Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon

How 'Jaws' changed the direction of movie culture

A scene from "Jaws," the 1975 summer blockbuster.

A scene from "Jaws," the 1975 summer blockbuster. Credit: Universal

Once upon a time, summer at the movies didn't look like one long series of explosions and superheroes. During the first half of the 1970s, a summer release could have meant George Lucas' "American Graffiti," Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" or Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." Back then, summer movies didn't need a cape to fly.

That changed 40 years ago, when America's movie houses were attacked by a certain great white shark.

"Jaws," Steven Spielberg's epic adventure-thriller about a sleepy beach town terrorized by a man-eating shark, was released June 20, 1975. Within days it had blown every other film out of the water, thanks partly to a highly aggressive advertising campaign and a massive rollout into hundreds of theaters. "Jaws" became the highest-grossing movie of all time, changing the way Hollywood does business and setting a template for what we now call the summer blockbuster. The movies that have followed in its wake -- big-budget extravaganzas with long-lead marketing campaigns, from "Independence Day" to "Iron Man" -- all have a bit of shark DNA inside them.

"Studios always opened some big movies in the summer, but now you have studios announcing years ahead of time that they're going open a movie on X date in 2016," says Tim Gray, senior vice president at Variety. "There is a direct line between 'Jaws' and 'The Avengers.' "

Transforming the book

In the summer of 1975, the novelist Peter Benchley was arguably a bigger name than Steven Spielberg. Benchley's 1974 debut novel, "Jaws," set in the fictional Long Island beach town of Amity Island, had been a hardback bestseller and the movie rights had been sold before publication. Spielberg, on the other hand, was a newcomer in his mid-20s who had directed just two films, the made-for-TV thriller "Duel" and a comedy-drama called "The Sugarland Express." Nevertheless, Spielberg convinced producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown (a Woodmere native) to let him adapt Benchley's novel for Universal Pictures.

Spielberg's actors weren't the most famous names, either. The lead role of police chief Martin Brody, who tries in vain to shut down the local beaches, went to Roy Scheider, known mostly as a supporting actor (he'd been nominated for an Oscar for 1971's "The French Connection"). Richard Dreyfus, as oceanographer Matt Hooper, was a rising young talent, just 27 at the time of the film's release. Robert Shaw, as the Ahab-like mariner Quint, was an older British actor best known to Americans as the villain Red Grant in the 1963 James Bond film "From Russia With Love."

"Jaws," shot largely in Martha's Vineyard (Sag Harbor was briefly considered) was a famously troubled production, mostly because the animatronic sharks frequently failed to work. Spielberg later recalled bringing Zanuck, the producer, out in a boat during a shoot only to watch the fake shark sink to the bottom of the sea. "Gee," Zanuck said, "I sure hope that's not a sign."

In the end, though, "Jaws" worked. Spielberg decided to film the faulty shark sparingly, forcing viewers to use their imaginations -- and the result was terrifying. The film's most iconic image is of just a single fin slicing the water. The cast was stellar, particularly Scheider, who is often credited for improvising the film's most famous line, "We're gonna need a bigger boat" (though Scheider said it was in the script). The final touch was John Williams' ominous score, a two-note refrain that became one of the most memorable pieces of movie music in history.

"Jaws" seemed to offer viewers a bit of everything, says Ben Mankiewicz, a host at Turner Classic Movies, which will co-present the movie (along with Fathom Events) in local theaters on June 21 and 24. "It's one of the greatest outdoor adventures ever," he says. "Plus, it's a summer vacation movie. And we were already afraid of sharks. It was a movie about something we were ready to be afraid of."


Promoting the movie

Universal bolstered "Jaws" with widespread television advertising, something studios rarely did at the time. According to Gray at Variety, a big "event" movie would often play in one theater in a given market, making national television advertising a waste of money. Universal, however, planned to screen "Jaws" nationwide in more than 400 theaters -- a nearly unheard-of number at the time. In the weeks before its release, anyone watching "Happy Days," "Sanford and Son" or "The Waltons" probably saw a commercial for "Jaws."

The strategy worked. "I remember people waiting in lines for an hour or two to go see 'Jaws,' " Gray recalls. "It had become part of the conversation. News shows were doing stories on shark attacks: 'What are the odds this will happen to you?' " Riffs on the movie surfaced in political cartoons and newspaper headlines. Out in East Hampton, a discotheque began calling itself "Jaws."

The movie earned $21.1 million in its first 10 days, then became the first movie to break the box-office barrier of $100 million -- a standard benchmark today. "Jaws" held the record for the highest-grossing film of all time ($260 million at the North American box office, according to BoxOfficeMojo) until another blockbuster, "Star Wars," overtook it in 1977. That movie only further proved that the "Jaws" template was no fluke. It didn't take long before summer at the movies looked less like "Midnight Cowboy" and "Easy Rider" -- to name two summer releases from 1969 -- and more like "Return of the Jedi" (1983), "Top Gun" (1986) and "Batman" (1989).

"I love 'Jaws' so much that I hate to blame it for the sameness of movies that we have now," says Mankiewicz. "I would never say we shouldn't have any more 'Avengers' films. I just wish some of that money was spent on other things, too."


In the summer of "Jaws," these films also kept afloat

Itas June 20, 1975, and youare considering a trip to the movies. Aside from aJaws,a what else could you see? Hereas what might have been on the marquee at your local theater:

The Return of the Pink Panther. The comedy franchise had hit the skids with 1968as aInspector Clouseau,a a box-office flop that featured none of the regular stars a not even Peter Sellers. Seven years later, Sellers and his castmates came roaring back with this $41.8 million hit.
Mandingo. Richard Fleischeras sexploitation version of aGone With the Winda featured James Mason, Susan George and Perry King as white Southerners having their way with various slaves. Variety summed up the overall critical reaction as asteamy plantation trash,a but audiences ate it up. Quentin Tarantino (aDjango Unchaineda) has called it one of his favorite films.

Shampoo. Hal Ashbyas curdled satire about sexual mores in post-hippie America starred Warren Beatty as a womanizing hairdresser. It was released Feb. 11, 1975, but continued to pull in audiences throughout the summer. Despite its bummer backdrop (the eve of the 1968 presidential election) and sour-note ending, it became a $49 million hit.

Love and Death. Woody Allen plays Boris Grushenko, a cowardly scholar forced to join the Russian Army during the Napoleonic Wars. The atransitionala film between Allenas zany comedies and his more serious work (his black-and-white phase would come next), aLove and Deatha became the 18th highest-grossing film of 1975.

Benji. Joe Campas G-rated heartwarmer, about a lovable mutt (played by Higgins) who saves two children from kidnappers, was clearly the antidote to aJaws.a A major hit, aBenjia opened in October 1974 but was still selling tickets and even breaking theatrical records the following summer. Made for just $750,000, it earned $45 million dollars and spawned several sequels, mostly recently aBenji: Off the Leasha in 2004.

More Entertainment