Friday 19 January 2018

How iconic 'Jaws' created the summer movie blockbuster

Rookie film director Steven Spielberg stumbled on a winning formula that everyone's been copying for the past 39 years

Man versus beast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in the Spielberg classic
A young Spielberg in the mouth of the Jaws robot

Paul Whitington

It's that time of year and the multiplexes are clogged up with noisy, spectacular big-budget blockbusters. Maleficent, Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow and X Men: Days of Future Past have already been released, and Transformers 4, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and How to Train your Dragon 2 will appear over the next few weeks.

All of those films have budgets in excess of $150m (€110m) , and none make excessive demands on the intellect. Instead, they rely on action, effects and simple stories of good versus evil to woo a largely teenage audience.

This tried and tested summer blockbuster formula has been flogged to death so much in recent years that we've all grown tired of it, but it's worth remembering that once upon a time, these months were viewed as a fallow period by the studios.

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, nothing much of note was released in June, July and August, when people abandoned darkened cinemas for the beaches, bars and restaurants. In America, the only summer dollars came from drive-in theatres, which by the 1970s were beginning to fall out of fashion, and quality movies with big budgets tended to get released in the winter.

It was Steven Spielberg and some canny executives at Universal Studios who changed all that in the summer of 1975, when they stumbled on a money-making formula that everyone's been copying ever since.

The idea for Jaws had been knocking around Universal for a couple of years, based on an unpublished novel by Peter Benchley about a shark attack on Long Island. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown had green-lit the project after reading a draft of Benchley's story in 1973, and initially considered such steady hands as John Sturges and Dick Richards to direct it.

When the 28-year-old rookie Spielberg read the book, he could immediately see its potential, and his youthful enthusiasm convinced Zanuck and Brown to hire him. He was given a modest $3.5m (€2.5m) budget and 55 days to film it.

Spielberg later admitted his naivety in deciding to "shoot the film in the Atlantic Ocean and not in a north Hollywood tank", and weather and unreliable mechanical sharks played havoc with his plans. So too did charismatic character actor Robert Shaw, who fell out with co-star Richard Dreyfuss and disappeared to Canada on drinking binges.

But Spielberg managed to coax a wonderfully salty performance out of him, and also found a way around his mounting technical nightmares. "The shark not working was a godsend," he said later. "It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen."

In other words, Spielberg was forced to use music and mounting tension to make his audiences scared of what they couldn't see. It also made him rely more on his actors. "The more fake the shark looked in the water, the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances," he said.

Adversity spurred the young director to a career-making performance, but meanwhile the Universal producers were also having their moment of brilliance. Jaws had shot way over time and budget, and the idea of risking all that money and effort on a summer release must have seemed crazy. But David Brown later explained that, "the release of the film was deliberately delayed until people were in the water off the beach resorts".

In the meantime, a meticulously planned marketing campaign swept into action. Sensing a big opportunity, Universal had granted the media plenty of access to the Jaws shoot to ensure a lot of press. Universal bosses Lew Wasserman and Sidney Sheinberg spent a then-unprecedented $700,000 (€512,000) on powerful TV ads for the film, and a host of spin-off franchising was produced. There were even Jaws ice-cream flavours, including 'jawberry', 'sharkalate' and 'finnilla'. Corny, but it all worked, and just 11 weeks after its release on July 4, 1975, Jaws had become the highest earning film in North American box office history. It hung around, too, and was still playing in this country over a year later, when I first got to see it at the tender age of 11 and spent most of the movie cowering behind my seat.

Jaws seemed to have torn up the rulebook in terms of movie economics, scoring the biggest hit of the year in the middle of summer. But was it a fluke? Two years later, Spielberg's friend George Lucas proved conclusively that it was not.

Star Wars, which we discussed a few weeks back, also caused its backers sleepless nights, as Lucas was a relatively untried director and science fiction was about as fashionable in mid-1970s America as drainpipe jeans. The studio, cast, and even Lucas were convinced it was going to flop, but instead it broke Jaws' record within weeks of its release in May of 1977, and went on to earn $775m (€567m) during its original run. For half a decade after that, Lucas and Spielberg were the reigning kings of the summer blockbuster, and films such as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark continued to rake in the summer dollars.

But in the mid-1980s the summer blockbuster branched out from fantasy and children's films, as cop thrillers and superhero films began to dominate.

While Die Hard might well be set at Christmas, it actually opened in July of 1988 and proved a classic sleeper summer hit. And a year later Tim Burton's Batman was executed with enough panache to revive the moribund superhero genre. At least those films were new and original, but in the last decade or so, as budgets have spiralled endlessly higher, risk-averse studios have hedged their bets with prefabricated franchises and sequels. There have been five Pirates of the Caribbeans, four Bournes, three Christopher Nolan Batmans and god knows how many X-Men.

Some of those films are pretty good, but more often than not, today's blockbusters involve noise, effects, constant action and not a lot else. They are still raking in the money, though– 2012's big summer hit Avengers Assemble earned Marvel and Disney a $1.5bn (€1.1bn).

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