Open Wide: The Influence of “Jaws” On Modern High Concept Films
Paper by Jessica Nall. Viewed on DVD.
There are few things more terrifying than the thought of being attacked by a gargantuan great white shark. By tapping into one of humanity’s most primal fears, Jaws effortlessly depicts the sheer terror and chilling thrill of a summer spent ignorantly frolicking in shark-infested waters. Genius director Steven Spielberg delivers one of the most frightening films in the history of cinema, and with an estimated production budget of $ 7 million, Spielberg had the freedom to develop something extraordinary. When the film opened in July of 1975, thousands of moviegoers flocked to their local cinema to be a part of what was hyped to be a cultural phenomenon. Bringing in just over $7 million opening weekend, it was apparent that Jaws had made a successful impact on both viewers and the industry. The immediate success of Jaws can be attributed to the film’s extensive and exclusive marketing campaign; which in turn, revolutionized the entire film marketing industry. Using strategic branding, which included innovative graphics and eerie music, in addition to maintaining the mystery of the shark; the films’ marketing campaign gained support by optimizing audiences’ sinister curiosity of the unknown. Considered to be one of the first “high concept” films ever created, Jaws established the notion of the summer blockbuster by being the first film to use wide release distribution in addition to a high-budget marketing campaign. It has set the foundation for today’s modern blockbusters, which flood the market with shockingly high budgets and over the top scenarios; making these films a hot ticket for typical moviegoers. This paper will continue to explain how Jaws pioneered high concept filmmaking, in addition to explaining its’ cultural and industrial impact on blockbuster films today.
Jaws signaled the birth of what is now known as the summer blockbuster, and quickly earned a reigning spot in cinematic history when it became the highest grossing film of all time in the summer of 1975 (Hoberman). Even thirty-seven years later, the film still has not lost its original charm and has inherently developed what is known as “high concept” filmmaking. According to film marketing analyst, Justin Wyatt, high concept films can be defined as a movie that is based on one theme, which features simple characters and a predictable storyline, which appeals and entertains the widest audience possible. In his book, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Wyatt seeks to explain how high concept films become cohesive with their marketing campaigns; so much so that one single phrase can sell the film’s concept to major studios, as well as provide a slogan for mass marketing campaigns. For example, a specific image or theme song could lead people to directly associate the content with the movie being advertised. Jaws pioneered this concept in which its slogan, “Don’t Go In the Water” in conjunction with John Williams’ iconic score, allowed potential viewers to become familiar with the film’s selling point: fear.
The film’s plot is centered around a series of various shark attacks, which occur in the playful waters of a fictional New England beach town known as Amity. Once a peaceful, summer tourist attraction, the town of Amity is shaken up by the recent terror of the sea monster lurking in their waters. In an attempt to protect the citizens and visitors of Amity, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) tries to close the beach but is restrained by the Mayor who is afraid that ensuing fear and panic will inhibit tourists from visiting, therefore thwarting the community’s main source of income. As multiple attacks continue to occur, locals are finally convinced that the water is a legitimate threat to their safety, and decide to hire a local shark hunter to destroy the menacing monster. Quint (Robert Shaw) asks Brody and marine biologist Matt Cooper (Richard Dreyfus) to accompany him on his mission to sea. As chaos ensues, Quint is killed during the shark’s attack on the boat, and in a final attempt to save Cooper and himself, Brody successfully murders the great white and survives the grueling battle (Jaws 1975). With its highly complex set design, innovative and impressive special effects, and a powerful thematic score, Jaws enchanted audiences by taking them on a exhilarating thrill ride that had never before been experienced in a movie theater (Rowley). Modern blockbuster films such as the Transformers franchise can attribute their commercial success to reflecting the epic and revolutionary conventions seen in Jaws.
American film critic, James Hoberman, describes Jaws as, “…[predicated] on a ruthless notion of the movie as a roller coaster” (1994) It gave a rebirth to the adventure film genre and incorporated exciting elements of disaster, adventure, male bonding, and horror films; something that many of the films of the time had not done before. Although the plot was basic, it was not simple enough to be easily predictable. By incorporating various “red herrings”, the writers were able to achieve an extreme degree of suspense in addition to inducing paranoia of the story’s hero. Spielberg is able to create this chilling suspense by using the Hitchcock-esque method of not revealing the shark until eighty minutes into the film. Although for many directors and films this approach would not work, “Spielberg keeps a lightness of touch…[and] makes the action-adventure sequences in the film’s last third truly exhilarating” (Rowley).
