Today in 1975, the movie Jaws debuted for the first time. It was one of the most lucrative and influential movies in the history of modern Hollywood. It was so successful, in fact, that it permanently changed the way major studios made movies. It also had a dramatic, and unfortunately dramatically negative, impact on real world sharks.
The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel of the same name, written by Peter Benchley. It follows the sheriff of a small town in Martha’s Vineyard that is visited by a giant, murderous great white shark at the outset of tourist season. The sheriff enlists the help of a shark scientist and a hard-bitten local fisherman to hunt down and attempt to kill the shark.
It was an instant hit. At the time, it was the highest-grossing movie ever released, until it was topped by the first Star Wars movie in 1977. The public was captivated. Audiences were gripped by the excellent writing, even more excellent acting, and the masterfully slow build of tension and horror as the shark claims more and more victims. It inspired a host of tawdry knockoffs, and set the precedent for summer blockbusters that is still followed today.
Jaws had a shooting budget of twelve million dollars. It was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown. At the time, Spielberg was a relative unknown in Hollywood, having only directed a few small projects and a couple of films that didn’t make much of a splash. Jaws would catapult him to a position as one of the most highly-regarded directors in history.
The movie is famous for having an extremely difficult production. The full-size mechanical shark they used malfunctioned more often than not, and there were a host of other scheduling and technical challenges.
Before Jaws was released, public fear about shark attacks was so dim as to be nonexistent. Afterwards, however, a kind of shark mania swept the country. Many shark experts lay blame at the movie’s feet for bringing the great white to the brink of extinction through overfishing. The white shark is now protected, and it is illegal to commercially or recreationally fish for them. Their numbers have rebounded since the decades following Jaws.
Nevertheless, Jaws is still beloved by both audiences and critics. It continues to be culturally influential. There is virtually nobody alive who does not recognize the Jaws theme, even if they’ve never seen the movie.