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How Steven Spielberg’s Jaws Changed Hollywood

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) was a commercial hit. Upon its release in theatres during the summer of 1975, it broke box-office records. The film was put together by studios and agencies; essentially it was a product specifically made to make money- a lot of it. It is regarded as being the first-ever “blockbuster” in New Hollywood, which was a new generation of young filmmakers determined on changing the rules of the old, classical system. Spielberg managed to incorporate elements of both the old and new systems to create a film that would go on to be one of the most well-recognized and celebrated films ever made.

Jaws works differently than other big “spectacle” films of today; it has far more heart and more virtue than its modern-day successors. It is not empty or devoid of sentiment. Although Spielberg was part of the new way of thinking in Hollywood, he still very much combined what he learned from filmmakers that had come before him with the idea that there are new audiences waiting to see something different. He believed that you could still use the classical system even if the world continued to change.

The film is well made; a lot of time and energy from a lot of talented people were put into the making of Jaws. There was good, solid technique, a strong, well-worked script, and characters with depth. It was also well directed, even though the film’s producers at the time were not so sure about Spielberg’s vision and budget. The result was deemed a major success. Douglas Brode states in his book “The Films of Steven Spielberg” that “Shot by shot, moment by moment, it displays not only the technical wizardry and crowd-satisfying craftsmanship of Spielberg but also his directorial personality.” It cemented Spielberg in the industry and he went on to make quite a name for himself. From the very beginning of his career, he demonstrated a strong style in his film-making, allowing for audiences to be able to easily recognize his work.

Jaws movie collage

The reason for the film’s immense popularity was not only due to the fact that the film was well made and cleverly written, but perhaps more so because of its content. It is a movie about a killer shark plaguing a small, island community during the Fourth of July weekend. At this point in time, the American public was still coming to terms with the Vietnam War and the political strife defining the country. Veterans were coming home broken, families were being torn apart and there was corruption in the government. It was far easier for the public to witness the horror of a shark attack than it was to deal with the war or with the political dishonesty on home soil. It was a controllable fear; it could be destroyed. People could identify with this anxiety; it was safe and could be handled. It actually made people feel good in a way. It provided an escape from the problems being presented all around them.

In his book “Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979”, David Cook argues that “The success of Jaws permanently hooked the industry on blockbuster windfalls”. It set an example for future spectacle films. And there have been a lot of them ever since. Now, every summer has a multitude of event films that everyone rushes to go see. It is because of Jaws that the movie theatres are packed on the long hot days of July. It has almost become a tradition. Unfortunately, most of these films are unmemorable, to say the least. We can never predict how history will be made, like how a movie about a shark rewrote the rules of Hollywood.

-Trish Ferris

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.

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