Our summer box office recovery got a blockbuster start with A QUIET PLACE PART 2 and will soon be delivering likely blockbusters such as F9 and BLACK WIDOW. We take mega-hits for granted now, but 46 years ago there weren’t any.
Blockbuster business requires very wide distribution with costly marketing campaigns to drive moviegoers into theatres opening weekend. That’s not something studios did until June 20, 1975, when Universal opened Steven Spielberg’s scary thriller JAWS about a great white shark terrorizing a summer resort. It starred Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw & Richard Dreyfuss.
Spielberg wasn’t quite “Spielberg” yet. He’d only made one feature, Universal’s crime drama SUGARLAND EXPRESS starring Goldie Hawn, but it put him on track to do bigger things. For his next film, he convinced SE’s well-connected power producers Richard D. Zanuck & David Brown to let him direct JAWS. In 1973 they’d purchased the rights to JAWS pre-publication for $175,000. JAWS had the right ingredients to be a blockbuster. It was based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, had a high concept action storyline and beach settings that were perfect for summertime moviegoing.
In those days, studios didn’t open movies at 4,000 theatres with expensive TV ad campaigns. Films typically opened in New York & L.A. and, perhaps, a few other major markets where they were reviewed and generated publicity — in newspapers & magazines and on the radio. As word of mouth spread, pictures would expand into more cities. With JAWS, however, Universal did things differently. It knew from successful previews that it had something promising on its hands and gave it a very wide opening at 409 U.S. theatres. Within a month, JAWS expanded to 675 and by mid-August to 954. A huge marketing budget of $1.8 million was committed, including $700,000 for a network TV 30-second ad blitz.
JAWS reportedly cost $12 million, well above its initial $3.5 million budget due to problems shooting on the water with a malfunctioning mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce. It opened to $7.1 million — an amazing $17,265 per theatre — and was the first film ever to gross over $100 million. It wound up doing $260 million and spawned three sequels — JAWS 2 (1978), JAWS-3D (1983), and JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987).
JAWS was Hollywood’s top-grossing film for the next two years until a new summer blockbuster arrived May 25, 1977 — STAR WARS, from Spielberg’s pal George Lucas.