‘Jaws’ phenom took bite of history

Pic's boffo B.O. set the blockbuster bar high

The summer is upon us and we already know more about the season’s popcorn movies than we do about our own families. Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which was dissected to death by Variety and everyone else before it premiered at Cannes, is just the most obvious example of such unrelenting attention.

It wasn’t always like this.

The showbiz news cycle wasn’t so front-loaded decades ago, and not every paper covered the beat so relentlessly.

Thus Variety had a more leisurely approach to box office news, generally waiting until a film had opened before analyzing its fortunes.

Moreover, the summer wasn’t always chock-a-block with pre-announced tentpoles. It wasn’t until “Jaws” swam into view in the mid-’70s and gobbled up everything in sight that blockbusters became so closely associated with that season.

And though there were a few leaked rumors about troubles on the “Jaws” set, including breakdowns of the mechanical shark, financial overruns and emergency rewrites by Spielberg himself, there was nothing like Variety‘s “Titanic Watch” two decades later, which tracked every ripple in the process of making that epic.

(Eventually it came out that there had been one sneak preview of “Jaws” in Dallas, that no journalist covered but that left no doubt in the filmmakers’ minds that they had a hit on their hands. Such an event nowadays would have been besieged by bloggers.)

Whatever the difficulties on the set, “Jaws” benefited from being surrounded by an ocean of good movies that year.

Right before the big fish surfaced on the weekend of June 20-22, Variety and Daily Variety both hailed the stellar first half of the year at the domestic wickets.

“Flock of Hits Lift Grosses to Record Highs,” Variety intoned; Daily led its Monday June 23 edition with the headline “Banner Year for Majors,” pointing out that worldwide film billings had peaked at $1.05 billion, both a U.S. and overseas record.

Said the lead story: “After a healthy winter and spring, which proved the adage about films thriving in sorry economic times, the summer of 1975 is looming as one of the biggest clean-up periods in modern trade memory.”

Also helping attract auds that season were UA’s “The Return of the Pink Panther,” “Rollerball” and “Love and Death” as well as Par’s “Nashville” and Col’s “Shampoo.” These were good pics, but “Jaws” was in a wholly new category.

Even before the paper could react to the “Jaws” phenomenon, Universal took a front-page ad in Daily Variety on Monday, trumpeting a $7,061,513 cume over the pic’s first three days.

Universal continued such innovative ads throughout the summer, until “Jaws” had “eaten” the domestic rentals records of all previous Variety All Time Film Champs, besting on Sept. 10 the last two — “The Godfather ($85.7 million) and “The Sound of Music ($83.9 million).

From July 1 on, there was a flood of “Jaws” B.O. stories, analyses and tidbits about the film and its makers.

On July 1 Variety published its “Analysis of ‘Jaws’ Smasheroo” — not exactly grasping that this pic had moved the needle of pop culture, but at least recognizing that it had made a unique splash.

“The final first-week B.O. tally on Universal’s ‘Jaws’ will be in the area of $14,310,000. This may be the largest single-week domestic B.O. figure for any film in industry history.”

That was indeed the case.

The paper went on to cite examples of “fish fever,” including newspapers around the country running shark-themed cartoons. One much-reprinted illustration showed a shark labeled “recession” menacing a swimmer resembling President Gerald Ford.

Meanwhile Mike Douglas, per Variety, called and asked if three sharks could be transported to Philly for a taping of his TV show.

And sales of Peter Benchley’s eponymous 1974 novel skyrocketed overnight, after a rush print run of 1 million copies.

The pic also helped boost bookings for UA’s “Sharks’ Treasure” and “Blue Water, White Death,” not to mention the resurfacing on TV of the vintage Burt Reynolds pic “Shark.”

Variety even carried a one-sentence story about the “Jaws” creators that read thusly: “Pic completed, Steven Spielberg and author Peter Benchley are off — on a shark-hunting expedition in the Bahamas.”

Though “Jaws” set the blockbuster bar high, eventually grossing $260 million domestically, it was blown out of the water just two summers later — when “Star Wars” invaded theaters and again redefined the term “blockbuster.”

(For other columns in this series, see variety.com/alookback)

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