Jaws at 40: The birth of the blockbuster

On the 40th anniversary of its release, EDGAR examines how Jaws changed the film industry forever.

Peter Iantorno June 21, 2015

40 years ago, on June 20, 1975, Jaws was aired in cinemas for the first time.

Despite being directed by a then young and untested filmmaker in Steven Spielberg, featuring a relatively unknown cast with a ragged-looking mechanical shark as the main star, running late and way over budget and almost ruining Spielberg's career before it had even begun, the film was - somehow - a runaway success. 

It opened to much fanfare on 409 screens across the US, in what was an unprecedented for the time 'wide-release', which would go on to shape the way summer blockbusters are revealed to the world to this day.

The ruthless blanket marketing campaign was more ferocious in its intensity than old Jaws himself, and it was due more to that than any amount of gory special effects that it took the box office by storm, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time, taking $260 million (close to $1 billion in today's money), until it was overtaken by Star Wars two years later.

It could have all been so different for Jaws had the public listened to the reviews of the film critics of the day. "If you think about Jaws for more than 45 seconds you will recognise it as nonsense..." said Vincent Carnby in The New York Times. While Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times struck out at what he believed to be the "grievously wrong and misleading" classification of the film, which was only rated PG even though it was described by Robert Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times as, "as frightening as The Exorcist", and by Pauline Kael of The New Yorker as "cheerfully perverse".

Of course, the public didn't pay attention to the poor reviews, and they flocked to see the film in their droves. But looking back, the public - much like Jaws' victims - never really stood a chance of not being taken in by the film, such was shock-and-awe marketing strategy employed to promote it. 

Nowadays before a big summer blockbuster comes out we all expect that we're going to be hearing all about it for months up until the release, but when Jaws was released in 1975, this was certainly not the case, with films generally being soft-launched on only a few screens, then rolled out to more later depending on the feedback.

However, with Jaws, Universal spared no expense at all in promotion. A 30-second version of the terrifying trailer, below, was aired on prime-time TV 25 times per night, adverts were on billboards and details of the film's most gory moments were leaked. The anticipation levels for the film were at fever pitch.

Now, 40 years on from the film's release, the global sensation that is the Jaws franchise has well and truly penetrated the public consciousness, with the humming of its menacing bass-heavy theme tune accepted as the universal sign for impending danger from the depths of the sea.

As a story Jaws was far from groundbreaking - a predictable storyline featuring fairly one-dimensional characters. As a piece of cinema, it was better, with Spielberg's direction creating an overwhelming sense of fear around a largely unseen monster. However, as a marketing exercise, Jaws was in a class of its own.