Sink Or Swim: How Jaws Became The First Summer Blockbuster

Steven Spielberg’s book to film adaptation of Jaws was groundbreaking and marked a watershed in cinematic history, but before its release, there was much uncertainty about the film’s success.

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On June 20th, 1975, Stephen Spielberg’s film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws made a splash on the big screen and was a record-breaking hit at the box office. Jaws earned a worldwide box office total of $470 million, making it the first movie to surpass the $100 million mark. The film’s monumental success created a new wave of cinema in Hollywood and established today’s concept of a summer blockbuster movie.

The Inspiration

Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was published in February 1974, which was only a little over a year before the movie’s release. Benchley’s story of a man-eating Great-White Shark unleashing horror on a small coastal town had success on a national level. Horrified readers were curious about how much of the book is fiction versus fact.

Many people have speculated that Benchley was inspired by the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that killed five people. Benchley denied this theory and attributes his inspiration to write Jaws to a lifelong fascination with sharks and a story he once read about a shark hunter. Although Benchley has never confirmed or denied this speculation, many believe it was Frank Mundus, who caught a 4,500-pound shark off the coast of Long Island in 1964, that he based his shark hunter character Quint off of.

Before the novel was even published, the producers of Jaws, Richard Zanuck and David Brown bought the rights from Benchley. Benchley was involved in the production of the film and even had a cameo as a news reporter.


Disasters On Set

Universal selected 26-year-old Steven Spielberg as their director, and in 1973, they began production. Spielberg has described the production of this film as a nightmare. With budget and writing issues as well as a malfunctioning mechanical shark, the film was gearing up to be a disaster.

The production struggled to get high-profile actors for the film and had to persuade Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw to take on the roles of Hooper and Quint. There was tension on the set between Dreyfuss and Shaw, who was often drunk. Shaw often made jeers at Dreyfuss, leading to a tumultuous relationship between the two. Carl Gottlieb worked with Benchley on the script, and they were often writing dialogue for scenes the night before they were shot.

Universal allocated a budget of $3.5 million, but Spielberg ended up using $9 million to make the movie. The planned 55-day shoot turned into 159 grueling days in and out of the frigid water on the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. When filming wrapped, Spielberg was devastated, as he felt that the film was bound for failure.


Unlikely Success

Universal decided to release Jaws on June 20th, 1975, right at the beginning of summer, which was unusual. Successful films were often released during the holiday season. Universal took a risk by developing a high-budget marketing campaign, which ended up being successful in creating excitement and anticipation for the movie’s release.

Jaws was more than just a movie, it was a sensation. People whose interest had been piqued by the film’s extensive marketing campaign flooded into theaters. Jaws had fourteen straight weeks at the box office and broke many records.

Before the release of Jaws, films were typically released gradually into big cities in hopes of garnering positive critical success to assist in enticing viewers on a national level as time went on. Universal took a different approach when promoting Jaws and saturated the media with their promotions. Jaws amassed attention from a large audience all at one time and opened in theaters nationwide on the same date. Apart from massive commercial success, Jaws received critical recognition with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a win for best original score.


The Legacy

By all means, no one expected Jaws to be successful, let alone change Hollywood forever. The risks that were taken during production and in promoting the film were successful in creating a national sensation. Following the lucrative summer release of Jaws, Hollywood has designated summer as a movie season in itself, with blockbusters hitting the big screen every year in June, July, and August. The release of Jaws changed how Hollywood marketed films and introduced the idea of a universal opening weekend.

To learn more about Jaws, click here to read about the differences between the book and the movie!

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