The engaging and attention-grabbing element of suspense was a driving force in the film’s marketing campaign. For example, Jaws’ promotional poster remains as a cultural icon to this day and has inspired many succeeding film campaign posters. The thrilling design creates the film’s brand and defines a universal meaning for what the movie is about. The poster features a young, innocent girl-Chrissy, swimming on the surface of the water, unaware that she is being watched. Directly below her is a gigantic great white coming at her with its mouth open, ready for attack. One of the reasons the poster is so impactful is because of the disproportion of the two figures: Chrissy is small, ignorant, and in unfamiliar territory, whereas the shark is large, powerful, and is obviously in control of the situation. Above the innocent victim is the film’s title in large, bold, red letters, which essentially trap her between the title and the shark; increasing the vulnerability of the swimmer. Because we can all relate to the fear of being attacked by a shark, the poster succeeded in generating widespread attention by creating a visceral fear from looking at the portrayed image.
By incorporating a variety of promotional mediums, Jaws was able to step ahead of the market competition, which in turn, greatly influenced box office sales. Wyatt (1994) further explains the acclaim of the film’s promotional campaign:
The marketing campaign of Jaws indicates the direction which film marketing would follow during the next decade. The reliance on strong reproducible images, the saturation campaign and widespread product tie-ins steadily became standard marketing practices after the success of such films as Jaws (117).
As Wyatt explains, the use of a saturation campaign was one of the driving forces behind the success of the film’s increasing “buzz”. Jaws revolutionized the entire film industry in which it was the first movie to utilize a national television-marketing exhibition. The television spots were shown a massive twenty-five times per night for the two nights before the film’s national release. In a mere thirty second window, the trailer was able to generate an immense amount of appealing suspense by featuring a underwater camera angle which represented the shark’s point of view, the heart-pounding Jaws theme song, and a deep, ominous voice-over which recited a chilling narration:
There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution without change, without passion, and without logic. It lives to kill – a mindless eating machine. It will attack and devour anything. It is as if God created the devil and gave him … Jaws. (Jaws 1975).
Perhaps the most enticing element of the trailer is the use of first-person camera angles. By allowing viewers to feel as if they are in the designated scenario, they will develop a sense of familiarity with the film and therefore generate interest. “The subjective camera is the purest instrument of torture at a film-makers disposal. It is the means by which audience is most comprehensively and viscerally implicated in the onscreen action’’ (Gilbey). Using subjective camerawork, the shot focuses on Chrissy swimming ignorantly on the surface and quickly features a clip of the shark’s first attack. Because viewers are never exposed explicitly to the shark, the monster is then perceived to be more menacing and suspenseful than if it was directly featured. Spielberg continues to integrate this camera style throughout the film during the pre-attack sequences. By doing this, the audience is then plunged deep into the waters and the horror of the attacks are significantly enhanced (Gilbey).
The propeller behind the suspenseful momentum of the trailer, and the film in its entirety, is the theme. Created by orchestral genius, John Williams, the unforgettable score generates a chilling sense of apprehension, fear, and thrilling excitement. It serves as the signature warning sign of the vicious shark and prepares audiences for an inevitable attack; sending goose bumps down our spines. In an interview with Steven Spielberg featured in the documentary, “The Making of Jaws”, Spielberg explains the intense impact of the score on viewer entertainment by stating: “ ‘’I think the score is clearly responsible for half the success of the movie’’. He also admits that audiences who viewed the film prior to the score being added, did not respond as positively as audiences following national release (Jaws 1975). Justin Wyatt explains the power of a film score by stating, “The song score has become a marketing tool. A record not only synergizes within the film, but reaches out to the core youth market that the film wants to attract” (134). Because the score had such a profound impact on both the overall aesthetic of the film and promotional success, it became a large contributor in the branding of the picture. Those two haunting, repetitive notes will forever be directly associated with sharks and the film that started it all.
