Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws opened almost exactly 45 years ago — 6.20.75. The trouble-plagued Universal release opened in 474 theatres that day, and then expanded to 675 theatres on 7.25.75 — the biggest mass release of a film ever seen at the time. It earned a staggering $7 million the first weekend, and stayed at the top for the next five weeks, ultimately becoming the first pic to top $100 million domestic.
I’ve acknowledged that for what it is, Jaws holds up fairly well. But it’s difficult to think of it these days as just a film. For years it’s been regarded (and not just by people like myself) as almost a sentinel of tragedy, as extreme as that may sound. It ushered in the era of the mass-market, four-quadrant tentpole movie, and in so doing almost single-handedly (i.e., along with the success of Star Wars two years later) turned the film industry away from the idea of smallish or mid-sized movies with flavor and personality being a legitimate thing to invest in.
Jaws and Star Wars, in short, brought high-concept greed into the mix, and from this the interest of corporations in the potential for even greater profits if movies could be sufficiently simplified and tailored to a younger (or more simple-minded) audience. This in turn set in motion forces that wound up dumbing down movies and injecting a kind of virus into the Hollywood system that basically poisoned the whole game, leading to the ascension of tentpole auteurs and dumber plots and faster and faster cutting and hundreds of orange fireballs in action sequences.
This cause-and-effect has been recounted and lamented by many thoughtful chroniclers, and doesn’t need to repeated once again. But Jaws did do it — it let slip the dogs of tentpole hell, and movies have never been the same since.