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Universal spent $1.8 million promoting Jaws, including an unprecedented $700,000 on national television spot advertising. The media blitz saw around twenty-five thirty-second advertisements aired per night on prime-time network TV between June 18, 1975, and the film's opening two days later. Beyond that, in the description of film industry scholar Searle Kochberg, Universal "devised and co-ordinated a highly innovative plan" for the picture's marketing. As early as October 1974, Zanuck, Brown, and Benchley hit the television and radio talk show circuit to promote the paperback edition of the novel and the forthcoming film. The studio and publisher Bantam agreed on a title logo that would appear on both the paperback and in all of the advertising for the movie. The centerpieces of the joint promotion strategy were John Williams's theme and the poster image featuring the shark approaching a lone female swimmer. The poster was based on the paperback's cover, and had the same artist, Bantam employee Roger Kastel. The Seiniger Advertising agency spent six months designing the poster; principal Tony Seiniger explained that "no matter what we did, it didn't look scary enough". Seiniger ultimately decided that "you had to actually go underneath the shark so you could see his teeth."
More merchandise was created to take advantage of the film's release. In 1999, Graeme Turner wrote that Jaws was accompanied by what was still "probably the most elaborate array of tie-ins" of any film to date: "This included a sound-track album, T-shirts, plastic tumblers, a book about the making of the movie, the book the movie was based on, beach towels, blankets, shark costumes, toy sharks, hobby kits, iron-transfers, games, posters, shark's tooth necklaces, sleepwear, water pistols, and more." The Ideal Toy Company, for instance, produced a game in which the player had to use a hook to fish out items from the shark's mouth before the jaws closed.
The glowing audience response to a rough cut of the film at two test screenings in Dallas on March 26, 1975, and one in Long Beach, on March 28, along with the success of Benchley's novel and the early stages of Universal's marketing campaign, generated great interest among theater owners, facilitating the studio's plan to debut Jaws at hundreds of cinemas simultaneously. A third and final preview screening, of a cut incorporating changes inspired by the previous presentations, was held in Hollywood on April 24. After Universal chairman Lew Wasserman attended one of the screenings, he ordered the film's initial release—planned for a massive total of as many as 900 theaters—to be cut down, declaring, "I want this picture to run all summer long. I don't want people in Palm Springs to see the picture in Palm Springs. I want them to have to get in their cars and drive to see it in Hollywood." Nonetheless, the several hundred theaters that were still booked for the opening represented what was then an unusually wide release. At the time, wide openings were associated with movies of doubtful quality; not uncommon on the exploitation side of the industry, they were customarily employed to diminish the effect of negative reviews and word of mouth. There had been some recent exceptions, precedents that included the rerelease of Billy Jack and the original release of its sequel The Trial of Billy Jack, the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, and the latest installments in the James Bond series. Still, the typical major studio film release at the time involved opening at a few big-city theaters, which allowed for a series of premieres. Distributors would then slowly forward prints to additional locales across the country, capitalizing on any positive critical or audience response. The outsized success of The Godfather in 1972 had sparked a trend toward wider releases, but even that film had debuted in just five theaters, before going wide in its second weekend.
On June 20, Jaws opened across North America on 464 screens—409 in the United States, the remainder in Canada. The coupling of this broad distribution pattern with the movie's then even rarer national television marketing campaign yielded a release method virtually unheard-of at the time. (A month earlier, Columbia Pictures had done something similar with a Charles Bronson thriller, Breakout, though that film's prospects for an extended run were much slimmer.) Universal president Sid Sheinberg reasoned that nationwide marketing costs would be amortized at a more favorable rate per print relative to a slow, scaled release. Building on the film's success, the release was subsequently expanded on July 25 to nearly 700 theaters, and on August 15 to more than 950. Overseas distribution followed the same pattern, with intensive television campaigns and wide releases—in Great Britain, for instance, Jaws opened in December at more than 100 theaters.
- Inspirations and themes