What’s the Big Deal?: Jaws (1975)


The praise: First of all, when it was released it was the highest-grossing movie in history, and the first to make more than $100 million. (It only held its title for two years, until Star Wars, but still.) It won three Oscars, for editing, sound, and musical score, and was also nominated for best picture. It was ranked 48th on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the best movies of all time, and 56th on the 2007 revised list; it shows up on numerous other “best of all time” lists as well, including those from Vanity Fair, Empire magazine, and Total Film.
The context: Even before the novel was published, Peter Benchley’s Jaws was making Hollywood executives’ hearts flutter. David Brown, a producer at Universal Pictures, heard about it from his wife, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, and he and his producing partner, Richard D. Zanuck, bought the movie rights immediately after reading it. By the time the book got its nationwide release, in spring 1974, the movie was already in pre-production. All of this was widely publicized and carefully orchestrated, which no doubt helped the novel become a huge bestseller. And a lot those readers, of course, later turned into moviegoers.
Steven Spielberg, then in his late 20s, was already a rising star, having done impressive work directing episodes of TV’s Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D.. This had led to a contract to make a handful of TV films, the first of which, Duel (1971), was popular enough to warrant a theatrical release. Spielberg made his first “real” feature (i.e., intended for cinemas rather than TV) for producers Brown and Zanuck. It was Sugarland Express, starring Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as a married couple on the run from the law. On the strength of this film (which had been shot but not yet released), Brown and Zanuck hired Spielberg to make Jaws.
JawsEntire books have been written about the making of Jaws. The story is fascinating because it demonstrates how thin the line is between an epic Hollywood disaster and an epic Hollywood success. I’ll just hit the major points here. The script was still being fine-tuned when shooting began. The mechanical shark didn’t work right. Even for an experienced director, shooting on the open water is a nightmare, and Spielberg was not a very experienced director. He was also careful and methodical, which meant it took a long time to get the shots he wanted. What was supposed to be a 55-day shoot and cost about $4 million lasted 159 days and cost $10 million.
But the delays worked to the film’s advantage. The actors had so much downtime that they developed a camaraderie and, moreover, spent the evenings hashing out new scenes and improving the script. The mechanical shark’s reluctance to perform forced Spielberg not to show the shark as much as he’d planned, which proved to be a blessing. Spielberg was also dependent on his collaborators to help make the film work: editor Verna Fields (who won an Oscar), composer John Williams (ditto), and cinematographer Bill Butler. Some movies are clearly the work of an auteur with a strong vision, but Spielberg has always described Jaws as a collaborative process.
Once the film was finished, it got enthusiastic responses from test audiences. Executives at Universal Pictures, realizing they had a potential blockbuster on their hands, tried two strategies that are now commonplace but that in 1975 were unusual. One, they spent an unheard-of amount of money buying TV commercials to promote the film. (A few months earlier, Columbia had had success doing that with the Charles Bronson movie Breakout, bringing audiences to what would have otherwise been a bomb.) Two, they opened the movie wide rather than starting in a few theaters and expanding. In those days, you only opened wide if the movie was terrible and you wanted to hurry up and make your money back before word got out. The standard practice (as it still is today for “prestige” pictures and art-house fare) was to open in a few cities and let positive reviews and word-of-mouth help create demand for it elsewhere.
Jaws opened on more than 400 screens — nothing compared to the 3,000 screens films routinely start on now, but huge at the time. It grossed $7 million. At today’s ticket prices, that would be $27 million and a per-screen average of $66,200. (An extremely good per-screen average today is $20,000.) The reviews were almost universally positive. What had started out as a disaster had turned into a terrific film that pleased audiences and critics alike.
JawsThe movie: There’s a big-ass shark out there chomping swimmers! Better close the beach — but wait, it’s almost the Fourth of July! Our town’s economy will be ruined! What to do??
