When I was growing up on the Jersey Shore, mere miles from the 1916 shark attacks that Peter Benchley used as inspiration for his best-selling novel, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had a profound effect on my summers. Whenever I was alone in the water, I inevitably began to fear that I was being stalked by something beneath the surface. The panic would grow and grow — as John Williams’ daaa-dum music grew louder in my head — until I finally felt compelled to make a break for it. Swimming for my life, my flailing arms furiously pounded the water and my lungs felt about to burst because my face never turned to gulp more air. In my mind, the Great White from Jaws was inches behind me, his mouth wide open, about to turn me into lunch. I never dared slow down or look back until my entire body was out of the water… and safely back on the deck of the pool.
See, that was the thing about Jaws. The fear was so visceral — and irrational — that even a dip in a chlorinated swimming pool seemed like a risky proposition to a kid whose imagination was much deeper than the pool’s diving well.
It’s true that Jaws was the first summer blockbuster, a national event that consumed the culture for an entire sweltering season — and then some. The summer movie season had traditionally been a Hollywood dumping ground, but Jaws was a beast as soon as it opened on June 20, 1975, changing every element of the movie business forever. It was an immediate smash, winning 14 straight weekends at the box office, and broke most all the important box-office records. It helped that the movie was brilliant pure entertainment, but Universal marketed the movie in a bold new way. Before Jaws, most promising studio pictures opened gradually, first in major cities before branching out to the suburbs and more rural areas. That would allow word of mouth, and hopefully positive reviews, to pave the way for a long, profitable run in theaters. Instead, Universal exec Lew Wasserman adopted a technique that was typically reserved for stinkers: saturate the airwaves with massive TV advertising and open across the country simultaneously in order to bypass the critics. Jaws opened in more than 400 theaters, which was a lot at the time, and the reaction was immediate. Everybody was talking about Jaws. Everybody wanted to see what the fuss was about. Everybody then wanted to see it again. And again. And again.
As most fans know, the making of Jaws was a complete nightmare for 27-year-old Steven Spielberg. The script was nebulous, the clunky mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce wouldn’t work properly, and the budget ballooned from $3.5 million to about $10 million as the 55-day shoot in Martha’s Vineyard stretched to 159 days. “If any of us had any sense, we’d all bail out now,” said Richard Dreyfuss, during one of the first days that Bruce refused to cooperate. Spielberg woke up every day fearing — and perhaps occasionally hoping — that he would be fired from the project and his career would be over before it really got started. But it turned out that the shark’s chronic malfunctions were a blessing in disguise, forcing Spielberg to repackage the creature as a more Hitchcockian device that is seen less but felt more. Audiences don’t see the shark in the movie until the final act, when Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody backs away from chumming the sea and tells the salty Melvillian captain played by Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
What was supposed to be a historic bomb became the biggest movie of its time, but the film’s phenomenal success isn’t the only reason it tops our list of summer blockbusters. Before Jaws, the idea of a movie about a rogue shark terrorizing a small seafaring village was not taken seriously by the studios. This was the realm of Roger Corman’s B-movies, cheap schlock that was made in a hurry to play on the drive-ins in the sticks. Before Jaws, there were films and movies — and never the twain shall meet — but Jaws bridged the gap. The day after audiences watched Scheider blow up the shark, every studio started digging in their basement for their own summer blockbuster. Jaws opened the door for science-fiction odysseys, comic book heroes, and Disney theme-park rides to dominate the big screen, and Hollywood has never been the same since.
Jaws ultimately grossed more than twice the year’s second biggest hit (the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. Beginning a trend, Spielberg was not nominated despite all the blood and sweat he had put into it. Nor was Shaw, whose portrayal of the grizzled shark-killer, Quint, is now considered one of the all-time great performances. For a movie about a killer shark, its most harrowing moment isn’t the pretty skinny-dipper being pulled under or the shark finally smiling for Brody, but Quint’s half-drunken story about the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the World War II vessel that was torpedoed in 1945 and left to be preyed upon by sharks.
Here’s to swimming with bow-legged women. Jaws, oft-imitated but never equaled, the greatest summer blockbuster of them all.
