The movie box office landscape changed during the summer of 1975. That’s when a shark invaded the waters of the New England coastal community of Amity Island and killed several people, causing mass chaos along its vicious path of destruction. The shark’s name was Bruce, and the film that changed it all was “Jaws.”
Jaws was more than a “monster in the house” film (see Blake Snyder), it was a cultural phenomenon based on a number one best selling novel by Peter Benchley. It was the first film to engage in nationwide massive theatrical distribution and full-scale marketing. In a three-day period in June (18th -20th), a substantial media buy of network television ads were purchased on primetime major networks (this had never been done before at this scale). Twenty-five spots per night were utilized to entice audiences to see a face of horror and suspense that had never before been witnessed on the screen. The promise of “Jaws” was to engage audiences into something that would change their lives.
The film initially opened on June 20, 1975 in 464 theatres and expanded to 675 by July 25 (the largest ever at that time). It grossed $7 million on opening weekend and held the number one slot at the box office for six consecutive weeks. “Jaws” became the first film to earn more than $100 million during the theatrical run, and it became the benchmark for those that followed. It would eventually go on to gross over $470 million worldwide (more than $1.2 billion in 2018 numbers). Today, films can make over $100 million in a day or two and are distributed as wide as 4,000 theatres on opening weekend, but “Jaws” was the vehicle that established the foundation.
“Jaws” was a must-see film, and audience members across the nation would stand in long lines stretching entire city blocks (Blockbuster) just for a chance to be a part of this cultural experience. While the term “blockbuster” originated with military aircraft dropping bombs that could destroy entire city blocks, the term was adopted with better purposes in mind after “Jaws” fans took over city blocks for hours upon hours hoping for the opportunity to swim with the sharks.
“Jaws” reframed movie making experiences for both fans and filmmakers. This film was beyond topics of water coolers or evening news segments, it was embedded into the hearts and minds of Americans. It was an “event.” Fans would go back to the theatre to see this film multiple times to participate in the shared experience of thrills and fast paced entertainment. The standard (and expectation) for future films, especially summer releases, was established here. And the stakes for wide-scale releases have continued to rise higher.
Studios and distributors began to develop strategic plans on release schedules and advertising budgets to coincide with summer films (after the success of “Jaws”). They came to understand that the “event” film should be the foundation for the financial welfare of the studios, and that releasing a perfectly placed film to appeal to wide
audiences could serve as the tent-pole for other releases. These “tent-pole” films could potentially make so much money for the studio that even if other films they released lost money, the financial success of the one could support the loss of many others.
Today, studios still hang their hats on “tent-pole” films, but have been able to expand the summer schedule to releases year round (thanks in part to international box office demand). While films released during the summer and Christmas seasons typically perform better for U.S. audiences (from box office numbers), the “event” film knows no season any longer. When we see films that
appeal to various demographics and boast of big time movie stars, major merchandising and marketing, hotbed topics, massive budgets, huge explosions, crazy difficult stunts, or special visual effects – the expectation is for financial success. But even if Hollywood expects that to be the case, it is ultimately up to the consumer (us) to decide if it is worth our hard-earned dollars to help raise the tent-pole for the studio. We have the power; we have the control.
Noel T. Manning II
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