The shark that changed cinema

Epic high earning movies have been previewed in cinemas long before Steven Spielberg released his high-concept picture Jaws: as early as 1915, blockbusters were screened in America with films such as D.W.Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation, and later in 1933, King Kong was screened in New York City. Jaws was released in the summer of 1975 and stars Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw as three men who try to tame a killer shark that is terrorising a small seaside town. Evidently, the film has a ‘spectacle’ appeal with its huge target audience, huge budget, and it being one of the first films in cinematic history, alongside other huge spectacles like The Exorcist and The Godfather, to have simultaneous release across the whole of America. Spielberg’s influential, innovative, and fresh classic has given the blockbuster the reputation it has today.


Jaws is a high concept movie which means that its simple and remarkable narrative, provides itself with easy promotion and advertising. Spielberg’s humble take on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, is what is at the essence of most blockbusters today – it is an easy watching, simple and enjoyable experience. It is apparent that Spielberg changed the concept of what a blockbuster is on-screen due to moving away from seamless and complex cinema in films such as Gone with the Wind to his high concept, simpler Jaws. Evidently, the strategic change to cinema was successful because audiences thrived for its high concept simplicity – Its domestic gross of 260 million dollars endorses this and this likable high concept notion has kept todays blockbusters profitable.

When Jaws was released, the ‘summer blockbuster’ was yet to become a concept: when it was released in June, the summer blockbuster was formed. Before air-conditioning was introduced to cinema, it was common for theatres to close through the warm summer months which ultimately stopped films being released because they simply could not be screened, so when air conditioning was introduced, cinema could thrive throughout the summer. Other studios observed this and put it into practice with their own movies and now, major film studios like Universal and Marvel release what they might consider their biggest cinematic hits of the year in the summer months. The success of the summer release of Jaws initiated the release of films that currently control the summertime.

The cross-country release of the film in cinemas clearly increased its ability to influence, and indeed it was its wide release across the states which allowed Jaws to be regarded as an event – a country-wide event that everyone could attend. It was a revolutionary concept that continues to be the foremost way in which films are released today whether they are a blockbuster or not because it is clear that the box office benefits this way.


Photo Credit – Jaws (1977), Turkish One Sheet Poster by Tom Simpson made available and used under a [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence]

The promotion of a film usually involves advertising campaigns, merchandising, and television or radio interviews. Jaws historically had an enormous advertising campaign in order to attract a larger audience for its country-wide release: Jaws set an example to other studio systems that a larger advertising campaign can bring in a larger audience. Jaws is a film that is able to reach an exceptional range of audience members – even families, due to it receiving a PG by the Motion Picture Association of America in 1975 when Jaws was released. The Hollywood Renaissance was a successful period of cinema due to their target audience being young, well-educated, and interesting individuals living in cities, whilst the baby boomer generation moved away to the suburbs with their children. Jaws’ large television advertising campaign reached the families not living close to the Hollywood action which is why Jaws was hugely popular with families – they could escape suburban life for a summer spectacle. The families attracted to this film will have been aware of it due to the large advertising campaign that was aired when they were likely to be watching television. It is a strategic marketing campaign that worked, and continues to work for blockbusters in the present day.

Famously, the budget of Jaws was ever increasing as it started with a predicted budget of around 4 million dollars when the production of the film was set in motion, but ended with a hefty total spend of seven million dollars. Jaws set an example to other studios that when a large budget is invested in a spectacle, then the chances of it being successful are higher. Commonly in cinema today, there is usually a huge budget invested in a film in hopes that a large budget will ultimately mean a substantial profit at the box office. Avatar is one of the most famous films to have had an extensive sum of money invested into it – a suspected 237 million dollars. Unsurprisingly, it famously grossed nearly 750 million dollars domestically. Clearly, investing vast sums of money into a film is a popular concept in Hollywood and Spielberg’s Jaws is a historical example.

It is easy to see why the Jaws promotional poster has become so iconic. Roger Kastel’s minimalist and basic poster tells cinema-goers three things – there is a shark, the film is called Jaws and from the way the shark is swimming, lives are going to be put at risk by the monster. As a high concept movie, this is all the audience needed to be aware of and this is what drew the large audience numbers in. The poster is distinguishable and captured the films spirit. It was Kastel’s high concept art work that inspired other films promotional posters such as Free Willy, Jurassic Park, and Titanic.


Photo Credit – Jaws Merchandise by Ricky Brigante, made available and used under a [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence]

Due to Jaws being massively successful, synergising the film with products fans will be interested in naturally occurred – it was an easy way to make more money and audience members yearned for merchandise. Items such as T-shirts, beach towels, inflatable sharks, and even amazing Jaws themed ice-cream flavours such as ‘Jawberry’ and ‘Finilla’ were hugely popular. It is easy to see the potential earnings that merchandising and synergy can bring to the studios and cinema changed because of this. Presently, most blockbusters have toys, video games, and items of clothing as merchandise and they are used as a way of promoting upcoming movies.

It is a well-known ideal that Hollywood films are adaptations of loved novels and Benchley’s Jaws, after being on the best-seller list for a 44 week run, was an obvious choice for an adaptation. As well as established narratives, novels are chosen to be adapted for the big screen because they usually have fan bases attached to them. Similar to novels, comic books have pre-established fan bases which also means they are profitable on the big screen. Marvel directors such as Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, and Anthony and Joe Russo are currently winning the blockbuster race with their heroic super-hero summer spectacles.

When narratives are too complex, they do not appeal to the mass audiences who thrive for the simple and easy watching experience that Jaws’ high concept narrative gives. When there is not a heavily advertised television blitz, potential family audiences are not aware of films that are due to be released, unlike Jaws, whose revolutionary hefty promotion brought hundreds of suburban living families back to the city to view the spectacle. Before Jaws, most movies were platform released and now, because of its success, all blockbusters are given the ‘event’ status Jaws was given in 1975. Spielberg’s summer hit was an entertainment revolution and Jaws’ positive outcomes, are still being happily received by cinema goers to this day.