Release Date: June 20, 1975
Box Office: $260 million domestic ($7.0 million opening weekend), $470.7 million global; $1.02 billion domestic in 2014 dollars, adjusted for inflation. (All numbers from Box Office Mojo.)
The Competition: There was no competition. Jaws swallowed the competition whole, including Nashville, which had been the No. 1 movie the week before. Who else had the misfortune of opening in the summer of 1975? The Apple Dumpling Gang with Bill Bixby and Tim Conway, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Other Side of the Mountain, Rollerball, and Woody Allen’s Love and Death.
What TIME said: “Like all the best thrillers — with which this movie is good enough to keep company — Jaws relies on both the immediacy of illusion and the safety it provides. The menace so cunningly created and enlarged comes close enough to have caused loud screams and small tremors of terror at pre-release screenings. Yet Jaws is vicarious, not vicious, a fantasy far more than an assault. It is a dread dream that weds the viewer’s own apprehensions with the survival of the heroes. It puts everyone in harm’s way and brings the audience back alive. And in Jaws, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.”
Cultural Impact Then: People flocked to theaters in the summer of ’75 to see Jaws, but the movie had an adverse impact on beach attendance, with anecdotal reports that people were staying away from the water. The film was so effective that sharks — especially Great White sharks — were demonized, and nearly 40 years later, they remain feared and misunderstood based on the misconceptions presented in Jaws and its sequels. The enormous success of Jaws demanded a sequel, and Jaws II was quickly green-lit with Scheider starring. (Spielberg and Dreyfuss escaped the follow-up because they were busy making Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Other studios quickly generated their own Jaws rip-offs, with Orca, The Deep, Tentacles, and Piranha soon swimming into theaters.
John Williams’ chilling, immediately iconic score won him an Oscar and became the summer’s most repeated two notes. A new NBC sketch show that would become known as Saturday Night Live featured a recurring Land Shark who duped naive people into answering their door.
Most long-lasting, Jaws‘ success didn’t end at the box office, as the public was in a frenzy for movie-related T-shirts, posters, toys and lunchboxes. It paved the way for the kind of merchandizing that would explode two years later for Star Wars, which took the Jaws blockbuster blueprint to another level.
Cultural Staying Power: People are still terrified of sharks, so there’s that. And people still sit up straight when Williams’ score gets played. But the most important cultural impact of Jaws was the advent of the summer blockbuster. Hollywood wholeheartedly embraced huge event movies that became the centerpiece of their strategy. Some blame Jaws, and subsequently Star Wars, for the demise of the auteur-led Hollywood by replacing pseudo-artistic entertainment geared for adults with frivolous fodder for kids. Then there was Jaws II and Jaws 3-D, and The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Studios suddenly demanded blockbusters that could be made into more blockbusters; i.e., franchises. That’s a lot to hang around the neck of one nearly perfect movie that many predicted would be a total disaster. Jaws didn’t kill Robert Altman, but perhaps it made making his brand of movies that much more difficult.
Steven Spielberg became the master of the summer blockbuster, as our list attests. Making Jaws gave him near-complete freedom to make any movie he wanted for the rest of his career, and he’s delivered on that promise time and time again, in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan, to name but a few.
Jaws also influenced an entire generation of filmmakers who aspire to tell a big-budget, high-concept story as perfectly as Spielberg did — though many have wisely steered clear of filming on the water. His nightmare experience off the coast of Massachusetts has become legend, with multiple documentaries picking through the production headaches and the personality conflicts that plagued the shoot. Last year, two different scripts about the making of the movie were included on the annual Black List, which highlights the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Jaws also gave us the annual Shark Week and Sharknado 2, so there’s no denying that it has become one of the most important movies of all time, for better and worse.
Clip courtesy of The Shark is Still Working.
The Best Summer Blockbusters of All Time
29. The Hangover
28. Rambo: First Blood Part II
27. There’s Something About Mary
23. Saving Private Ryan
21. Independence Day
20. Toy Story 3
19. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
17. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
16. The Avengers
15. Back to the Future
14. Superman II
13. The Lion King
12. The Sixth Sense
11. Top Gun
10. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
9. Animal House
7. Forrest Gump
6. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark
4. The Dark Knight
3. Jurassic Park
2. Star Wars