The movie that changed Hollywood more than any other in its hundred-year history opened 35 years ago this week. Jaws was the second film made by a 28-year-old named Steven Spielberg. During the distended production period of his adaptation of Peter Benchley’s enormous bestseller about a shark attack on a beach resort, Spielberg had reason to fear he might never work again. The design team had built a mechanical shark that malfunctioned; costs ballooned; everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
And yet this disaster-in-the-making turned into a triumph. By the time the summer of 1975 was over, Jaws had become the first film to make more than $100 million at the box office. That was the most consequential change Jaws effected in Hollywood: By making $100 million at the box office, Jaws taught Hollywood that a single movie could, in fact, make $100 million at the box office.
The temptation to reorient the business away from midsized pictures that would earn a steady stream of revenue along with a few breakout hits here and there proved too much to resist. Previously, Hollywood had been happy to hit for average, spraying singles and doubles around the field; after Jaws it began swinging for grand slams.
Jaws had been able to earn $100 million at the box office because it had been marketed differently from most ambitious movies before it. The pattern for general release had been to open high-prestige movies on a few screens nationwide—one or two in New York, one in Los Angeles, maybe one in Chicago. This was a demand-side model, in which marketers sought to exploit the scarcity of seats by creating huge crowds and lines and building up excitement through word of mouth. This was called “platforming,” and it was the prestigious way to open a picture. It was also a hedge against disaster: If a movie bombed, a studio could decide against a wide release and spare itself the expense of striking hundreds of expensive prints.
By contrast, when studios had a picture in which they had less faith, they would often open it at multiple screens in the hopes that it would make its money in the first weekend before word got out that the movie was lousy. Jaws was the first supply-side motion picture. It opened at more than 400 theaters on its opening weekend, by far the largest number up to that time. It earned more than $7 million, or an average of $17,265 per screen—which would today be $70,000 per screen, nearly twice what The Dark Knight made when it opened to the largest-grossing weekend in history in 2008.
Jaws was also released on a Friday. For reasons lost in the mists of history, Hollywood chose to release its pictures earlier in the workweek, which meant that the excitement of attending a movie as soon as it opened would be somewhat dissipated when the weekend rolled around. Jaws’s Friday premiere made its first weekend a special event for teenagers, who flocked to it with an abandon that shocked Hollywood. It taught the business that the summer was actually the most profitable time to open a picture, and that was because the movie audience had changed.
And that, perhaps, was the most significant and enduring change introduced by Jaws. Over the course of the previous ten years, Hollywood had come to terms with the fact that baby boomers wanted different kinds of fare from the biblical epics and lumbering musicals it had supplied for two decades. They wanted frank, adult, more visceral fare: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate and Easy Rider, even out-of-nowhere exploitation movies like Night of the Living Dead and Billy Jack, and R-rated epics like The Godfather and The Exorcist.
Jaws marked the early end of the boomer era in Hollywood. Movie executives discovered that adults in their twenties and thirties were as nothing compared with teenage boys. Make a movie that would appeal to these boys, and you had a new kind of commodity on your hands. They would come back to see it over and over again. They would bring their friends. They would bring their girlfriends. They would bring their parents.
They treated movies they loved as though they were rollercoaster rides—worth standing in line for, and experiencing a second, third, or fifth time. They got exactly that feeling from Jaws, and it changed moviegoing for them as well. Indeed, the undeniable genius of Spielberg’s direction was that he took material that others would have made into a horror movie and, instead, took his audience on an exhilarating ride, with amusing lulls punctuated by thrilling moments of terror, panic, and relieved laughter.