As we’ve mentioned, this weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s masterful adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestseller. By this date, the conventional wisdom that Jaws was a cinematic game-changer has taken hold — but like many such pronouncements, those who make it aren’t always clear on the details. In fact, it’s a little bit complicated, because Spielberg’s smash changed the way Hollywood did business in a variety of ways, both for good and ill.
B-Movies Became A-Movies
The film’s difficult production has become part of its legend: Jaws went over budget and over schedule, thanks in no small part to Spielberg’s insistence on shooting on the water instead of in a tank (per studio norms), and the comically unreliable sharks that were built for the production. Those no-shows caused Spielberg to rethink the movie on the fly — to its benefit. “The effects didn’t work, so I had to think fast and make a movie that didn’t rely on the effects to tell the story,” he told Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind. “I threw out most of my storyboards and just suggested the shark. My movie went from William Castle to Alfred Hitchcock.”
As a result, what was, in many ways, a drive-in-style monster movie became something more — and ended up putting the drive-in supply line out of business. In a 2010 Speakeasy interview, “King of the Bs” Roger Corman, producer of countless low-budget monster and sci-fi flicks, recalled, “Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: ‘What is Jaws but a big-budget Roger Corman film?’ What he didn’t say was it was not only bigger but better. I’m perfectly willing to admit that. When I saw Jaws, I thought, I’ve made this picture. First picture I ever made was Monster From the Ocean Floor. This is the first time a major had gone into the type of picture that was bread-and-butter for me and the other independents. Shortly thereafter, Star Wars did the same thing. They took away a lot of the backbone of the picture we were making.” Instead, Corman and his ilk ended up chasing the majors, turning out imitation/parodies of the big hits, such as the Jaws riff Piranha and the Star Wars-inspired Battle Beyond the Stars.
Spielberg Became Spielberg
Producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck were taking a real risk when they hired Spielberg — after all, this was a high-profile adaptation of a very big book, and at the time, he only had one theatrical feature to his name (The Sugarland Express), which hadn’t exactly taken the world by storm. But his low-budget man vs. machine TV movie Duel had convinced them he could pull off Jaws, and he proved them very, very right. Had the movie tanked, or had they not taken that chance in the first place, we might’ve seen a very different career for Mr. Spielberg; in a 1976 Playboy interview, Robert Altman noted, “I think Steven Spielberg will endure, though it’s tough when a picture like Jaws brings you a lot of success and money overnight that may not strictly be related to the merit of your work. I am not knocking Jaws, which was a magnificent accomplishment for a kid that age. But will he now be able to go off and make a small personal film?” The answer to Altman’s question was probably another one: “Does he want to?” He would eventually make a few such films, but for the most part, he seemed content to become the biggest director in the business.
Summer Movies Became a Thing
It’s unfathomable in our movie-going climate, where the biggest movies are targeted (before a word of their scripts are even written) for summer release, but there was a time when the summer was considered the dumping ground for bad movies, and a time when many moviegoers stayed away from the cinema entirely. (Some critics followed suit; for many years, Pauline Kael went on a summer sabbatical from her duties at The New Yorker, because there was so little worth reviewing.) This was mostly because air conditioning was not yet a part of the theatrical experience, so theaters limited their hours of operation in the summer months, or just shut down. But when air-conditioned theaters became the norm in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, youth-oriented pictures like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and American Graffiti did quite well in their summer releases, presumably because their target audience was out of school with time and money on their hands. And Jaws’ phenomenal success confirmed the value of a premium summer release date.