Summer and movies go hand and hand. During the 1970s, it seemed to be a lot about disaster. Big buildings on fire, massive ships sinking, and airplane disasters were the favourite themes. But one shark created the blockbuster –a new way to celebrate summer.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws is credited as the first summer blockbuster, and was Spielberg’s breakout movie. Starring Roy Schieder as the police chief and Richard Dreyfuss as a local marine biologist, the lead characters seek out the blood-thirsty shark who has taken his bite out of a skinny dipping young woman and then a young boy, as the town’s mayor refuses to close the beach, fixated on summer tourism dollars for his small town.
Set in a fictional Amity Island, Jaws was written by Peter Benchley, whose novel had been a moderate success in the world of book publishing. But Jaws the movie, kicked it all up to the next level. Filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, the creation of three mechanical sharks and combined with shark footage filmed in Australia, this thriller/horror film dominated the summer with its aggressive marketing, wide release across North America and effectively reduced beach attendance as the fear of sharks grew amongst us all.
I was very young when this movie was released, and living in Bellingham, Washington as my Dad was studying for his master’s degree. My parents decided to bring me along with their friends, instead of leaving me with a babysitter to see the movie. I was initially more interested in the candy and watching the adults than the actual movie. But then I heard the music, which to this day I recognize instantly as the prelude to the shark attack. Created by film composer John Williams, the simple tune gained him an Oscar and launched his career.
I remember closing my eyes tight and squeezing my Mum’s hand, hoping it would be over soon (although I’m not sure what was coming, I knew it was scary). I could feel the tension in the movie theatre, hear the gasps and small shrieks, and waited as the shark took over as the lead character. I would slowly open one eye and as the swirl of water and the sounds from the screen would collide, I would duck my head down, hoping the seat would block me from seeing anything. I’m sure I only saw a quarter of the movie, as I hid during most of it, eating my licorice and getting reassurances from my parents and their friends.
As the highest grossing box office release until 1977, Jaws was the first film to gross $100 million, beating the former box office champ, The Exorcist. With its unique combination of marketing and movie formula, Jaws is credited with changing the summer movie business model. But for a little girl who loved the ocean, it has always been the reason she has hesitated, looked in the water and then plunged in, hoping to not hear the music.