Today, the summer movie season is built around exciting action, gripping thrills and even some horrific terror. But back in the summer of 1975 that wasn't the case.
Summers were a slower season for the movies, the season when studios dumped the films they thought would perform poorly with hopes of recouping losses by the winter. However, that changed once Steven Spielberg's Jaws hit theaters on June 20, 1975.
The film drew huge crowds, innovated the ways movies were released and laid the groundwork for today's blockbuster dominated film culture. But most importantly, Spielberg's first major hit proved just how well the director could connect with audiences, sending a wave of hysteria across the country like we'd never seen before.
A New Method of Film Promotion
Nowadays we have huge franchise films released every few months, with millions of people flocking to the theater to check them out. But before the release of Jaws, there weren't huge cinematic events that the nation collectively embraced.
The film was able to become such a huge hit in part because of its wide release, an unconventional strategy on the part of Universal Studios. At the time, studios tended to release their high-quality films in limited release to build buzz before showings expanded to more theaters. Meanwhile, wide releases were reserved for B-movies and exploitation films in hopes that playing on more screens could counter the negative effects of bad reviews. But successful preview screenings pushed the studio to go with a wide release, taking a risk on the film after an already troubled production.
The success of Jaws was also bolstered by a major TV marketing campaign. Back in 1975, it wasn't common to see movie trailers on TV. However, Jaws took a big leap with a series of 30-second TV spots broadcast nationally during popular shows like Happy Days and The Rockford Files. The spots, which aired just days before the film's premiere, gave audiences a taste of what to expect in theaters and clearly inspired many to see the film.
Universal took on a risky strategy, but it paid off in a huge way that started a new trend in movie marketing. If studios wanted to replicate the success of Jaws, they'd follow Universal's release strategy.
Bringing Terror to the Masses
While shrewd marketing and a unique release strategy helped Jaws reach the masses, it was Spielberg's expert filmmaking that kept audiences coming back for more throughout the summer of '75. Jaws tapped into all of our fears by telling us what we already knew — sharks are scary. What we didn't realize was how helpless and terrifying if would be to be stuck in the ocean with a shark. You might be able to run and hide from Jason Voorhees, you might be able to fight off an alien Xenomorph, but there's no escaping a shark in its natural habitat.
The suspense throughout the film was only amplified by composer John Williams' score. The main theme of the film is deceptively simple, oscillating between two bass notes as the rest of the orchestra joins, signaling that the shark is ready to strike.
Spielberg knew exactly when to turn up the terror and when to dial it back, toying with audiences throughout the film while creating heroes out of the average joes who would challenge the shark's dominance of the waters.
But most importantly, Spielberg showed us that genre films could do big business for studios. The movie brought stomach-churning horror to the big screen in a way people hadn't seen before, and showed that studios could gain rave reviews for more than just standard dramas. And because it packed so many people into theaters, studios realized that playing up a film's unique genre style could bring success. Most of our modern blockbusters employ genre elements — from the sci-fi style of The Hunger Games to the superhero action of the Marvel movies — a trend obviously influenced by Jaws.
The Great Jaws Hysteria
The tagline for Jaws told audiences "You'll never go in the water again!," but Spielberg probably didn't guess that'd be true. Audiences were terrified during the film, and it stuck with them after leaving theaters.
There are countless stories of audiences shrieking with terror as the shark went in for the kill, and Spielberg's scary narrative also had the unfortunate effect of stoking a fear of sharks among the masses. As shark biologist George Burgess said:
"It perpetuated the myths about sharks as man-eaters and bloodthirsty killers … even though the odds of an individual entering the sea and being attacked by a shark are almost infinitesimal."
Jaws launched a vendetta against sharks that resulted several major incidents over the summer of 1975 and the following years. More people began to hunt sharks, mimicking the hunt of the film's main characters as a sort of proof of their bravado. Even regular beachgoers took action — like when a group of Florida beachgoers beat a beached pygmy sperm whale to death after believing it was a shark. While it was a horrible effect, the hysteria around Jaws really proves the incredible emotional effect the film had on viewers.
Birthing the Blockbuster
There's no doubt that Jaws gave birth to the modern blockbuster. Talking money alone, it broke box office records and became the first film to hit $100 million. It went on to make $123.1 million in its initial release, with future rereleases bringing that total even higher. Today, the film has a total lifetime gross of over $470,000,000 worldwide — an incredible feat for a 41 year old film.
The impact of Jaws at the box office is obvious, but it had an even more important effect on future studio films. Audiences want to be entertained when they go to the movies, and Spielberg proved how success a well-crafted genre film could be given proper studio support. As the 1975 TIME Magazine review put it:
"If the great white shark that terrorizes the beaches of an island summer colony is one of nature’s most efficient killing machines, 'Jaws' is an efficient entertainment machine."
With Jaws, Steven Spielberg crafted the perfect storm of gut-wrenching terror and meaty storytelling. The film was about more than a killer shark — it was about a fear of nature, the lengths one man would go to protect his family and the ways hysteria can spread across the masses. By connecting with audiences on an emotional level, Spielberg was able to draw them into the theater throughout the summer of 1975, laying the template for the future of summer blockbusters. It's pretty safe to say that Jaws forever changed your summers in the best possible way.
Be sure to check out the rest of our Steven Spielberg Fanzine here.