JAWS: The Mother Of All Blockbusters
Today, Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron hits theaters, which marks the official beginning of the 2015 summer movie season. For the next three months, a parade of mega-budget tentpole event movies will be vying for your moviegoing dollar, and - if the hype surrounding films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Inside Out, Magic Mike XXL, Terminator: Genisys, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four and a dozen others is any indication - many of them are going to be successful. This may, in fact, be the most profitable summer Hollywood's ever seen. To commemorate the season, our theme for May is "Blockbuster Month." Every day, we'll be looking at a different #1 film from a particular year, and we'll weigh its cultural impact (assuming it had one*) against its box office grosses. Today, we're going to start with the queen mother of all blockbuster movies: Steven Spielberg's Jaws.
Jaws (1975): Adjusted Box Office Gross - $1,040,000,000
The summer movie season as we know it began in 1975, with the release of Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Before then, the summer was largely considered to be a bit of a dumping ground, a time for studios to burn through movies that...well, movies that weren't likely to go over well with critics, or to stick around long in theaters. If a film was judged a stinker, it was pumped into theaters far and wide, with the idea being for the studios to earn whatever they could before critics could warn people away from a bomb. Back then, prestige tentpole movies that were deemed likely candidates for success were rolled out later in the year, city by city and theater by theater. This "concentrated dose" approach had always worked in the past, and no one saw any reason to change it. Until Jaws.
For starters, Universal sunk a sizable chunk of money into hyping the film prior to release. $700k (a huge sum of money for the time) was spent on primetime television spots. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were joined by Peter Benchley (author of the novel on which Jaws was based) for a months-long series of interviews on radio and television. The studio tinkered with concepts for six months before landing on the perfect poster: the now-iconic image glimpsed above, designed by Roger Kastel. All of this was happening even as Jaws was filming.
And the filming of Jaws (as you surely know by now) was an absolute nightmare. Spielberg had insisted on shooting the film on the Atlantic, a decision that resulted in countless setbacks and delays. Sailboats drifted into frame, ruining entire shots. Salt water ate away at the cameras. Bad weather rolled in and forced him to stop shooting for days at a time. The film's $4m budget more than doubled during production, with the vast majority of that overage sunk - no pun intended - into one malfunctioning robot shark after another. Universal put on a good face while they hyped the film to the masses, but behind closed doors many suspected that the entire production would implode long before it hit theaters. But somehow, Spielberg pulled it off: filming wrapped, the film was edited, and in March of 1975 it was test-screened for the first time ever in Dallas, TX. The response was overwhelmingly positive, undeniably so. Further test screenings only reinforced Universal's confidence in the film.
And this was where moviegoing history changed forever. Up until the summer of '75, Jaws would've been one of those movies rolled out later in the year, city by city. But the buzz surrounding the film had reached a fever pitch, and the studio was eager to get it in front of people. They decided to open Jaws wide, on roughly 400 screens across the country (that number seems laughable now, but back then it was huge). Every major city in America got Jaws at the same time: June 20th, 1975.
The response was massive. Critics loved it, audiences came in droves (and came back again and again), and Universal earned back the film's production budget within two weeks. Within 78 days, its tickets sales eclipsed those of North America's previous highest-grossing film of all time, The Godfather. Jaws' record stood for two years, at which point George Lucas' Star Wars came along and solidified the "summer blockbuster" gameplan forever.
As we head into the 40th straight summer blockbuster season, it's as hard to imagine a time without one as it is to imagine a movie landscape that doesn't include the input of Steven Spielberg. In the time since Jaws' release, Spielberg has proved himself a vital, enormously influential fixture in Hollywood again and again. He brought dinosaurs back to life (read: showed us that CGI was a viable effects option...when applied correctly) and gave us Indiana Jones (along with the PG-13 MPAA rating). He proved that blockbusters could have soul (see also: E.T., Close Encounters). He's used his clout to bring attention to some of the sorest spots in humanity's history (the Holocaust, slavery, World War II). But what Spielberg and Universal did with Jaws arguably marks his biggest contribution to modern day moviegoing as we know it. Our summers simply wouldn't be the same without it.
* = Avatar, ya burnt.