Like most people, I’ll never forget the first time I saw Jaws. My parents had a copy of Peter Benchley’s original novel on our bookshelf at home. I had always wanted to see the film adaptation. It was scheduled to be shown on television on a Saturday night in 1990. I was six years old and begged my Nan to let me watch it. For some unconscionable reason, she gave her permission. I spent all week telling anyone who would listen that I was going to watch “the shark movie” this Saturday night, naively boasting about how brave I was and not even remotely scared. I even made popcorn.
The film began, and everything started out fairly innocently. Some teenagers were having a beach party. Young Chrissie Watkins runs off to go skinny dipping in the ocean. And then director Steven Spielberg plays his ace card with one of the most disturbing opening sequences cinema has ever known. As Chrissie thrashed around violently in the water, screaming in utter agony, it was like I could feel the blood draining from my body. I sat in stunned silence. My bravado quickly vanished. I wanted to turn the TV off, but I couldn’t move. I didn’t stir for the next two hours. The popcorn went completely untouched.
Also like most people, Jaws completely traumatised me for months and years. At the time of my first viewing, my sister and I were vacationing with my grandmother at a caravan park (trailer park, for American readers) located next to a large lake. We usually spent most of our time out on the lake, fishing out of a tiny boat. I never went on that boat again. Sure, some part of my young subconscious knew sharks didn’t inhabit lakes, but it didn’t matter. I was convinced a giant great white shark was waiting out there to launch itself onto our boat and swallow us whole.
Naturally, I never swam in the ocean again either. And I live in coastal Australia where beach swimming is practically mandatory. Even swimming pools made me a little uneasy. They still do. When I put my head underwater, I can’t shake the ridiculous fear I’ll see the shadow of a shark circling below me. The anxiety of death by shark attack is entirely irrational. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to die from a coconut falling on your head than being eaten alive by a shark. But Jaws is such a shockingly visceral experience, it struck terror into the hearts of anyone who dared to view it.
But, in some strange way, that’s entirely why I loved it and still do. It upended my life and turned usually innocuous activities into something entirely terrifying. A fictional film did that. It was the first movie I remember having a genuine and deep impact on my life. Jaws was the first film that showcased the ultimate power of cinema. We now know Spielberg is a master storyteller and he made that mark with only his second feature film. This could easily have been a hammy monster film, but the director populates his work with fully-formed characters and a gripping narrative, making it something so much more than just another horror flick.
We all likely know the stories of the infamously troubled production of Jaws. The screenplay went through numerous re-writes and edits, right up until filming began. Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw hated each other and often quarrelled on set. The production went over budget and well beyond its scheduled 55-day shooting time. And the mechanical shark consistently malfunctioned or just flat-out failed to work. Nothing went right, and Universal Pictures were heading for a massive failure. It was looking like Spielberg’s career was about to end before it had even really begun.
Pressure can often bring out the best in filmmakers and Spielberg showed his deft skill by turning every setback into an opportunity. With additional pre-production time, the script became more refined and polished. He worked Dreyfuss and Shaw’s contempt for each other into the film, given their characters were often also at loggerheads. The longer production time and increase in budget made the final product even more spectacular. And the lack of a mechanical shark became the best thing that ever happened to the film.
Without a shark, Spielberg had to rework numerous scenes so the beast was only suggested at and not actually seen. This became the film’s ultimate calling card, particularly by using John Williams’ now-iconic score to signify the shark’s presence. The shark was originally written to be shown right from the opening scene, devouring Chrissie in a bloody and extravagant set piece. But, in the end, it would be a full 80 minutes before the audience actually sees the monstrous fish, creating an anxious feeling of gripping suspense and making the creature’s initial appearance much more shocking than having seen it right from the beginning.
Jaws had an immediate cultural impact on the world that’s still seen to this day. Beach attendance in 1975 plummeted. Shark sightings and panicked beach evacuations increased. A whole generation of people was now terrified of sharks, leading to thousands of the species being slaughtered by fishermen who thought they were protecting beach-goers. As shark numbers dwindled and certain species became endangered, animal protection groups blamed the film for the misconception these “predators” did not need saving. Benchley has even stated he wished he’d never written the original novel, given the damage it and the film adaptation have caused.
While the impact on its audience is immeasurable, Jaws was truly a quantifiable game-changer for the entire film industry. Prior to 1975, blockbuster titles were not released during the US summer period. Traditionally, winter had been the time studios pumped out their big-hitters and summer was a dead zone of dumped titles that had little box office potential. Studio executives simply didn’t see why people would head indoors to a cinema when the weather was so perfect for being outdoors. But Spielberg saw an opportunity for Jaws to capture the summer market like nothing else had.
When you think about it, June really was the perfect time to release a film about a shark terrorising a beach filled with summer vacationers. Not only did its themes strike a chord with thousands of people engaging in beach-side activities, the air-conditioned cinema provided the perfect haven for those looking to escape the summer heat, particularly teenagers. Spielberg’s audacious plan to ensnare the next generation of moviegoers by gifting them the perfect summer activity was masterful. They were already likely to be hanging out at the mall. Why not give them a film to entice them away from the stores and into the cinema? It proved to be an ingenious move everyone in Hollywood wished they’d thought of themselves.
Jaws also gave birth to studios saturating the market with excessive advertising for their blockbuster “event” releases. Universal Pictures spent $2.5 million on marketing alone including a huge television advertising campaign, which was unheard of, at the time. It also spawned the idea of tie-in merchandise, although, technically speaking, Walt Disney had been leading that charge since the 1930s. With everything from t-shirts, baseball caps and fake shark teeth necklaces, Jaws merchandise helped build the buzz of the film, particularly internationally, leading to further profits for the studio.
The results were groundbreaking. Jaws became the highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally. When adjusted for inflation, its total global box office equates to just under $2 billion, making it the seventh-highest-grossing movie of all time. After Star Wars received similar gang-buster box office numbers in the summer of 1977 and promptly stole the highest-grossing mantle from Jaws. The summer period was solidified as the key time for studios to release their upcoming blockbusters. And, thus, the “summer blockbuster” was born.
This model is still seen to this day, with every major studio looking to summer as the key time to release their biggest mainstream releases. For better or worse, Jaws is entirely responsible for the annual period of endless summer blockbusters we’re now subjected to. It defined what was possible from a mid-year release and practically every summer blockbuster since has tried to replicate the success of Spielberg’s masterpiece. Jaws flipped the entire release calendar on its head. It genuinely changed the game. Its cultural influence is one thing, but its redefinition of the release and promotion of blockbuster films was revolutionary.
43 years later, and Jaws still has the power to keep people out of the water. It’s a film that has stood the test of time. It’s just as downright terrifying as it was in 1975. I don’t think I would be the film buff I am today without my young experience with Jaws. Yes, it may have ruined my view of the open water but it started my passion for cinema by opening my eyes to the deep impact a film can have on its audience. It may have changed the world in numerous ways but it’s one of the few films I can say genuinely changed my life.