It’s pretty easy to dismiss a movie like Jaws. But when was the last time you really watched it and appreciated it for what it is? Jaws has become quite a commonplace movie. It’s such an ingrained part of pop culture—and the movie zeitgeist—that many don’t really give it a second thought now.
But if it wasn’t for Jaws, movies as we know it may not be at the level they are. It gave rise to the blockbuster, created the summer movie season, changed how studios approached movies, and let Steven Spielberg take his unique vision to the world.
Jaws went viral before that was even a thing. This is a look back on how Jaws changed everything to do with movies.
Setting the Stage For the Movie
I don’t need to cover much as far as the plot as it’s a movie everyone knows. But what’s interesting is that Jaws was actually based on a book. The book was released in 1974 and written by Peter Benchley.
They changed quite a lot of the book for the first two acts of the film but stuck to the shark hunt for the last third. There were many more subplots in the book that were not explored in the movie. And the interesting thing is that the book is based on an actual story.
In 1964, sport fishermen Frank Mundus caught a gigantic shark. They based the character of Quint on Mundus.
An Accidental Success
You may or may not know that the film was meant to feature a lot more shark. But the mechanics of putting this all together had become a nightmare. Not to mention that the shark just didn’t look that realistic. This has been a long-running joke and perfectly referenced in Back to the Future 2: “the shark still looks fake.”
Because of this, the entire direction of the movie needed to be changed—and this is what changed the trajectory of movies—and Spielberg’s career; forever. Since they needed to limit the appearance of the shark on screen, they needed to create a more tense and ominous tone for the film. This was the success of Jaws: it was the perceived terror that made it so intense and frightening.
If the movie had gone the way they wanted, we could have had a Piranha 3D or Sharknado situation. It would have been an amusing “shark slasher film,” but ultimately not taken seriously. Especially since the shark would have looked so fake.
Instead, what we got was a piece of filmmaking genius. The impending fear is what kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Add to this the iconic score by John Williams, and you now had a movie that was terrifying audiences. People were genuinely afraid to go swimming again after seeing Jaws. The idea with the score was to elicit “impending danger,” and this is usually scarier than the actual danger. Spielberg would recapture this tone perfectly in Jurassic Park.
The sound of the music conditions the audience into a sense of fear. Again, this was captured in Jurassic Park with the rumbling sound and ripples in water. As an audience, we quickly learned what that effect meant: someone was about to get ate. Spielberg claims the movie would have only been half as successful without it.
The Production Nightmares
Jaws is famous for being a production nightmare. Spielberg went over the shooting schedule by 100 days. The movie took 159 days to complete. No movie had ever been taken that far past the deadline.
He also went over budget by $5 million. The projected cost was $4 million, and it ended up costing $9 million. Three million of this was because of issues with the mechanical sharks. But, again, if this hadn’t happened, the future of film may have been much different.
If this movie hadn’t been a hit; it probably would have been the end of Spielberg. He was only 26 at the time, with just a few movies under his belt. He was in no position to delay a film shoot by this much—and go that much over budget.
He assumed that would be it for him and Hollywood. He would use this as motivation for future films including Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg said he made it a point to finish shooting in time to prove to himself, and George Lucas, that he could do it.
The big issue that caused all the delays—besides the mechanical sharks—was this was the first movie to ever film right on the water. There was no playbook for how to navigate the unruly conditions, and it became an impossible filming environment.
Add to this that they had to adjust the direction of the film because of how bad the sharks looked, and you had a true nightmare on your hands. There are scenes where the shark can be genuinely terrifying, but limiting it’s appearance was the right way to go. I watched Jaws the other day, and the amount of time that the shark is on screen is only a few minutes.
So, they had a different movie than intended; they were way over schedule and over budget. How would this play out?
A Unique Marketing Campaign
Before they released the movie, they had to do their best to promote it—and this meant a truly unique marketing campaign. Up to that point, movies would let their films grow slowly and build up word of mouth.
Universal took an entirely unique approach with Jaws. They came out with a massive (for the time) $1.8 million marketing plan. They spent nearly $1 million on TV spot advertising, which was completely unheard of. The studio wanted to come out guns blazing and make everyone know about Jaws from the get-go—instead of over the weeks and months.
Their plan was to launch 24, 30-second commercial spots that would air during prime time TV. This was all done in the few days leading up to the film’s release. The John Williams score, and now-iconic image of the shark in the poster, would be pushed at every opportunity.
