Birth of the Summer Blockbuster

Phil Rossi

Hollywood’s Holy Grail
JAWSUniversal Pictures/MCA

Since the birth of the movies as an American pastime, Hollywood had always enjoyed a spike in summer business. The studio game plan was to release a variety of films to satisfy their vast and growing audience.

That one must-see movie to captivate the public would remain a phenomenon. Something unknown and organic to break away from the pack.

This would all change when Universal Pictures produced Jaws. Hollywood knew it was onto something as the buzz surrounding Jaws spawned a life of its own.

Jaws became the perfect marketing storm in motion. The public already read the book — a best-seller in multiple prints, languages, and paperback editions. Once it was announced an adaptation was forthcoming, book sales doubled.

Universal Pictures released Jaws on June 20th, 1975, to coincide with the start of summer and the underway beach season. Why not strike fear in the great American vacation? What could bring more terror than a massive Great White shark stalking a seaside resort?

Universal knew it had something special with no idea how big. In the weeks leading up to the movie’s release, anyone you spoke with couldn’t wait to see Jaws.

In 1975, the multiplex cinema with around-the-clock screenings didn’t exist. Most movie theaters housed one screen hosting a few viewings per day.

Besides the sparse amount of theaters and showtimes, there weren’t the sales funnels and premium markets we have today. Moreover, Amazon, Netflix, and other video-on-demand platforms remained decades away.

As the accolades and Five-Star reviews kept pouring in, even more people wanted to see Jaws. With limited screens and viewings to satisfy this hungry and expanding audience, Hollywood salivated.

The goal of a summer-long theatrical run looked promising. In its first two weeks, Jaws broke box office records while recouping its entire production cost. Universal then decided to double the film’s distribution while ramping up promotion over July and August.

Many movie theaters showing Jaws would sell out in minutes as lines wrapped around the block. For the first time in their existence, theaters began turning people away who waited hours to watch a movie.

Theaters began selling tickets in advance while opening early and closing late to accommodate additional showtimes. Others followed suit, which added to the sensation and legend that Jaws was becoming.

Once Universal hit the jackpot with Jaws, movie studios began aiming for the next big thing. Two summers later, Hollywood struck gold again. In 1977, 20th Century Fox made Star Wars, and it was off to the races.

The blueprint for the Summer Blockbuster had arrived. No longer about a piece of the pie — Hollywood discovered the recipe. A trend the studio system has practiced ever since.

These days, the Summer Blockbuster season begins on the Wednesday leading into Memorial Day Weekend. A robust box office with positive reviews and a social media campaign could catapult profits through Labor Day. Then there’s the multi-disc DVD (with all the extras) just in time for Christmas.

Today, Jaws remains an organic and grassroots formula compared with current blockbuster schedules. The film had its share of promotion but never on the scope of today’s campaigns.

In 1975, there weren’t the distribution channels there are today. It’s hard to imagine what Jaws might have earned with a Facebook page, multiplex screenings, and pay-per-view streaming.

The summer schedules remain a studio focus and priority. Whether it’s the next Marvel, Star Wars, or Godzilla movie, production, marketing, and distribution are planned years ahead of the movie’s premiere.

It’s a given that during previews of this summer’s moneymakers, we’ll be shown trailers for next year’s mega productions. Add in the upcoming books, toys, and clothing lines through Walmart and Amazon. Corporate sponsorship and product placements in the film itself have also entered the game.

As the release date approaches, fast food chains offering promotions, giveaways, and assorted tie-ins begin their licensing ads. In addition, theme park rides for bigger productions, such as the Jurassic Park franchise at Six Flags and Disney World.

Besides mega business, the Summer Blockbuster has morphed into a cultural staple. For some studios, it’s their make-or-break season. A healthy box office could finance and promote their fall slate of Oscar hopefuls as well as future summer productions.

All this hoopla leads back to the granddaddy of them all. Not to mention that Jaws is more than a pop sensation and a box office legend. As a movie, Jaws delivers the goods on a resounding scale.

A great story full of suspense, action, and adventure. The intersection of stellar writing, acting, direction, and production. Not only the first but the gold standard of the Summer Blockbuster.

Of course, there’s a downside to all of this. Bummer summers where the movies being released lack the gravitas of a superior story. Sometimes they seem mediocre, if not downright mush.

Since the mid-70s, the business model remains. Something fun, with a built-in audience and a PG rating. Another caveat credited to Jaws. The PG rating is huge, enabling a younger audience to see these films.

Forty-six years later, Jaws remains a classic and masterpiece. The film continues to dazzle, entertain, and thrill its audience of all ages. A movie that did more than live up to the hype and hysteria — it created it.

Hollywood’s wait was worth it. The quest to find the formula might have cost time and money, but when the mother ship arrived, boy, did it!

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ

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