic is a recipe for success. People love watching aliens blow up office buildings. (That’s a scientifically proven fact.) Throw in a big name like Tom Cruise, the sweetheart Dakota Fanning, and the obligatory narration of Morgan Freeman, and you’ve got box-office gold. (And Cruise’s timely maniacal jumping on Oprah’s couch prior to the movie’s release drummed up a bit of attention, too.)

7. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (No. 81 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
After the wildly successful original, moviegoers couldn’t let Jurassic Park become a thing of the past. The dino demand prompted Michael Crichton to pen a sequel and Spielberg to jump behind the lens again. Updated CGI, the introduction of new dinos (like the Compsognathus), and having the giant menaces hit the streets of San Diego made for some cool payoffs for fans’ four years of waiting

8. Saving Private Ryan (No. 96 Top-Grossing Movie All Time)
Did you see those battle scenes? That was what was on everyone’s lips when this Spielberg war drama first hit theaters. Unlike in past war flicks, Spielberg dived into the chaos and bedlam (literally, in the Omaha Beach landing scene) and gives what many veterans have said is a brutally accurate depiction of combat. And if the underdog in this fight is box-office darling Tom Hanks, that only means audiences will be showing up in droves to root for him.

Check out Spielberg’s blockbuster Jurassic Park tomorrow, Aug. 24, at 8PM | 7C and 11PM | 10C, part of AMC’s Can’t Get Enough Jurassic Park.

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