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jaws: the monster that ate hollywood
Steven Spielberg's great white shark and the summer that changed everything

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In this excerpt, showing scenes from the TV ads for "Jaws" (1975) and its sequel, "Jaws 2" (1978), MGM marketing executive Robert Levin and Mandalay Pictures chairman Peter Guber explain how "Jaws" -- with its wide release and its primetime TV ad campaign -- changed the way movies are marketed and distributed.
It was October 1974, and Steven Spielberg was 27 years old. He had stopped at a hotel in Boston on his way back from Martha's Vineyard, where he had just finished shooting his second Hollywood feature film, "Jaws." Instead of feeling buoyant or elated, Spielberg suffered an immobilizing anxiety attack. According to Peter Bart in his book The Gross (1999), Spielberg was afraid he'd never work in Hollywood again when word leaked out that he'd lost control of his production. The budget for the film would ultimately tip the scales at $12 million, 300 percent over what the studios originally allocated and nearly four times as much as the average production cost for a film in 1975. Not only that, but the shooting schedule had ballooned from 55 to 159 days to further compound the fiscal damage. [Note: Precise figures for Hollywood budgets are, and always have been, elusive. The budget figures cited here are based on press reports.]

Still, by Hollywood standards, "Jaws" wasn't a big-budget movie. The toga-and-sandals epics of the 1960s were far costlier. "Cleopatra" had nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox in 1963 with its $42-million budget. Both "Spartacus" and "Lawrence of Arabia" boasted outsized budgets as well, and there were plenty of other extravagant celluloid edifices built during the same period. Adjusted for inflation, the three movies mentioned above would cost over $200 million ("Cleopatra"), $90 million ("Spartacus"), and $70 million ("Lawrence of Arabia") in today's Hollywood. "Jaws" would cost only $40 million, nearly $15 million less than the average production cost for a studio movie today.

Nonetheless, studio executives evoke the image of the mechanical great white shark when they talk about what precipitated the changes in Hollywood during the past few decades.

"The four words that start the book [Jaws] -- 'and so it began' -- are the same four words that you could use for the change in the business. And so it began," says Peter Guber, a long-time (some would say legendary) studio executive who's produced such diverse fare as "Midnight Express," "The Color Purple" and "Batman" (not to mention a few he'd rather we forget). "These wide releases, these enormous expenditures of prints and advertising in publicity and marketing costs and expenditures. They would create this enormous swell of momentum that would create gargantuan box office from the beginning."

Before the summer of 1975, Hollywood studios traditionally did not advertise their movies on network television. It was simply too expensive to do so. Shortly before the release of "Jaws," Columbia Pictures (where Peter Guber was studio chief) bought 42 prime-time TV spots for another film, the Charles Bronson vehicle "Breakout." Despite the advertising expenditures, which reportedly cost $3.5 million, the box-office results for the film were disappointing. Then, for three nights preceding the release of "Jaws" on June 20, 1975, Universal saturated the networks during primetime with 30-second trailers for the movie. This time, for whatever reason (some combination of marketing savvy, timing, and national media exposure), it worked: The film easily surpassed the $100-million mark at the box office and broke the previous records set by "The Godfather" and "The Exorcist." Ultimately, the movie would gross $260 million in the U.S. alone.

Predictably, after "Jaws," studios put much more emphasis on television advertising. "When you're looking at your broad films with significant box-office potential, the trick seemed to be television advertising," says Bob Levin, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for MGM and former head of marketing at Walt Disney Corp. "Nothing drove it like television advertising. And studios got more and more enamored with the power of television to open more screens, more theaters. ... They found television to be this powerhouse."

"Before that, what we now call marketing departments were called publicity departments, because it was a publicity-driven business," continues Levin. "You can't go back and find in the early days in the movie business vast amounts spent in advertising. ... There was a movie preview, or we call it a trailer, but not a lot of advertising." Now, for a typical film, the total marketing budget equals roughly half of the production budget.

The release of "Jaws" represented another significant change in standard practice: opening a movie in hundreds of theaters at the same time. This trend was actually set in motion before "Jaws," in the early 1970s, with the release of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." Prior to "The Godfather," high-profile movies would typically play for three months or so in only one location before slowly moving into other major cities and then, finally, to second- and third-run theaters in small towns across the country. Also, the first theater to premier the film had a monopoly of sorts -- it had "clearance" over a large area in which no other theater could play the same film. In 1972, Paramount opened "The Godfather" in five theaters at once, and moved to 316 theaters the following week. The studio was able to challenge the theaters' clearance policy, and before long "The Godfather" was taking in $1 million a day and setting box-office records.

"Jaws" opened in 465 theaters, and in an astonishing 78 days it had already dethroned "The Godfather" at the box office. (By comparison, it took more than 25 years for "Gone With the Wind" to be knocked out of the top spot by "The Sound of Music" in 1965) "The concept was that instead of going out in a few number of theaters in a city and then expanding more and more and more, if you went and advertised a movie on network television and successfully interested an audience in that movie, you could open everywhere at the same time," says Levin. Now movies can be released on a much wider basis. This summer, for instance, "Pearl Harbor" opened on more than 3,000 screens.

In 1975, the concept of a "summer blockbuster" was just beginning to crystallize as well. For many years summer was considered the off-season for the movie industry, partly because few moviegoers wanted to spend two hours in a theater without air-conditioning. Indeed, when the late Pauline Kael, famed movie critic for The New Yorker, first started writing reviews for the magazine in the 1960s, she took the summers off. It was a notion with long-standing precedent: In the 1920s, Motion Picture News reported that most theater-owners considered summer the worst time of the year to exhibit movies. At the time, many theaters even closed during the summer or had limited hours of operation.

Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s (when air-conditioned theaters became the norm), three influential movies in the scope of American cinema -- "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), "Easy Rider" (1969), and "American Graffiti" (1973) -- were all released in the summer. These movies were enormously popular with the younger demographic, and studios started to realize the potential of targeting movies to a younger crowd during the summer, when their rates of attendance increased. "Jaws" was certainly positioned to capitalize on this trend -- and it did. It helped introduce an era in which movies targeted to teens dominated the Hollywood summer line-up, taking off with "Star Wars" in 1977. Now, movies released between Memorial Day and Labor Day are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the annual box-office revenue for Hollywood films.

So, while Spielberg lay awake in a Boston hotel, the wheels of the next Hollywood revolution were spinning.

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