Jaws initiated the era of the Hollywood blockbuster. This tale of shark terror, which earned more than $100 million in six months, easily surpassed The Godfather as the all-time Hollywood box-office champ. Although Star Wars, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark set new records, Jaws created marketing precedents that became Hollywood standards: it proved that one film under careful guidance from its distributor, could precipitate a national pop cultural "event."
Universal opened Jaws in 409 American houses in June 1975, establishing late May/early June as the beginning of the movie season. To milk the most from its "national" premiere, Universal fully utilized "saturation advertising" on television. The company purchased at least one 30-second ad on every prime-time network television program during the evening of the three days preceding the premiere; the cost was a million dollars. So successful was this advertising campaign that it became standard operating procedure in the American film industry (thereafter New York premieres and limited newspaper advertising were the exceptions, not the rule). Jaws convinced movie executives that television should be fully exploited for advertising, not avoided as in the past.
One direct beneficiary was director Steven Spielberg, who completed the film before his 30th birthday. This film school graduate learned the Hollywood system with his television work for Universal; he directed episodes of Owen Marshall, Marcus Welby, Columbo, and television movies such as the now cult film Duel. The dollars generated by Jaws and by his other films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., have made Spielberg the most successful box-office director of all time.
But Jaws won few awards, for critics did not consider it a complex artefact. Rather, Jaws was singled out as an example of the success of Hollywood as an entertainment machine. Social and cultural critics have "read" the film in two different ways. Jaws can be seen as a "Watergate" film. In it a public official (the mayor) seeks to hush up a threat to the public good (a shark attack); it takes an heroic outsider (the chief of police) to kill the shark and return things to normal. The overt message seems clear enough: the world does indeed work, if "true heroes" stand up to be counted. But Jaws also skillfully exploits the machine of modern cinema. From the opening sequences Spielberg associates the camera's point-of-view (under the water) and the major musical motif with the danger of the shark attack. Jaws manipulates our gaze, simultaneously providing the viewer with both enjoyment and fear. It remains a remarkable example of how well Hollywood can control a viewer's vision to produce pain and pleasure. Jaws is about Watergate America, but it is also about the experience of filmgoing in the 1970s.
Release Date: 1975
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, and Carl Gottlieb
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Source Citation: Gomery, Douglas. "Jaws." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 584-586.