The biggest grossing movie released in June 1974 was Chinatown. That very dark update of film noir featuring one of the most intricate plots in Hollywood grossed 23 million dollars, which was a good 12 million dollars less than the biggest grossing June release of 1973: the inaugural appearance of Roger Moore as James Bond in Live and Let Die. Until the last week of the month, it appeared that the battle to become the box office champ of movies released in June 1975 was going to come down to the wire between Woody Allen’s Love and Death and the Peter Fonda Satanic cult thriller Race with the Devil. (For the record, Woody beat Fonda 20m to 12m.) And then on June 20th, 1975 a movie about a monster terrorizing residents and tourists on an island off the East Coast was released and changed everything about the movie business in Hollywood forever.
The 260 million dollars brought in by Jaws not only positively dwarfed the box office figures of every other movie released that month, it made mincemeat out of every other movie ever released in June of any year. Or any other summer month is any year. Until the release of Jaws, in fact, summer was never considered a traditional season in which to release movies considered guaranteed commercial hits by the studios. For that matter, popcorn movies like Live and Let Die were the exception to the rule proved by Chinatown. In the decade previous to Bruce the Shark’s feeding frenzy, June had played host to more serious Oscar bait ranging from To Sir with Love to True Grit to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. So conventional was the wisdom that summer was not the time to roll the dice on a release the studio expected big audiences to attend that in the three years it took to get Jaws 2 to the screen, Hollywood still released only a handful of big-name movies in June. By 1980, expected blockbusters hitting movies screens in June had doubled, and have been growing ever since.
Such is the context for understanding the background against which Jaws became one of the most unexpected revolutionary films of all time. Expectations were running high for the movie. The novel by Peter Benchley on which the film was based had been one of the biggest selling books in recent history. More than that, it was a bestseller that people were actually reading and then re-reading. Millions had already been gripped by the story of the voracious shark menacing Amity Island and the unlikely trio of the island’s sheriff, the young blonde marine biologist who is sleeping with the sheriff, and the old, bald-headed captain of the fishing ship that sets out to track and kill the shark. With such a built-in audience craving a visual manifestation of the exciting story, the stage was set for an enormous hit.
Or, potentially, a box office dud transformed into a bomb, due to all the pre-release excitement and the fact that the man put in charge of bringing that story to life was really a twenty-something kid with only one film and some TV shows under his directing belt. Word had leaked out that the giant mechanical shark the filmmakers had decided to use instead of filming a real shark never worked. Making matters worse, a documentary that did film real sharks attacking divers inside cages called Blue Water, White Death had been a surprise hit in theaters a few years earlier, and a key element in whipping up the frenzy of anticipation in the wake of the release of Jaws into movie theaters right at the time that millions of people were heading out to beaches around the country.
The success of Jaws seems like a no-brainer now. That’s because we know Steven Spielberg as storytelling master with an unmatched cinematic eye. It’s because we appreciate how Spielberg capitalized on the failure of the mechanical shark to work as planned by presenting a textbook lesson in how suspense is best built by withholding the menacing threat until the perfect moment. Jaws seems like a can’t-miss blockbuster because even though Spielberg made Hooper short and dark and removed the subplot about his sleeping with Brody’s wife, and even though Capt. Quint isn’t bald and Hooper doesn’t die in the end, the movie is still better than the book—and how often does that happen?
To fully appreciate the accomplishment of Jaws, it helps to understand that, essentially, it is a movie about an animal—much larger than its real life counterpart and far more purposely malicious than its real life counterpart—becoming a predator tracking down human prey before the humans become the predators and make the animal their prey. Or, put another way, on June 24, 1975, for a great many millions of filmgoers, Jaws did not seem to be notably different from such recent films that had come and gone through local movie theaters as the killer rabbit film Night of the Lepus, the title killers in Frogs or the killer ant flick strangely titled Phase IV.
An untried, no-name director attempting yet another killer animal movie with a mechanical killer shark that never worked starring several solid actors of the seen-the-face-before-but-can’t-recall-the-name variety facing the impossibly high expectations from millions who had torn through the novel in a two-day reading binge who were now being joined by millions more who had never read the book, but couldn’t wait to see that unbelievably huge shark rise up through the water and devour that naked swimmer in one gulp like the omnipresent poster promised.
What could possibly go wrong?
Amazingly, in an ending that could have been pounded right out of a Hollywood screenwriter's trusty old typewriter, absolutely nothing.