Dallas may seem a strange place to start a Hollywood revolution. But that's what happened there on March 26, 1975, when Steven Spielberg's Jaws, the story of a 26-foot shark feasting on inhabitants of a New England village, was shown to a preview audience.
"Not until that first screening did we know we had something, that we had truly hit a nerve," remembers co-producer Richard D. Zanuck. "Not until that first scream ... "
Thirty years later, with a special-edition DVD about to be released and a big birthday bash planned for next weekend in Martha's Vineyard, where the movie was filmed, Jaws' status as a cinema milestone is secure. It was a great film. It made a ton of money, the first film ever to earn more than $100 million at the box office. And it ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, a run of big-budget, highly profitable films that would change the way Hollywood studios both made and marketed movies.
"It was the first of those big-summer-event kind of pictures; it became a cultural phenomenon," says Tom Shone, author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. "It was on the cover of Time, it was turned into a cartoon by various editorial cartoonists, Walter Cronkite referred to it. It scored in every sort of box, so to speak. It became the film everybody had to see that summer."
But all is not well in the Hollywood Jaws helped create. Despite the enormous success of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, which pulled in more than $180 million its first four days, the cumulative box-office returns have been down for 13 straight weeks compared to the same time last year. People are still going to the movies, but the trends seem ominous.
DVD sales and rentals continue to climb, up a whopping 676.5 percent from 2000 to 2004 (by comparison, movie attendance climbed 8.1 percent over the same period). Audiences know they only have to wait about four months for a newly released film to show up on DVD. TiVo recording devices and big-screen home theaters are making it easy for people to avoid movie theaters altogether.
It's too early to say for sure, because grosses for this year's Memorial Day weekend won't be announced until tomorrow (when today's receipts can be included). But it appears unlikely a 14th straight down week can be avoided. Last year's Memorial Day weekend set a record, with more than $250 million in tickets being purchased. And that was with Shrek 2, The Day After Tomorrow, Troy and The Passion of the Christ all in theaters. Each would go on to gross more than $100 million; among films in theaters this weekend, only Sith and probably the animated Madagascar will reach that plateau, though the remake of 1974's The Longest Yard, this go-round starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, has a chance.
Still, even if the era of the blockbuster seems to be on shaky ground, don't count it out yet. "Hollywood is kind of this hypochondriac," says Shone, "who always springs back and manages to set a new Olympic record."
True enough; no one knows when the next Jaws will end up in theaters. Certainly, no one knew they were loosing a cultural phenomenon back in 1975.
Making the movie had been awful for all involved, thanks to a balky mechanical shark, an ocean shoot that provoked seasickness (especially among the cameramen) and nervous studio executives who kept threatening to pull the plug on what they increasingly feared was going to be a $10 million tax write-off. And everything was in the hands of a 27-year-old director making only his second feature film. Even going into that first screening, it was hard to be enthusiastic.
"We knew that shark as just a mechanical nightmare," says Zanuck, "and we lost perspective. We didn't realize what a fresh audience would see, that we would only show them the good parts."
Those good parts proved better than anyone could have imagined. Even the hassles during production were turned to the film's advantage. Because the mechanical shark proved such a chronic under-performer, Spielberg was forced to show the beast sparingly, thus adding to the tension and fear of the unseen that permeates the film. In fact, the flotation barrels that forebodingly indicate the shark's unseen presence were, says Zanuck, a last-minute innovation, a way to indicate the shark's presence even if it couldn't be seen directly.
"The preview audiences were extraordinary," remembers Carl Gottlieb, who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Benchley, on whose best-selling book the film was based. "They shrieked and they jumped physically in their seats. There was such a palpable audience involvement in the movie that Universal Studio executives responsible for promotion had to talk about what they were going to do, because they didn't expect that reaction."
What the suits decided was a release strategy that would quickly become the norm. Instead of opening the film in just a few theaters and allowing the good word-of-mouth to spread, as was usually done, they opted to open in hundreds of theaters simultaneously and count on a big opening weekend. They got it, pulling in nearly $8 million, an unheard of amount for the time.
"It was a great move," says Gottlieb, "but one might also say they were hedging against the idea that the picture might be a flash-in-the-pan."
Some flash. The movie went on to gross just under $130 million. Two years later, George Lucas' Star Wars, another summer release that began with meager expectations, would top it, bringing in $193.8 million. The era of the blockbuster had begun. Studios could now turn a profit for the entire year based on ticket sales for one film.
"I think that Hollywood, to a certain degree, had forgotten how to entertain until Spielberg reminded them," says author Shone. "The big directors at the time were more interested in experimenting, or taking a page out of the French filmmakers' book. They'd forgotten that basic sort of duty, which is to entertain."
Not everyone, however, praises what Jaws wrought. "The studios realized they could make phenomenal amounts of money on these films, and they could make it fast," says Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. "The directors' movement of the '70s ended. The studios lost interest in the small, edgy, aggressive movies, the kind of movies [Robert] Altman, [Martin] Scorsese and [Peter] Bogdanovich were making."
Zanuck, who at 70 is still producing films (his most recent is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a remake of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory set for release this summer), believes studio heads began concentrating so much on pouring money into blockbusters that they stopped worrying about whether they were good movies. That, he believes, explains the current box-office slump.
"I think that we have fallen into a trap where big is better, and forgotten about story, and how important characters and story are to a picture," he says. These films are just kind of cardboard."
Even Shone, who credits Jaws and its progeny with reviving a motion-picture industry that had grown too edgy and moody for most people's tastes, admits the pendulum may have swung too far to the other side.
The down side of Jaws' legacy is that "it turned the summer into this playground where studios chased the teenage audiences and resulted in today's set-up, which is this sort of blockbuster gridlock. ... There are so bloody many of them that [it] can't help but look like they've gone to the dogs."
Still, it's unfair to fault Jaws for the excesses of its descendants. What Spielberg, his cast and crew put in theaters that summer 30 years ago was movie magic of the purest kind. Even if it hadn't effected a sea change in the film industry, it would still deserve its status as a classic.
"Jaws was really a perfect movie," says Biskind. "It reflected the strengths of the '70s generation, because it had very strong characters and a good story.
"You can't really blame Spielberg for making a good movie."
The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.
10 summer films that define the blockbuster genre.
Jaws (released June 20, 1975): $129.5 million in total U.S. ticket sales on initial release
Star Wars (May 25, 1977): $193.8 million
E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (June 11, 1982): $359.2 million
Top Gun (May 16, 1986): $176.8 million
Batman (June 23, 1989): $251.2 million
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 1, 1991): $204.7 million
Jurassic Park (June 11, 1993): $357 million
Independence Day (July 3, 1996): $306.6 million
Men in Black (July 2, 1997): $250.3 million
Spider-Man (May 3, 2002): $403.5 million
Source: Blockbuster, by Tom Shone