On 20 June 1975, director Steven Spielberg’s (USA) latest movie was released… and promptly began scaring the life out of cinema-goers the length and breath of North America. Jaws – the tale of a seaside town (Amity) terrorised by a great white shark – swiftly proved to be a cinematic sensation.
Sure, there had been phenomenal box-office hits in the past – witness animated classic Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (USA, 1937) or Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic The Ten Commandments (USA, 1956). And fear and frights had resulted in box-office gold beforehand too – the queues for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA, 1960) stretched around the block. But the success of Jaws was on an unprecedented scale.
Production was plagued with problems, including overrunning budgets and schedules (principle photography, originally forecast to take 55 days, took 159 days). The three pneumatically powered mechanical models of the shark – each costing $250,000, they were dubbed “Bruce”, after Spielberg’s lawyer – frequently broke down and really weren’t all that scary. Turning this to his advantage, Spielberg opted to show very little of the eponymous great white (it makes its first appearance at around 1 hour 21 minutes in the 2-hour-long film), which actually helped to ratchet up the tension.
In this, he was aided immeasurably by John Williams’s suspenseful score, highlighted by an ominous two-note motif:
Not that Spielberg liked it much at first. Hear director and composer discuss the iconic soundtrack here:
The movie was granted a wide release, opening on 464 screens (409 in the USA, the rest in Canada) on 20 June 1975. Critics raved, while its public reception was immediate and emphatic – $7 million (£3 million) taken in the opening weekend and all production costs covered within the fortnight; by August it was showing on 900 screens across North America. It became the First movie to take more than $100 million in theatrical rentals (the amount of the box-office gross that goes back to the studio/distributor after cinemas have taken their percentage for showing the film).
To date, the movie has taken $470.6 million (£303.7 million) at the box office worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. Indeed, until the phenomenal success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (USA, 1977), Jaws was the Highest-grossing film ever released – although if you adjust the figures to allow for inflation, Gone With The Wind (USA, 1939) is the most successful film ever, having earned more than $3.4 billion (£2.1 billion).
Jaws had a more long-term impact, though, effectively re-defining the term “blockbuster” for modern cinema. Catching on quick, other studios began putting into production mass-appeal movies scheduled for a mid-year release, to maximise box-office clout, which has inspired the epic action movies that hit our screens every summer.
Since then, Steven Spielberg has made blockbusters his stock-in-trade, racking up worldwide smashes with the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA, 1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (USA, 1981), Jurassic Park (USA, 1993) and Saving Private Ryan (USA, 1998). With a CV like that, it’s little wonder that he’s history’s Highest-earning film director. According to Forbes, between 2013 and 2014 Spielberg netted an estimated $100 million (£58 million), adding to an overall personal fortune put at $3.6 billion (£2.3 billion) as of 15 June 2015.
And it all started with a shark called Bruce.