The Summer ‘Jaws’ Ate the Movies

No one could have foretold, in the lazy, post-Watergate summer of 1975, that the Spielbergian tide swelling on the horizon would forever wash away tried-and-true traditions in the summer movie business. Nor could anyone have guessed how the success of a single film about a fish with very big teeth would lead to the kind of movie lineup we face this summer, going on 40 years later.

Summer 2012 is overripe with superhero fantasies, pumped-up fairy tales, videogame and boardgame adaptations, cartoon movies (in both senses of the phrase), umpteenth entries in brain-dead series and franchises. ’Tis the season of tentpoles, every one of them hankering to be this summer’s Jaws. Really, is this all there is?

“But,” some fanboy protests, “isn’t that what summer at the movies is supposed to be?” Yes, according to the marketing mavens and dealmakers and packagers, that’s the plan. But it wasn’t ever thus. Leaving Spielberg’s big fish out of it, what was the summer slate of ’75 like? How was it different from the kind of present-day cinematic fare we credit (or diss) Jaws for spawning?

But first, how did the revolution begin? In 1975, against considerable odds and with myriad technical difficulties, the Zanuck-Brown unit of Universal Pictures and young hotshot director Steven Spielberg brought novelist Peter Benchley’s summer 1974 page-turner Jaws to the screen. Universal opted for an unprecedented 450-theater release supported by a marketing blitzkrieg, and the Great White shark movie rose swiftly to become Hollywood’s new box-office champion. Summer tentpole madness was born.

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