By Ryan Fleming
When you look at the highest grossing films in any given year this decade, you are greeted with a barrage of big-budget blockbusters, and every April and May audiences are bombarded with trailers and posters for the forthcoming slew of summer blockbusters being released that year.
Though an indelible part of the film landscape these days, the idea of a blockbuster did not exist until the 1970s, when, amongst the myriad of changes going on in the film industry that decade, an over-budget film that overran its production schedule and was beset by countless problems under a first time director managed to become the highest grossing film of all time until that point. That film was Jaws, and within a year, it had redefined how Hollywood marketed and distributed films. It made the career of Steven Spielberg, who is to this day one of the most famous of all film directors, and it unleashed a slew of imitators - some of which would go on to be inadvertently significant themselves.
Before the release of Jaws, film distributors would release each film in a number of big cities to allow for multiple film premiers across America, and then - based upon audience or critical reaction - the film would slowly be released into smaller markets. A wide release was reserved for such lower fare as grindhouse or exploitation films, and only very few mainstream releases had opened in hundreds of theatres simultaneously.
For a film to be accompanied by a nationwide television marketing campaign was also almost unheard of at a time when most film studios still lived in fear that television would threaten their revenue – they even refused to licence their films for broadcast on television without astronomical fees.
The combination of these two factors, along with the small fact the film was an excellent exercise in action, suspense, and spectacle, led to Jaws becoming the highest grossing film in history to that point by 1976. It dethroned The Godfather, which itself had become the highest grossing film when it was released in 1972.
The Godfather had unseated Gone with the Wind which had regained the title from The Sound of Music after its 1971 re-release; The Sound of Music had broken Gone with the Wind’s old record in 1966 after the latter had held it since 1940. That’s right, in the days before blockbusters - aside from a brief von Trapp interlude - Gone with the Wind was the highest grossing film of all time for nearly three decades!
But after Jaws ushered in the blockbuster? Star Wars showed it had a bigger boat in 1978 and then nearly doubled its own record in a 1982 re-release; E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial would make Star Wars feel a long, long time ago by 1983 and would again beat its own record with re-releases by 1993; by the end of that year, though, Jurassic Park had made E.T. go home; five years later Titanic had made the record set by Jurassic Park extinct; Avatar would set Titanic’s record on course for an iceberg in 2010; and this year Avengers: Endgame made Avatar fans feel blue when it became the current record-holder.
The thirty-six years from 1940 to 1976 saw the record for highest grossing film change three times, with one of them being a previous holder on a re-release. The subsequent thirty-six years saw it change seven times at least once a decade. Without Jaws proving just how much there was to be made in a wide Summer release the record set by The Godfather might have held for as long as that of Gone with the Wind, perhaps widespread marketing campaigns would not become the norm and films would still rely on word of mouth and critics to convince people to buy tickets, and perhaps wide releases across the globe would never become the norm and we would still see a staggered release into large cities and then trickle down into smaller markets.
Of that list of highest grossing films above, three of them were from a single director. Though he had made his theatrical debut in 1974 with The Sugarland Express, it was Jaws, in 1975, that cemented Steven Spielberg's position as a director of major Hollywood films. Prior to this he was mainly known as a television director helming such small-screen classics as the television film Duel, and the first episode of detective series Columbo “Murder By the Book”. After directing one of the first films to generate such a widespread interest beyond the theatre, he would go on to leave an indelible mark on popular culture.
He followed up Jaws with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which can perhaps be described as the first effort at creating his "Spielbergian" benign wondrous vision of cinema. This vision would show through in many more of his efforts from the 1980s into the early 1990s, including the aforementioned E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park as well as the Indiana Jones films. The current wave of works steeped in nostalgia for the 1980s, such as Netflix series Stranger Things, owes a lot to the Spielbergian ideal portrayed in both his own films as well as those produced under other directors that have the same thematic tone.
The 1990s would see Spielberg tackle darker content, including, in 1993, one of the first widely released films attempting to portray the horrors of the Holocaust: Schindler’s List. He followed this up with the World War II epic Saving Private Ryan in 1998, a film that garnered acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the D-Day Omaha beach landings. Both films would see Spielberg receive the Academy Award for Best Director.
Without Jaws proving his abilities, Spielberg might have lingered longer on the small screen, only managing intermittent theatrical releases of his work. Though the fare of US television in the 1970s would undoubtedly benefit (see either of his two television efforts mentioned above to see what he could do on the small screen), the whole trajectory of popular culture into the 1980s would have been changed. Star Wars might still come about, but without Spielberg, the subsequent trends might be very different.
To return to those highest-grossing films of all time, after Spielberg ,there is only one director with multiple record-holding films. For twenty-two years between 1997 and 2019 James Cameron had directed the highest grossing films of all time – first Titanic and then Avatar. However, were it not for a much-maligned sequel to a low-budget Jaws rip-off, James Cameron might never have had the opportunity to direct Avatar, Titanic, or any of his other films.
Jaws is at its heart a horror film seeing an unstoppable monster wreak havoc and terror on a small town. The years following its release saw many imitators, each seeing a different animal in place of the infamous great white shark. There was Grizzly, with a grizzly bear; Orca, Alligator, Piranha, with, well, an orca, an alligator, and piranha, respectively. Even The Car, with... a car.
This sort of film continues to be made to this day, with this year seeing the release of Crawl, with more alligators. Some of these cash-ins even saw sequels, such as 1978's Piranha (itself directed by Joe Dante who would go on to make many films in the Spielbergian vein during the 1980s). spawning Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981.
Even amongst genre stablemates, this sequel is acknowledged as one of the worst films ever made, though its director has gone on the record as saying it is “the best flying piranha film ever made”.
It’s difficult to argue with James Cameron’s assertion.
It was during an illness following the films tough production that Cameron first developed the core idea that would become The Terminator, which he would parlay with the same techniques pioneered by John Carpenter in Halloween to become his first success.
From there he was able to direct Aliens (itself a sequel to Alien, pitched to studios as “Jaws in space”) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, before eventually making Titanic and Avatar. Without working on Piranha II, he might never have become a director and instead remained a special-effects artist (indeed, the only reason he became director on Piranha II was because the first director quit and Cameron stepped in) – like Spielberg, he would have excelled in his field, but we would be without many great films, and without his influence action and science fiction films might be very, very different.
Though it might have dropped somewhat from public consciousness in the past decade with the rise of franchises in cinema, Jaws was pivotal in establishing the modern model of blockbuster, as well as in making the career of its director, who would go on to shape popular culture for the next decade. It would also not have made several other careers in the knock-ons from its host of imitators. From its poster, to its score, to every facet of what appears on screen, Jaws is one of the greatest films ever made, and without it, we would be looking at an almost unrecognisable cinema today
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP