How Jaws Changed Movies Forever

James Logie
Photo by Alex Steyn on Unsplash

It’s pretty easy to dismiss Jaws. But when was the last time you really watched it and appreciated it for everything it is? 

Today, Jaws is very commonplace. It’s such an ingrained part of pop culture — and the movie zeitgeist — that many don’t give it a second thought.

But if it wasn’t for Jaws, movies as we know it may not be at the level they are.

It gave rise to the blockbuster, created the summer movie season, changed how studios approached movies, and let Steven Spielberg take his unique vision to the world.

Jaws went viral before that was even a thing. This is a look back on how Jaws changed movies forever. 

An Accidental Success

The original intent of the film was to feature a lot more shark. But the mechanics of putting this all together had become a nightmare. Not to mention that the shark just didn’t look realistic. 

This has been a long-running joke and perfectly referenced in Back to the Future 2: “the shark still looks fake.”

Because of this, the entire direction of the movie needed to be changed. They now had to limit how much we saw of it in order for this thing not to be a farce. 

This is what changed the trajectory of movies, and Spielberg’s career; forever. 

Since they needed to limit the appearance of the shark on screen, they needed to create a more tense and ominous tone for the film. This was the success of Jaws: it was the perceived terror that made it so intense and frightening.

If the movie had gone the way they wanted, we could have had a Piranha 3D or Sharknado situation. It would have been an amusing “shark slasher film,” but ultimately not taken seriously.

Especially since the shark would have looked so fake.

Instead, what we got was a piece of filmmaking genius. The impending fear is what kept people on the edge of their seats.

Audiences were getting genuine panic attacks from the dread they experienced. Add to this the iconic score by John Williams and you had a movie that captivated everyone.

The idea with the score was to elicit a sense of “impending danger.” The anxiety and anticipation are often scarier than the actual danger. 

The Production Nightmares

Jaws is famous for being a production nightmare. Spielberg went over the shooting schedule by 100 days. The movie took 159 days to complete. No movie had ever gone that far past the deadline.

He also went over budget by $5 million. The projected cost was $4 million, and it ended up costing $9 million. Three million of this was because of issues with the mechanical sharks.

But, again, if this hadn’t happened, the future of film may have been very different.

If this movie hadn’t been a hit; it probably would have been the end of Spielberg. He was only 26, with just a few small movies under his belt. 

He was in no position to delay a film shoot by this much — and go that much over budget.

He assumed that would be it for him and Hollywood. What’s interesting is he would use this experience as motivation for future films including Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Spielberg said he made it a point to finish shooting in time to prove to himself, and George Lucas, that he could do it.

The big issue that caused all the delays — besides the mechanical sharks — was this was the first movie to ever film right on the water.

There was no playbook for how to navigate the unruly conditions, and it became an impossible filming environment.

Add to this that they were constantly adjusting the direction of the film because of how bad the shark looked, and you had a veritable nightmare on your hands. 

A Unique Marketing Campaign

Before they released the movie, they had to do their best to promote it, and this meant a truly unique marketing campaign. Up to that point, movies would let their films grow slowly and build up word-of-mouth.

Universal took an entirely unique approach with Jaws. They came out with a massive (for the time) $1.8 million marketing plan. They spent nearly $1 million on TV spot advertising, which was completely unheard of. 

The studio wanted to come out hot. They wanted everyone to know about Jaws right from the start instead of over the weeks and months.

Their plan was to launch 24, 30-second commercial spots to air during prime time TV. This was all done in the few days leading up to the film’s release.

The John Williams score, and now-iconic image of the shark in the poster, was pushed at every opportunity.

Again, a marketing approach to a movie like this had never been done before. There was no way that people weren’t aware of Jaws.

This unique approach may have been because they released it in the summer. 

Summer movies were not a thing at this point. Summer was usually a time when studios dumped unwanted pictures. The winter was when they released the big-time movies.

Jaws would change this approach forever.

The Phenomenal Success of Jaws

Test screening started in March 1975. And they went very well. Now, with all the interest from the marketing campaign — and the success of the novel — most theatres wanted to show Jaws.

Here’s an interesting thing related to movies at that time: wide releases were not common. Movies with a nationwide release were thought to be pretty bad.

This was seen as the studio trying to make as much money as quickly as possible.

They were doing this to cash in before bad word-of-mouth spread. There was no internet, blogs, or social media, which could instantly sink a film: awful movies were revealed over time.

But Universal stuck to their guns. They released jaws on a pretty astonishing 464 screens. Actually, it was only 409 in the US with the rest in Canada.

So, now you have two unique things; a rare marketing campaign, and a rare wide release. This sort of thing had never been done before in Hollywood.

But Universal thought they had something unique on their hands — and they were right.

Jaws came out with a smash and made $7 million its first weekend. Converted for today, that’s around $35 million. And keep in mind the limited amount of theatres.

The average big MCU film can debut on at least 3,500 screens.

Now, more theatres wanted to show it, and it quickly made over $20 million in just 10 days. It made $100 million in 60 days and soon overtook the Godfather as the highest-grossing movie in North American history. 

Jaws was the first movie to break the $100 million mark. I should also point out that movie tickets back then cost around $2.00. This was a lot of tickets.

By the end of its main release, Jaws had made $123 million or $615 million for today. And it hadn’t even opened overseas yet.

It broke records in every country it opened and made $270 million worldwide or $1.3 billion in today’s money. This would be the world box office record until Star Wars.

How Jaws Changed Hollywood Forever

Everything Hollywood normally did with movies, Jaws did the opposite of.

Now, every studio wanted their own Jaws, and they would change the way they marketed their films.

Movies would now get nationwide releases. Heavy advertising campaigns would also accompany this.

The days of slowly releasing a film and letting it build up over time were over. Things were now all about making an immediate impact.

Studios had no idea that movies could make this kind of money. Hollywood had been going through a bit of a recession in the years leading up to 1975, and Jaws turned everything on its head.

Huge releases and giant marketing campaigns are completely normal today, and this is all because of Jaws. 

The Jaws blueprint was perfectly copied with the release of Star Wars in 1977. It took the same approach as Jaws and became the new box office champ.

The other interesting thing is that Jaws and Star Wars gave birth to the summer blockbuster season. There had never been huge blockbusters like this before.

Since they were released during summertime, people who had the summer off went back to see it multiple times because of how popular they were. 

It never occurred to the studios that summer vacation allowed people to keep going back to the theatre.

Jaws not only defined what the blockbuster could be: it helped create the entire summer blockbuster season.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to overlook Jaws. Everything we know about big movies today have their foundation in Jaws. 

Everything that seems commonplace about Hollywood, marketing, and big releases can trace their roots back to Jaws.

If it wasn’t the success it was, Steven Spielberg would probably have been ousted from Hollywood and wouldn’t have changed the landscape of film. 

The advancements in movie making may have been way behind and Hollywood today could be a completely different place.

If those original mechanical sharks hadn’t looked so bad on film, Jaws would have ended up an entirely different movie.

Fortunately, all the issues they faced changed the direction of filming, created the first true blockbuster and ushered in a whole new era of movies.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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