The film “Jaws” could’ve been a disaster for Universal Pictures.
At the time, a 27-year-old Steven Spielberg had no big-budget films under his belt when “Jaws” went into production, and the cast didn’t have a single big star attached. Not to mention, a looming actor’s strike, production delays and numerous issues on set could have easily sunk the production.
However, like the crew of the boat Orca, “Jaws” overcame the odds and became one of the most groundbreaking movies the film industry has ever seen.
“Jaws” was released 44 years ago on June 20, 1975, terrifying beachgoers long before the Discovery Channel’s annual summer “Shark Week” picked up the honor. Back then, moviegoers had not yet fully embraced the idea of flocking to theaters during the summer, so there was some risk in releasing the movie during the warmer weather months.
It would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including being one of only six horror films to ever be nominated for best picture. While “Jaws” would lose out to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the film took home Oscars for best original music score, film editing and sound mixing.
“Simply put, the summer movie season as we know it today would not exist if not for ‘Jaws,'” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told CNN.
Much of the film’s success can be attributed to the TV marketing budget Universal Pictures put into the film. While marketing budgets for blockbuster films these days can easily exceed $100 million, budgets at the time were a fraction of that.
Universal publicity director Clark Ramsey said it was “the largest expenditure on advertising of a release in the history of the company,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Spielberg, star Robert Shaw and the producers for the film went on a marketing blitz, appearing on TV shows and even landing a story on the cover of Time magazine.
“The cover on Time magazine was the most important,” producer David Brown said. “It was a recognition of the film’s news value primarily and the building of the phenomenon of ‘Jaws.'”
Prior to “Jaws,” the only other film to put a significant budget into advertising on network television was the Charlton Heston film “Breakout,” which was not a box office success.
Universal Pictures decided to saturate primetime network television with 30-second trailers for “Jaws” in the days leading up to its release, and history shows it paid off. The $700,000 spent helped the film earn close to $7 million during its opening weekend, according to the History Channel.
The film was scored by legendary composer John Williams, and Spielberg initially thought that the two-note theme song he played for him on a piano was a joke when he first heard it.
However, Spielberg would later say, “The score was clearly responsible for half of the success of that movie.”
The powerful theme song is one of the most iconic in cinema, and it earned Williams an Academy Award for best original dramatic score.
The film opened in more than 400 theaters across the US, which was not common at the time; it was more typical for a movie to release on a limited amount of screens before expanding to other cities.
“The concept was that instead of going out in a few number of theaters in a city and then expanding more and more and more, if you went and advertised a movie on network television and successfully interested an audience in that movie, you could open everywhere at the same time,” said Bob Levin, the former head of marketing for Walt Disney Corp.
The strategy to open big and then release even wider helped “Jaws” break box office records previously set by “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist,” according to PBS. Spielberg’s hit earned back its famously large cost in its opening weekend and went on to gross over $470 million worldwide. According to Box Office Mojo, “Jaws” ranks No. 7 of all-time for domestic gross when adjusted for inflation.