Film critic, Kenneth Turan, stated in his review of the film, “I have seen the future and it is JAWS” (Hoberman). Turan’s claim is significantly appropriate in regard to the film’s exclusive promotion package and release distribution. It can be argued that the revolutionary methods employed in the promotion of Jaws innately transformed the film into the “must-see” summer event, and eventual cultural phenomenon that viewers could not resist experiencing. As with many high-concept films, test audiences were used to predict the distribution pattern of the movie. Because viewers expressed such a positive response, the studio decided to implement a wide-release distribution pattern. Prior to this, films were typically released to just a few theaters at a time while they slowly gained momentum and support. Jaws, however, was released by Universal to approximately 460 national cinemas simultaneously (IMDB.com). This risky move was definitely beneficial in which Jaws became the first film to ever gross over $100 million in the U.S. box office, and over an estimated $500 million globally. These extremely high profits led Jaws to become the first of what is now known as the summer blockbuster. In the past, summer was the season for less anticipated movies; however, the overwhelming success of Jaws caught the attention of studios across Hollywood and resulted in summer as being the “hot-ticket” season.
After recognizing the overwhelming success Jaws, studio marketing executives contemplated ways to extend and prolong the impact of the blockbuster film. This led to the revolutionary concept of tie-in film merchandising which subsequently flooded the marketplace. Hoberman makes a note of this by explaining, “…[the] movie’s box office appeal fed into itself, transforming a hit movie into something larger, a new form of feedback and a new model for movies”. Jaws and its fellow 1970s cinematic powerhouse, Star Wars, brought in an entirely new era of movies as mass commercial products, capable of generating as much of a profit from merchandise as movie tickets. By selling t-shirts, swimming fins, inner tubes, comic books, and soundtracks, Jaws made its renowned cultural footprint among audiences. This inescapable marketing implementation continues to thrive and maintain Jaws’ popularity and loyal fan base. Modern blockbuster films such the Transformers franchise use similar promotion techniques by incorporating merchandising into many different aspects of their campaign. For example, Hasbro created a toy line in conjunction with the film by collaborating closely with filmmakers. This merchandising effort earned Hasbro $480 million in 2007 alone (Grimaldi). To expand the exclusive and extensive campaign, Universal’s marketing team made deals with two hundred companies to promote the film in over seventy countries (“Hasbro Rolls Out”). The film’s director, Michael Bay, directed tie-in commercials and advertisements for sponsor companies such as General Motors, Panasonic, Burger King, and PepsiCo. If Jaws were to be released with the marketing knowledge and technology that is available today, it would no doubt follow a similar distribution pattern as that of Transformers.
In many ways, Jaws is held responsible for forever changing the direction of both filmmaking and film marketing. By creating the genre of what is now known as high-concept film, Jaws pioneered an entirely new era of cinematic art. Not only did it bite through barriers, Jaws also became the first motion picture to make over one hundred million dollars; making it the best selling movie of its time. As a result of its success, studios began to produce a greater number of high-concept and high budget projects such as Star Wars (1977), Grease (1978), and Superman (1978). When promoting these films, studios followed the marketing campaign of Jaws by implementing aggressive and repetitive advertising strategies designed with the goal to produce record-breaking openings (TCM.com). Countless modern thrillers and action films attempt to instill this same sense of excitement and thrill, yet seem to forget the important lessons that can be learned from this film. It proves that the entertainment factor is not solely dependent on how much visual “candy” is shown on screen, but how much feeling you can create by showing the littlest amount possible. Jaws is a triumphant piece of cinematic work that displays the epitome of originality, innovation, creativity, and entertainment, and will forever remind audiences to be wary of the water.
• Gilbey, Ryan (2003) It Don’t Worry Me: Nashville, Jaws and Beyond (London: Faber and Faber)
• Grimaldi, Paul. “Hasbro Adapts to Expected Lower Revenues.” The Providence Journal. Web.
• “Hasbro Rolls Out Transformers Products.” Superhero Hype. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.
• Hoberman, J (1994) ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’ in Artforum International Magazine Vol 32, Issue 8
• Hoberman, J (2004) ‘Nashville Contra Jaws’ or ‘The Imagination of Disaster Revisited’ in Horwath, King and Elsaesser (eds) The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press)
• IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.
• “JAWS.” Turner Classic Movies. Web.
• Rowley, Stephen. “Clever Meets Stupid: Criticism, Theory, and Spielberg Apologists: Citizen Spielberg by Lester D. Friedman and Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg by Andrew M. Gordon.” Senses of Cinema. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.
• Wyatt, Justin (1994) High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press)