What it influenced: For those of us born in the 1970s or later, summer and movies go together like Will Smith and aliens. It seems obvious: Kids are out of school and theaters are air-conditioned; of course summertime would be when movie studios unleash their biggest, most expensive, most potentially lucrative blockbusters.
And yet it’s actually a relatively recent phenomenon. For about the first 70 years that cinema existed, summer was a dead zone, the time when studios dumped the movies they didn’t expect to make money anyway. (It didn’t help that most theaters weren’t air-conditioned yet.) What about kids being out of school and wanting to be entertained? Hollywood didn’t care. Until the late 1960s, when movies like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Easy Rider began to demonstrate the power of the youth audience, Hollywood didn’t consider the under-25 demographic particularly important. Besides, summer was when people went on vacation. Who wants to sit cooped up in a movie theater on a nice summer day?
No, if you wanted to make money, the holiday season was when you put out your film. Between 1960 and 1974, summer releases (May-August) comprised only about 30 percent of each year’s top 10, and only one — Cleopatra (1963) — was the top film of its year. 1966 only had one summer film make the top 10. 1970 didn’t have any. It was rare for a summer film to rank any higher than third place for its year.
Jaws changed that. Since 1975, a summer release has been the top film of the year 23 out of 36 times, and summer movies have made up 53 percent of the annual top 10s.
The very next year, Twentieth Century Fox duplicated the Jaws strategy — wide release in the summer with heavy TV advertising — with The Omen, which went on to be the No. 4 movie for the year, and the only summer film to make the top 10. In 1977, Fox did the same thing with Star Wars, and what Jaws had started became standard practice. Five of 1977′s top 10 movies were summer releases. That has been the trend ever since.
JawsThe success of Jaws allowed Spielberg to do pretty much whatever he wanted after that. I won’t bore you by repeating all the impressive things Spielberg did after he made the shark movie. Just know that he was able to do them because of the shark movie.
I also won’t bother pointing out how iconic the musical score became, how it has been parodied and referenced hundreds of times since then, how even kids who have never seen Jaws know what sounds to make when they’re playing in a swimming pool (“DUN-dun! DUN-dun!”). There were a ton of Jaws rip-offs in the next few years, and many of them tried to copy the effect of that music, too.
What to look for: John Williams’ musical score is one of the most famous two-note themes in history (and, yes, it was the success of Jaws that really launched Williams’ career in Hollywood). Notice how Spielberg never cheats with it. We only hear The Music when the shark (or evidence of the shark) is nearby, never as a fake-out.
The music is especially useful because it represents the shark even when the shark is not visible to us. Indeed, it isn’t until 62 minutes into the film that we see so much as a fin, and 81 minutes before we see the whole shark. The tactic of building suspense by NOT showing the monster was an old one, and Spielberg was wise to emulate it.
JawsWatching Jaws, you see that it’s hard to classify by genre. It has elements of a police procedural, right down to the false “suspect” being “arrested” (i.e, wrong shark being caught). It resembles a horror film in many ways — especially in the graphic attack scenes late in the film — but those elements are balanced by a sense of excitement and fun. There’s the section where the shark is towing the boat, and the music becomes lively and jaunty, the tone very Spielberg-y. What had been a terrifying matter of life and death now seems simply adventurous.
Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, is the quintessential 1970s leading man, in that he is masculine but not macho, intelligent but not wimpy. He’s not a he-man. He wears eyeglasses. He’s genuinely afraid of the shark. He feels true remorse when he believes his actions have led to someone’s death. In the ’50s and ’60s, your Charlton Heston-style leading man would have been far more stoic, much less emotional.
What’s the big deal: The film deserves a place in history just for being a thrilling and well-crafted piece of entertainment, but its legacy is bigger than that. Though it was never Spielberg’s or Universal’s intention to do this, the movie changed the way Hollywood did business. Summer became a goldmine, high-school and college-age kids became a target audience, wide releases and media saturation became standard. Even if the film were lousy, it would get a page in the textbooks for the impact it had.

source: http://www.film.com/movies/whats-the-big-deal-jaws-1975#fbid=FoBhC9WOqIL

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