Not too long ago in the past, the onset of summer inspired nothing but the most harrowing of fear in movie theatre owners and film studios.
Who in their right mind would entertain the idea of sitting prone in a cold, dark room instead of roaming the streets, ice cream in hand, or capitalising on the heat with a trip to the beach? Cinema, the logic went, was the perfect pastime for those looking to avoid winter – the flickers of imaginary worlds radiating from multiplex screens providing distraction to the cold world outside.
Using this rationale (and to showcase their movies at the ideal time to still be in the memory of voters come awards’ season), film studios would annually release their cinematic fare like clockwork. Prestigious and mass appeal titles would be released in the heart of winter whereas summer would act as an inglorious dumping ground for B-movies and weird little films which were expected to die at the box office.
The summer of 1975 changed everything.
In an era in which serious-minded auteurs dominated Hollywood – in which Scorsese, Friedkin and Bogdanovich critically and commercially ruled the film scene and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather became the highest grossing release of all time - one movie swam against the tide. Not only, did it suggest, should we come to the cinema during the hazy days of summer, we should, at all costs, avoid the beach.
Jaws, the 1975 movie directed by a young Stephen Spielberg, was a bizarre and brazen attempt to challenge decades of accumulated film orthodoxy – more astonishing was its success; not only did Jaws change the course of 1970s Hollywood, the success of this lavish B-movie fundamentally altered the entire path of the medium.
The movie, based on a 1974 novel of the same name, was an attempt to return cinema to its roots – when film pioneers such as the Lumiere brothers, Georges Melies, Alice Guy-Blanche and George Albert Smith began their experiments in the medium, they attracted audiences to witness their creations by sculpting works of incredible spectacle. A famous anecdote recalls early film audiences recoiled in fear at the prospect of an on-coming train crashing through cinema screens and straight into their paths. Spielberg’s Jaws aimed to replicate the same feelings of shock and awe for modern audiences – his was not a cerebral film of deep philosophy but, rather, an attempt to return cinema to a grandiose and, above all else, guttural place.
The story, a simple one, focuses on a fictional town which is targeted by a giant man-eating shark who terrorises beach-goers with a minimum of clemency. Yet, importantly, Jaws is not so much about the story but in the telling – drawing on all aspects of cinema, Spielberg’s film does everything in its power to give those watching the joy of terror: John William’s iconic score builds tension as we ominously wait for the shark to attack unsuspecting swimmers, the editing keeping us one step ahead of the victims as we’re invited to recoil at the oncoming horror.
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated features, Jaws is a visual movie which invites us to become voyeurs before punishing us for watching by inflicting violent chaos before our eyes. Spielberg makes us complicit in the horror unspooling before us, shockingly immersing us in his world of terror. He creates empathy through fear. And, unsurprisingly, audiences delighted by this kind of challenge – upon its release, Jaws overtook The Exorcist and The Godfather to take the crown of the most commercially successful film of all time. In doing so, Spielberg’s feature told movie studios that audiences don’t always want to be engaged with intellectually – summer is a time for escapism, and films of sensation and scares are the ones which will keep us away from beaches to voluntarily surrender ourselves to dark enclosed rooms.
Since Jaws, Hollywood has torn up the way it operates. Films which would have previously been considered B-movies – wild, fantastical and schlocky action features – have been promoted to studios’ tent-pole releases (albeit with much larger budgets than ever before). Since then, summer has become the time of year we spend in the company of dinosaurs and superheroes rather than our friends at the beach. Jaws was the film that inspired us to stay out of the water and head to the cinema instead.