Debunking the ‘Jaws’ myth

Guest column

By most accounts, the summer of 1975 marks a turning point for Hollywood almost as decisive as the advent of talking pictures.

That’s when Universal opened Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 409 U.S. theaters, smashing box office records from L.A. to New York and signalling the emergence of a distribution model for Hollywood that would come to define the movie business: the super-hyped saturation release, aggressively front-loaded, engineered to generate maximum ticket sales between Friday and Sunday.

Its success gave rise to widespread misconception that “Jaws” was Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster, an assumption woven into books by Peter Biskind and Connie Bruck and documentaries like “The Blockbuster Imperative,” which aired last year on Trio.

But “Jaws” didn’t alter the landscape overnight. In terms of screen count, television advertising and mass scale, “Jaws” was merely the validation of a distribution idea with its roots in the 1950s.

Birth of a blockbuster ‘Beast’

Before the 1950s, the word “blockbuster” wasn’t used to describe a hit movie. It was slang for an aerial bomb capable of destroying a city block. The word was first used in Hollywood to describe the multimillion-dollar ancient epics like “Ben-Hur,” “The Robe” and “Quo Vadis?” which ushered America into a new era of spectacular wide-screen entertainment. These were roadshows movies, which opened in movie palaces in key markets, then were wheeled out slowly to venues in the outer burbs. Variety first used the word in a 1951 review of “Quo Vadis?” which it dubbed “a box office blockbuster.”

But the real blockbusters of the 1950s weren’t lavish roadshow productions. They were 1950s monster movies like “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” “Them!” and “Godzilla.” These movies opened wide, in hundreds of theaters from coast to coast, in a blitz of TV ads and merchandise.

“The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” was a schlocky, low-budget monster movie released by Warner Bros. in the summer of 1953. Directed by French auteur Jean Renoir’s longtime art director Eugene Lourie, “The Beast” cost just $210,000 and required just 12 live-action shooting days. It featured pioneering stop-motion animation by effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, using reverse projection and scale-size models, including a 40-foot dinosaur puppet that the film crew called Herman.

“The Beast” begins with a scene virtually replicated by last summer’s “The Day After Tomorrow.” After an atomic blast in Antarctica, ice shelves crash into the ocean. A mushroom cloud rises into the sky. Unbeknownst to the scientists monitoring the explosion from a nearby bunker, they’ve disturbed a Rhedosaurus, a dinosaur the size of a football field asleep for thousands of years. The Rhedosaurus makes its way to New York, squashing buildings, swatting at cars and shrieking pedestrians, leaving a trail of poisonous germs in its wake.

In the first scene, a technician with a clipboard points to the blast and announces, “Everytime one of these things goes off, I feel like we’re helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.”

Largely forgotten today, “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” would help write the first chapter of a new era in film distribution.

Warners supported it with saturation TV and radio advertising. And the film opened wide, starting in New York and Los Angeles on June 24 and spreading to 1,500 theaters within its first week, according to documents in the studio’s archives at USC. Warners, which bought “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” for $450,000 from producers Hal E. Chester and Jack Deitz, could afford to gamble on an aggressive release pattern driven by a marketing blitz, not by reviews or reputation.  The film grossed $5 million, opening the floodgates for an outpouring of monster movies.

In June of 1954, Warners released “Them!,” a film about killer ants the size of passenger trains — “crawl-and-crush giants crawling out of the earth from mile-deep catacombs!” — unleashed by the first atomic tests in the New Mexico desert. In “Them!,” the queen of the ants flies to Los Angeles and takes refuge in the sewers. It went even wider than “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” opening rapidly in 2,000 theaters, driven by a “day and night” advertising blitz  that the studio press book described as “the largest TV and radio campaign ever to support a motion picture.”

In 1956, producer Joseph E. Levine spent $1 million marketing a Japanese monster movie about a 400-foot Tyrannasaurus Rex called “Gojira.” He dubbed it into English, removed 20 minutes of Japanese footage, hired the actor Raymond Burr to shoot a few extra scenes playing a U.S. newscaster who reports that Tokyo has come under attack by a giant monster, and renamed it “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”

These films were products of America’s 1950s economic boom, its sprawling suburban neighborhoods and bulging automobiles, its proliferating shopping centers, drive-in theaters and hard-top, wide-screen movie houses. Their target audience was teenagers who craved the Next Big Thing in a recreational market suddenly saturated with novelty trends and pop ephemera.

The 1950s monster movies were all metaphors for the atom bomb — the ultimate blockbuster. They were spectacles of destruction, visiting vicarious havoc on the American landscape. They tapped directly into, and neatly displaced, the country’s Cold War anxieties. The saturation release campaigns, which carpet-bombed the country with prints, may have succeeded in part because the viewing experience was cathartic. Such films, Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” neutralized a psychological trauma that was a new reality for America’s consumer class in the 1950s — the threat of “collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning.”

Releases like “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” and “Them!” demonstrated the potential of tapping into a suburbanizing landscape increasingly defined by TV. That new box in the living room that had so worried 1950s movie moguls was becoming an agent of transformative power. It hastened the obsolescence of exclusive engagements in downtown movie palaces and window displays in surrounding department stores.

In a 1954 Variety column, Terry Turner, who helped devise the ad campaign for “The Beast,” exhorted his peers in the industry to reach out to as many moviegoers as possible, to provide convenience along with entertainment: “What is the sense of a smash TV campaign for a lone, first run in the downtown area of a city when 40 good-grossing keys are right within the primary orbit of that TV station and get the campaign with just as strong an impact as the lone downtown theater? … I am more convinced than ever before that television (as a solid sales instrument and not as an exploitation gimmick) is here to stay.”

More cash than class

These movies were equally adaptable to mass media advertising and to old-fashioned carnivalesque PR stunts.Warner Bros. scheduled a number of personal appearances around the country for Herman. Fabled press agent Marty Weiser also nabbed the front pages of the local papers by staging a “sighting” of a sea monster off San Pedro. Warner Bros. tried to arrange for a photograph of Albert Einstein standing next to a model ant from “Them!”

The studio underscored its approach in a memo to “Them!” director Gordon Douglas before shooting began: “We want a picture with the same exploitation possibilities as we had in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. We all know this will not be a ‘class production’ but it has all the ingredients of being a successful box office attraction.”

“Jaws” was both. But compared to the super-saturation releases of the 1950s — and even 1970s titles like “The Trial of Billy Jack” or “Breakout” — “Jaws” had a conservative release plan. The strategy wasn’t to open wide, but to generate lines around the block.

“We didn’t obsess about being No. 1 in our first weekend,” producer Dick Zanuck told us. “We wanted to own the entire summer. And we did.”

This article is adapted from “Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession,” published this month by Miramax Books.