By Kim Hollis
August 21, 2009
On June 20, 1975, Jaws debuted in 465 theaters, a record-shattering venue number. In its first weekend, it grossed more than $7 million (that's a $15,054 per venue average before ticket price inflation is factored in). Over the rest of the summer, Universal expanded the film to even more locations, and the end result is that the Spielberg feature became the first one to ever reach $100 million domestically. From then on, there was no turning back. The following summer, The Omen would follow suit (opening in a few more theaters) with a smaller but still powerful opening weekend, and then we all know what happened after Star Wars came next.
This makes Jaws the granddaddy of the blockbuster, and one of the most significant movies in history from a box office perspective. It's also referred to as one of the first "high concept" films, a term we throw around a lot but rarely define. A high concept film is one that has a short premise that can be described in a couple of sentences. For Jaws, it's as simple as, "shark menaces beach town," or perhaps even "animals eating people = $$$$$," if you want to get right down to it.
Of course, we wouldn't even be talking about Jaws as a cultural touchstone if it hadn't had those initial fantastic test screenings for audiences. I've long been a fan of the film. It's one of those movies that I'll happily watch whenever I come across it on the cable channels, one that I know like the back of my hand yet can find something new to appreciate with each viewing.
I first saw Jaws when I was at a slumber party full of sixth grade girls. You might be wondering how it could be possible that this would be an acceptable film choice for 11-year-olds given the gore and the scares. Surprisingly, the movie was rated PG (there was, of course, no PG-13 rating at the time) and I found myself still boggling over that fact even as I watched it again in preparation for this article. This film is tense and mature, and I know I was terrorized more than a little bit at the time. The good news is that since I lived nowhere near the ocean (and wouldn't approach a beach until I was 16), I was never able to nurture the kind of fear that affected a lot of people in the aftermath of Jaws' release.
And make no mistake about it; Jaws is really pretty scary, even by today's more blasé attitudes towards gore and violence. After all, the movie's opening scene was named the Scariest Movie Moment in a Bravo Halloween special. What's particularly unique about the way that Spielberg approaches the terror in Jaws is that it's generally done quite subtly. In fact, we almost never see the shark. Most of the tension is all created with underwater shots of legs and and a sense of unease that we feel as we wonder who the great white will munch upon next. There's a particularly outstanding example of this in a scene where the Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) scans the beach, looking at different people playing in the water almost as if trying to pick out the likeliest candidate for chum.