Again, a marketing approach to a movie like this had never been done before, and there was no way that people weren’t aware of Jaws. This unique approach may have been because it was released in the summer. Summer movies were not a thing at this point. This was usually a time when studios dumped unwanted pictures. The winter was when the big-time movies were released.
Jaws would change this approach forever.
The Phenomenal Success of Jaws
Test screening started in March 1975. And they went very well. Now, with all the interest from the marketing campaign–and the success of the novel– most theatres wanted to show Jaws.
Here’s another interesting thing related to movies at the time: wide releases were not common. The idea was that a movie with a wide release was not very good, and the studio was trying to make as much money as possible before bad reviews and poor word-of-mouth spread. There was no internet, blogs, or social media that could instantly sink a film: awful movies were revealed over time. A good movie would be rolled out slowly, build credibility, then be released in more theatres as the demand grew.
Many associated a wide release with a poor quality film.
But Universal stuck to their guns. They released jaws on a pretty astonishing 464 screens. Actually, it was only 409 in the US with the rest in Canada. So, now you have two unique things; a rare marketing campaign, and a rare wide release. This sort of thing had never been done before in Hollywood.
But Universal thought they had something unique on their hands—and they were right.
Jaws came out with a smash and made $7 million its first weekend. Converted for today, that’s around $35 million. And keep in mind the limited amount of theatres. The average big MCU film can debut on at least 3,500 screens.
Now, more theatres wanted to show it, and it quickly made over $20 million in just 10 days. It made $100 million in 60 days and soon overtook the Godfather as the highest-grossing movie in North American history. Jaws was the first movie to break the $100 million mark. I should also point out that movie tickets back then cost around $2.00. This was a lot of tickets.
By the end of its main release, Jaws had made $123 million or $615 million today. And it hadn’t even opened overseas yet. It broke records in every country it opened and made $270 million worldwide or $1.3 billion in today’s money. This would be the world box office record until Star Wars.
Here’s another interesting point. This was the days before home video rental, so studios would just continue to re-release movies in theatres for extra income. Jaws was re-released in the summer of 1976, and then 1979 where it made another $133 million.
They actually fought against home video as this would cut into their re-release takings. And this is the reason why the first home videos cost close to $200.
Jaws eventually came to home video and was actually the very first LaserDisc ever released in 1978. There’s some good dinner trivia for you. I have an article all about this home video issue, and how the Top Gun VHS changed home video forever.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is: Jaws was a hit.
How Hollywood Was Changed Forever
Everything Hollywood normally did with movies, Jaws did the opposite of. Consider it the George Constanza of films. Now, every studio wanted their own Jaws, and they would change the way they marketed their films.
Movies would now get nationwide releases. Heavy advertising campaigns would also accompany this. The days of slowly releasing a film and letting it build up over time were over. Things were now all about making an immediate impact.
Studios had no idea that movies could make this kind of money. Hollywood had been going through a bit of a recession in the years leading up to 1975, and Jaws turned everything on its head.
Huge releases and giant marketing campaigns are completely normal today, but this is all because of Jaws. Everything about this was copied perfectly with the release of Star Wars in 1977. It took the exact same approach as Jaws and became the new box office champ.
The other interesting thing is that Jaws and Star Wars gave birth to the summer blockbuster season. There had never been huge blockbusters like this before, and since they were released during summertime, people who had the summer off went back to see it multiple times. It never occurred to the studios that summer vacation allowed people to keep going back to the theatre.
Also, it was the 70s. What else were you going to do? There were only three networks, no home video, no streaming, internet, or home video games. The only options were roller skating and discos.
Jaws put in place not only what the blockbuster could be—but the entire summer blockbuster season.
Speaking of summer blockbusters, here’s my article that breaks down the best summer for movies in the 1980s.
This is what I mean when it’s easy to overlook Jaws. Everything we know about big movies today have their foundation in Jaws. Everything that seems commonplace about Hollywood, marketing, and big releases can trace their roots back to Jaws.
If it wasn’t the success it was, Steven Spielberg would probably have been ousted from Hollywood and he wouldn’t have changed the landscape of film. The advancement in movie making may have been way behind and Hollywood today could have been a completely different place.
If those original mechanical sharks hadn’t looked so bad on film, Jaws would have ended up an entirely different movie. Fortunately, all the issues they faced changed the direction of filming, created the first true blockbuster and ushered in a whole new era of movies.