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.