The legacy of 'jaws' that has bitten the dust

Summer blockbusters began 35 years ago with the Steven Spielberg classic. Now the phenomenon is over

It's been 35 years, but people are still scared to get into the water. That's the legacy of a two-hour movie released in June 1975 by a then little-known director called Steven Spielberg, and which turned the hitherto tranquil act of visiting the beach into a nerve-wracking pursuit which involved the humming, at ever increasing speed, of two musical notes: "dee-dum."

The film, of course, was Jaws. And aside from forever poisoning our relationship with vast predatory fish, it also made an indelible impact on modern culture as the first ever Summer Blockbuster: the first movie to pass the milestone of making $100m at the box office, and the first to be marketed by a major Hollywood studio as a cultural event.

Before Jaws, new films were typically released in a handful of cinemas, often on a Monday night, before widening to more screens if enough people turned up.

After Jaws, the industry's playing field shifted: having learned that a single movie could make $100m, studios began taking bigger gambles. They filled cinemas with expensive "tent-pole" productions which opened on a Thursday or Friday in hundreds of theatres at once. If they caught the zeitgeist, financial returns were stellar. If they didn't, the losses were equally spectacular.

This, give or take, was the revolution that gave rise to the most influential films of the past three-and-a-half decades. Without Jaws, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films would never have been green-lit. There would be no Batman, Spider-Man, Transformers, Mission Impossible. Not for nothing is Steven Spielberg widely known as the "father" of the modern blockbuster.

Yet lately, there have been signs that the time-honoured genre he created may be slipping into decline. More and more action-packed special-effects-laden cinematic extravaganzas have bombed, while smaller, quirkier titles have upset the odds and succeeded. The evidence pointing to the blockbuster's demise is written not just in the Oscars, which for years have tended to be dominated by independent titles, but in the 2010 box office charts. Recent months have seen ambitious projects like Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans and Ridley Scott's Robin Hood land with a soft thud, making only a fraction of expected takings. The Memorial Day holiday, traditionally one of the most lucrative weekends in the US box office calendar, was the worst in 17 years.

Universal, the studio which launched Jaws in 1975, is in the regrettable position of not having produced a bona fide hit for over a year. MGM, which used to churn out storied blockbusters, is on the verge of bankruptcy. While Hollywood keeps churning out expensive action films, more and more of the breakout hits of recent times appear to have been cut from a different cloth. "Over the years, the term 'summer blockbuster' has come to mean a very specific sort of movie, targeted mostly at teenage boys or families," says Tim Gray, the editor of Variety. Yet, Gray says, the most modish movies of recent summers have been titles like The Hangover, an adult comedy with no major stars, and Mamma Mia, a quirky musical. Last year saw offbeat titles like District 9 and Inglourious Basterds make unexpectedly healthy returns.

"Studios are catching on to the fact that there are audiences beyond the traditional Transformers crowd," adds Gray. "Last year there were seven or eight real surprise hits, including things like Paranormal Activity and Taken, which made huge sums. In the past you'd maybe expect no more than two or three."

The great irony about Jaws is the fact that it owed much of its success to a happy accident. Spielberg, 27 at the time of filming secured a $7m budget for his adaptation of the novel by Peter Benchley, and decided to spend the cash filming key scenes off the coast of Martha's Vineyard (rather than in a cheaper, safer, indoor tank). A special-effects nut, Spielberg also decided to create a hydraulically powered fake shark called Bruce. Unfortunately, Bruce suffered technical problems. First he sank. Then salt water played havoc with his mechanics. Filming ran over schedule. Even when he did work, Bruce still looked fake. So once Spielberg got to the editing room, he made perhaps the most important decision of his career: he took a hatchet to his proposed film, editing out almost all of the footage of the shark, so that it only appeared, very fleetingly, and mostly towards the end, when the audience had already suspended its disbelief.

Paradoxically, the change made Jaws exponentially more terrifying. Film-goers saw the results of the shark's handiwork: the screaming holidaymakers and the ocean stained red with blood. But the villain of the piece remained hidden.

Realising the commercial potential on their hands, Universal delayed release until Friday, 24 June 1975. They marketed it heavily, with endless adverts and trailers and a memorable slogan: "Don't go in the water!" It opened straight into 400 cinemas, an uncommonly large number for the era. The profit margin, for the first run, was 1,500 per cent. On the opening night, queues of teenage boys formed outside cinemas. Over the ensuing weeks, many of them were prepared to pay to see Jaws several times. It had become the first real "event" movie.

This taught studios two things: with editing, even mediocre footage can be re-engineered into a brilliant film, and if you bet big you stand a far higher chance of winning big. The Jaws model gave us Star Wars and Top Gun, and some of the most memorable films of the past 35 years. But it has also become a licence to make bad films. As studios took bigger bets, they began ironing out provocative quirks in their products, tending to leave them artistically neutered.

In Jaws we can also see the start of the disheartening trend for endless, unimaginative sequels. The film had three – in 1978, 1983 and 1987, each worse than its predecessor. These days, even the kind of release schedule pioneered by Jaws has been endlessly abused. An average new Hollywood film hits between 2,000 and 3,000 cinemas on the opening weekend. To cynics, this allows a bad film to get a vast audience before word gets out that it's lousy. But audiences appear to be getting wise to those tricks. It's getting harder, if you like, to tempt them into the water.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower