It is 35 years since Steven Spielberg released Jaws. 35 years since the blockbuster film arrived on Amity Island shores and started chomping on 4th of July swimmers. Jaws changed the face of American cinema, influencing the next generation of filmmakers to eye summer release dates, high-concept ideas, easy marketability, teaser trailers, TV spots, media junkets, merchandising, and the almighty dollar.
Jaws became the highest grossing film ever made before Star Wars beat it two years later, breaking the once thought impossible target of $100 miilion. This figure would routinely be beaten by subsequent blockbusters but Jaws paved the way. As such Top10Films is celebrating the work of Steven Spielberg throughout the week, culminating in our Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films list.
I dream for a living. – Steven Spielberg
Was Jaws’ influence detrimental as Francis Ford Coppola would have you believe? Not if you’ve ever enjoyed Star Wars, E.T., Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future, Top Gun, Aliens, Crocodile Dundee, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, The Matrix, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings. If Mission To Mars is more your cup of tea then maybe Coppola was right.
The truth is American film needed an injection of something new. Theatre admissions were down, films weren’t taking enough money at the box office (many not recouping their budgets), and the studios were desperate for financial hits. If you consider Love Story was a hit in 1970, taking nearly $50m dollars at the box office, it was generally unheard of for movies to make much more than that even if hugely popular. In 1971, the New Hollywood wonder-kids released two brilliant films – The French Connection (Friedkin) and The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich) but combined to make only $40m. That left Fiddler on the Roof as the top grossing film of the year with a paltry (compared to the standards set later in the decade) $38m.
Then The Godfather and The Exorcist paved the way to word of mouth appeal and wide-scale popularity each taking over $80m in 1972 and 1973. And, two years later, Jaws flooded theatres, breaking the $100m barrier and saving Universal from financial ruin.
All these movies emphasise a sentimental view of the world perfectly attuned to audiences’ bourgeois sensibility, and feature gracefully swooping camerwork, meticulous mise-en-scene in realistic settings, and evocative performances from perfectly cast actors, some of whom, typically, were young or just youthfully innocent on camera. –
Film historian Murray Pomerance on Spielberg
But how did Spielberg do it? Jaws produced a collective appreciation of the film from the audience that was immediate and primal. It was a response not unlike a crowd at a sports stadium when the home run hits the outfield seats or the football flies into the back of the net. It was passionate, universally understood from the youngest child to the oldest grandparent in the auditorium, and, perhaps most importantly, on cue.
On an early test screening for the film a nervous Spielberg watched the film play out to an audience from the back of the theatre. Twenty minutes in a man stands up and runs out of the auditorium. Spielberg thinks to himself he has overdone the violence. The man eventually returns from the bathroom, the director realising the guy went in there to throw up. Wow, he thought, maybe I do have a hit on my hands. He recalls, “The audience was screaming and the popcorn was flying in the air. I thought someone had hired 650 clackers, and had paid them a lot of money to scream at all the appropriate moments.” Spielberg, eager to get more screams out of his film after the audience test cards were wholly positive, added the shot of Ben Gardner’s head coming out of the hole in his boat. Subsequent test screenings were even more enthusiastic. Spielberg had captured the word of mouth buzz surrounding The Exorcist, and the universal appeal of The Godfather’s familial opus, and given it to everybody. Because even though those films were very special, they were made for adults. Now everybody had their film – the mass audience: children and adults.
Jaws would be widely marketed to increase its potential with an expensive television and radio campaign as well as strategically-timed interviews with the producers and a brilliantly designed, foreboding yet enigmatic poster of a shark creeping up on a swimmer from the depths of the ocean.
Left: Spielberg checking a shot on the set of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull | Right: Spielberg and Tom Hanks visit the set of TV series The Pacific
But Jaws wasn’t just a blockbuster because it made a lot of money. Gone With The Wind remains the most financially lucrative film when inflation is taken into consideration but it was released at a time when going to the movies was like going to a bar for a drink. It was what people did every week regardless of what film was playing. You went to the movies. When Jaws swam into theatres in 1975 this social practice had dissipated thanks largely to television. Now, you went to see a particular movie if it enticed you enough to get in the car, drive to the nearest cinema, and pay for your ticket. Jaws did just that, and not just on a single occasion. People were going to see the film again and again, and through word of mouth and continued advertising support from the studio, Jaws’ opening week box office didn’t wane but increased each week.
Above all, Jaws was a great movie. It still is. 35 years after it was released the film stands the test of time despite the film industry’s technological advancement. That we don’t see the shark’s clunky rubber mechanics is testament to the skill of a director knowing fear comes from what you don’t see. When we do see the shark, the fact it rarely worked properly is never a consideration for the audience. It still looks and feels as menacing today as it did in 1975. And after all the screams have died down and the thrills have quieted, we still have Chief Brody’s immortal line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” to instil those butterflies in the pit of the stomach reminding us we’re witnessing one of the most brilliant movies ever made.
Steven Spielberg Week on Top10Films
Day 1 Intro – The Coming of the Blockbuster | Introducing the Man behind the Camera | Top 10 Spielberg Characters
Day 2 E.D. Cameron looks at Spielberg’s influence on the film industry | Spielberg makes the impossible possible
Day 3 Jaws 5 – the movie pitch!
Day 4 Classic Scenes #6: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom | Film Review: 1941 | Spielberg dares to parody himself in Jurassic Park
Day 5 Spielberg’s success in a single image | Film Review: Duel | Top 10 Steven Spielberg Moments
Day 6 Lawrence of Arabia: The Film that Inspired Spielberg
Day 7 It wasn’t all a bed of roses between David Lean and his most famous fan Steven Spielberg | Film Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Day 8 Film Review: The Sugarland Express | Did Spielberg direct Poltergeist? | Film Review: The Terminal | 10 Reasons Jaws might be the best film ever made | Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films
Steven Spielberg filmography on Film Reference.com