'Jaws' and the Birth of the Blockbuster

'Jaws' and the Birth of the Blockbuster

Aug 13, 2012

Welcome to Jaws Week! When it was announced that Steven Spielberg's Jaws was arriving on Blu-ray, we thought it'd be perfect to dedicate an entire week to the movie that created the summer blockbuster. Every day this week we'll be posting an assortment of really fun features tied to the film, its production, its legacy, its fans, its merchandise and so much more.

The modern film audience is spoiled to a certain degree today. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it shows that movie studios have to try pretty hard in order to capture our imaginations in the face of serious advancements in entertainment. For instance, one question that we ask at least a few times a year is, “What will be this year’s biggest blockbuster?” That huge behemoth of a film that shatters box office records and sends millions of people into the world’s movie houses isn’t really a question of “if,” in the modern era, it’s a question of “when.”

It’s hard to think of a time before cinematic blockbusters. The closest examples before the turning point that kind of qualify for the standards of the blockbuster are Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur from 1959 and The Ten Commandments from 1956, and 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Those movies did big business for the times in which they were released, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the era of the modern blockbuster reared its head and changed the face of the movie business forever.

When Jaws was released in June of 1975, Universal Studios had spent nearly $2 million in promotion for the film, and set a new standard for publicity when they spent an estimated $700,000 on television advertising. At the time, this was unprecedented, as the studio bought time on primetime network television to blitz the airwaves with Jaws TV spots between June 18 and the June 20 release date. The marketing buzz created by the success of the Peter Benchley novel, as well as the reaction to a rough-cut screening a few months earlier, caused theater owners across the country to get seriously excited about playing the film that summer, and as a result Jaws was given an unusually wide release for the time; a whopping 409 screens in the U.S.

The result was the first example of a modern cinematic “event” film, with Jaws proving to be a massive success financially, in addition to high critical acclaim. The resulting success of Jaws can be classified as a perfect storm: the new methods of promotion being employed and the readiness of theater owners to carry the film created an excitement in the public that compelled massive amounts of people to go to the theater to watch it. And though the term "blockbuster" had already been around before Jaws, it was this film that truly cemented it as a word we'd use in the film world for decades to come. Jaws held the record for highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office until Star Wars beat it two years later.

Jaws charted the course for the event film as we know it. Films like Star Wars, E.T., Titanic and Avatar all owe a debt to the trailblazer. After Jaws hit at the box office, Hollywood studios began green-lighting more and more high-budget films in an attempt to create the next event movie, and reap similar financial rewards. The widespread attempts to make the next blockbuster have been met over the decades with quite a bit of backlash, with some critics and film industry observers feeling that the dawn of the blockbuster has drastically decreased more artistically minded films, making movie studios desire to have a high-profile, big-budget hit that appeals to as wide an audience as possible.

Others have taken the side of praising the dawn of the blockbuster with reinvigorating the film industry, bringing a faster pace and widespread appeal to a medium that seemed to have a quiet period before the prevalence of blockbusters began to take hold. In this respect, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been praised for allowing what is now considered one of the driving forces of the film industry to assert itself, bringing everyone to theaters to see it. From my own perspective, I’m of the mind that the blockbuster, innovated by Spielberg in the modern context with Jaws, has helped the industry to subsist in the wake of modern technology.

In addition to creating the event film and the marketing blitz surrounding it, Jaws also gave us the modern template of a successful film franchise. The Jaws sequels allowed Hollywood to start thinking of film as slightly more episodic in nature. At the time of the release of Jaws 2, the only really widely released, successful sequel of the previous 20 years was The Godfather Part II. After the success of that film, the wide commercial appeal of Jaws created enough interest in a second film to continue on, and even if Godfather proved that sequels can be successful, Jaws 2 created the first real example of the true blockbuster franchise, which seems to dominate cinema today.

The Bond franchise proved sequels can work, but the pre-1975 Bond films had a decidedly smaller scope than what would follow after films like Jaws and Star Wars hit. In fact, the first post-Star Wars film released in the James Bond franchise, Moonraker, amped up everything noticeably in an effort to match not just the late '70s sci-fi craze brought on by Star Wars, but also to keep up with the new expected standards of the blockbuster film, which Jaws set the template for.

It all goes back to that first TV spot for Jaws and the film’s massive success in 1975. The ways in which we learn about event movies today, and the event movie itself, is a direct continuation of the success of Jaws in 1975. Jaws showed us the culmination of a perfect storm, made up of new methods of promotion, heavy audience excitement, and industry anticipation. Beyond these factors, it definitely didn’t hurt that Jaws held up, and still holds up, as a solid thriller. In fact, it’s such a great example of a carnal thriller that even the most seasoned horror fans find themselves screaming at their screen, pleading with the blonde girl to get out of the water as fast as she can. To the surprise, terror and excitement of film fans everywhere, though, she never does.

Chris Clow is a recent Western Washington University graduate, film history fan, and comic book expert and retailer, contributor, and overall geek to Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his comic book reviews for various monthly titles and his participated podcasts at BOF and MMM. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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