How 'Jaws' helped shape the summer blockbuster

Published: Thursday, June 26 2014 4:40 p.m. MDT

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are ready for action in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

Marvel/Disney

Summer officially arrived last Saturday, but in terms of Hollywood Daylight Time, it’s been here since April 4.

That’s the day “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opened, which, for all intents and purposes, fired the starter pistol for the 2014 summer movie season.

Back when I was reviewing films full time (the late 1970s through the late 1990s), the summer movie season typically started in late May, then over the years it managed to inch up to early May and, once in a while, late April.

Hey, spring is the new summer.

But April 4?

If anything opens in early March, winter will become the new summer. It’ll be Hollywood Global Warming Time.

And for this we can thank “Jaws,” a movie I still get a hankering to watch whenever the temperature approaches triple digits.

The summer blockbuster season was born in 1975 when “Jaws” became the theatrical game changer for how movies were distributed — and how they came to be made with an eye toward an opening date (which, these days, is sometimes scheduled before a franchise film even begins shooting).

The little killer-shark movie — which was helmed by a 28-year-old director with only one theatrical film to his credit, starred relatively unknown actors, went over budget and past schedule and had an extremely troubled production, including uncooperative weather and the repeated breakdowns of the chief special effect, a mechanical shark — was thought to be more than just a gamble for Universal Pictures. It was a disaster in the making, even by the estimation of the film’s own cast and crew.

But the performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw proved to be ingratiating, director Steven Spielberg came up with some startling sequences and, thanks to one of the industry’s best film editors, Verna Fields, and a veteran but relatively little-known studio composer named John Williams, the final product connected with preview audiences in a big way.

Adding to this perfect storm was the decision to open in some 400 theaters all at once, which was quite unusual at the time. (These days it’s the norm for a big summer movie to open on 4,000 screens.)

“Jaws” became the first movie to earn more than $100 million at the box office, paving the way for such future blockbusters as “Star Wars,” “Ghostbusters,” “Back to the Future” and Spielberg’s own “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park,” continuing through to the superhero/fantasy sequels and animated films that regularly rise to the top each summer during the 21st century.

Back then, the competition didn’t know what it was getting itself into by going up against such films. It was a learning curve. But now, when blockbusters are scheduled, everyone gets out of the way.

Today, for example, as the fourth “Transformers” movie comes on the scene, no other major movies will open. Oh, there are other movies beginning their runs today, some smaller pictures, art films, independent productions — things that offer alternatives to those who prefer movies about human beings to movies about alien robots.

But there are no real threats to the assumed “Transformers” dominance at the box office this weekend and no gambling with other big-budget films that would likely suffer in its wake.

In a couple of weeks, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has been given an equally wide berth, as has “Guardians of the Galaxy” a couple of weeks after that.

And nothing about this model is likely to change in the near future, unless moviegoers tire of going out at all and decide to simply wait a couple of months and watch these movies at home.

But the major studios are banking on the impatience of each franchise’s fan base, whose anticipation is built up by advance publicity and the ever-active blogosphere — and on the attraction of Imax and 3-D, which are difficult to replicate at home and whose surcharges fill the studio coffers a little more quickly.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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