‘Jaws’ 40th Anniversary: How Steven Spielberg’s Movie Created the Summer Blockbuster

Jaws Movie Review

June 20 marks the 40th anniversary of “Jaws,” which revolutionized the industry — even though the numbers seem pretty quaint by today’s standards.

In its first three days in 1975, the film earned $7 million, jumping to $14 million in its first week. In its 59th day of release, the Universal movie passed the $100 million mark. That’s chump change in the current world, but in those days, “Jaws” was jaw-dropping.

The Steven Spielberg film is credited with inventing the wide release, which is not true. It is also credited with inventing the summer blockbuster. That’s partially true, but it was really the one-two punch of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” two years later that set the template for Hollywood’s summer obsession.

At the time, there was no set pattern for opening a big film. The 1939 “Gone With the Wind” had opened in December; “The Sound of Music” and “The Godfather” each debuted in March (in 1965 and 1972, respectively).  So some thought the summer phenomenon of “Jaws” was a fluke. It was clearly a “summer movie,” with its seaside setting, based on the 1974 Peter Benchley bestseller, a popular “beach read.”

But the “Jaws”-“Star Wars” combo — the latter opened in late May — confirmed that summer was the perfect time for a blockbuster. It also confirmed that TV was a key factor in marketing.

On April 9, 1975, two months before “Jaws” opened, Variety ran a Universal ad bragging the film would be “Backed by the biggest national prime-time T.V. spot campaign in motion picture history!” It listed 23 TV shows that would air 30-second spots for the film, with the ads running June 17-20 on such series as “Happy Days,” “The Waltons,” “Sanford and Son” and “Rockford Files.”

“Jaws” opened at 409 U.S. theaters (Variety and the studios counted theaters, not screens). The opening was only a slight jump from the 1972 “The Godfather” (365 venues), but both were a big drop from “Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” more than two decades earlier. In June 16, 1953, Daily Variety reported Warner Bros. would use heavy TV and radio ads as the film opened at a record 1,422 bookings. “Beast” was a hit. So clearly, Hollywood was a little slow on the uptake.

Other genre films had opened wide, but the philosophy was usually grab the money and run, before word of mouth spreads. The distinction of “Jaws” was not the size of the debut, but its persistence. By Day 17, it had expanded to 464 theaters; it hit a whopping 954 screens by day 59, when it reached the $100 million milestone.

The success was a big relief for Universal, Spielberg, and producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck. The film had been scheduled for 55 days of shooting, which extended to 159 days, thanks to malfunctioning mechanical sharks and the difficulty of filming in the ocean. And the budget doubled, to $7 million.

But the film was such a hit, it earned its costs back in three weeks. And helped create film history.

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  1. Roy Sneider Lives! says:

    When is the reboot Amity (Jaws) coming out??? Perhaps a Roy Sneider or Richard Dreyfuss cameo???

  2. Michael Eddy says:

    I have very fond memories of JAWS back in ’75 and I may have been one of the first civilians to see it. I was at USC Film School at the time – having read the novel during my down time working at the USC bookstore. There was a posting in the cinema dept. about a sneak of the movie at the Cinerama Dome. It was a blind sneak – major motion picture – but no other info. I called the box office and asked what the movie was and was told that they were not allowed to say. I said, “I heard it’s ‘JAWS'” and the girl on the line said, “If you already know – why are you asking me?”. Called a bunch of friends to tell them – only got one taker. We went early and paid to see “The Great Waldo Pepper” and then stayed for the free sneak. The place was almost empty. It was JAWS. Loved it. My buddy Gregg almost chewed the collar off his jacket he was so scared. Since then, I’ve probably seen the movie dozens of times. Every time it’s on TV (even though I own the DVD), no matter what scene I come across it – I watch til the end. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, the comparing scars scene: “She broke my heart”, “Smile you sonofabitch!”. Great stuff. One of my all time favorites.

  3. Greg Blarr says:

    JAWS played at a local theater this week and my wife and daughter joined me to see what I watched in 1975. It’s amazing how much you can pick up on the big screen that I never could in my living room, especially armed with 40 years of perspective on what Spielberg had to deal with. And Robert Shaw was BRILLIANT.

  4. I went to last nights show at the AMC theater in NY. It was great. Lots of applause at certain places, and at the end. People stayed for the TMC video at the end. I wish they made a bigger deal about it, the theater was full of fans but should have done it in Central Park. I went to the Gramercy Theater in 1975 when it first came out, and it was practically a riot-people screaming and laughing throughout and thunderous applause at the end. I never had a better time at the movies! I’ve seen it 100 times at least and there were times when I still jumped and so did the audience. My favorite movie. It’s NOT just a horror flick, it’s a masterpiece.

  5. JimmyFitz says:

    “Jaws” scared me so much when I was a kid, I won’t swim out farther than waist-deep water. And every time, I go into the water, I hear that damn Jaws background music in the annals of my memory.

  6. Geoff Jones says:

    Jaws is playing in theaters Sunday and Wednesday.

    It’s still an absolute blast in a crowded theater on a big screen.

    Go see it!

  7. Mr. Rico says:

    Quaint?! If you adjust for inflation the first week it opened made around $62,000,000 by 2015 and by the 59th day would have crossed the $500,000,000 mark! So I’d say it’s definitely all relative.

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