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Last Updated: Friday, 3 June, 2005, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Shark tale that changed Hollywood
By Neil Smith
BBC News entertainment reporter

This weekend members of the the cast and crew of Jaws return to Martha's Vineyard in the US, where the film was shot, for a festival to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Jaws poster
The iconic poster spawned a mini-industry of Jaws merchandise

Three decades on, Steven Spielberg's 1975 shark drama continues to cast a long shadow over Hollywood.

Based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, it was the movie that singlehandedly ushered in a new era of blockbuster film-making.

It also set its then 29-year-old, fledgling director on a course to become one of the industry's most powerful and influential figures.

Before Jaws, summer was considered a graveyard for Hollywood studios - a time when distributors released titles they considered sub-standard and unlikely to turn a profit.

All that changed on 20 June 1975, when Spielberg's shark tale opened on 409 cinemas - a record at the time - across the US.

Backed by $700,000 worth of TV advertising, the movie swiftly became a phenomenon - spawning a craze for Jaws T-shirts, beach towels and action figurines.

The film went on to win three Oscars at the 1976 Academy Awards and be followed by three inferior sequels.


And yet it could all have turned out very differently.

For one thing Spielberg was initially unenthusiastic about the project, preferring to put his energies behind a science-fiction scenario that would eventually become Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Susan Backlinie in Jaws
Former stuntwoman Susan Backlinie played the Great White's first victim
"I want to make films," he told producer David Brown, who replied: "This is a big movie. This will enable you to make all the films you want!"

Spielberg acquiesced, though he lived to regret his decision when his movie became mired in shooting problems, budget overruns and technical hitches.

Chief among these was the shark itself, named Bruce after the director's lawyer. Three mechanical creatures were built, one of which sank on the third day of shooting.

But Spielberg's insistence on filming on the open sea rather than in a studio tank contributed to the difficulties, resulting in more than 100 days of shooting and a final budget three times the original estimate.

Script rewrites and casting disagreements further delayed the project. In the words of actor Richard Dreyfuss: "We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark."

So it was with some trepidation that Universal began previewing the film in spring 1975.


One of the key decisions was to ditch much of the footage involving the malfunctioning mechanical sharks and opt for the roaming point-of-view shots for which the film would become famous.

A decision was also made to hold off revealing the shark itself until the final third of the movie and to jolt the audience with additional scary moments.

Jaws author Peter Benchley
Jaws author Peter Benchley now promotes saving sharks
The success of these last-minute alterations became clear during the first preview in Dallas on 26 March when a man in the front row got out of his seat, ran down the aisle and threw up in the lobby. "That's when I knew we had a hit," said the director.

How much of a hit soon became clear when Jaws overtook The Godfather and The Exorcist to become the first film to gross more than $100 million.

More than 67 million Americans saw the film, taking its total US haul to a record-breaking $129.5m.

The record stood for two years until George Lucas released Star Wars.

There was a sting in the tale for Spielberg, however. Though the film was nominated for the best picture Oscar, the director himself was passed over in favour of Italy's Federico Fellini.

Indeed, it would be another 18 years before the director was finally awarded that prestigious accolade.

Was Hollywood punishing the wunderkind for his success? Possibly - though it was a success they were keen to emulate.

One only has to look at this summer's roster of sequels, prequels and effects-packed spectaculars to see that the blockbuster mentality he initiated is still very much to the fore.

Spielberg voted 'best director'
01 Jun 05 |  Entertainment
The book that spawned a monster
01 Feb 04 |  Entertainment
Rise of the blockbuster
16 Nov 01 |  Entertainment


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