What made “Jaws” a classic, a phenomenon, the original Hollywood summer blockbuster? The reasons are as familiar as that iconic poster image of a great white shark about to show a sexy skinny-dipper the true meaning of risky. You know the list: Steven Spielberg’s instinctive flair for suspense (aided in no small part by Verna Fields’s Oscar-winning editing). Composer John Williams’s universally recognizable, urgently ominous score. Colorful performances by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss that made audiences care about the characters Peter Benchley’s story dangled as shark bait. All elements that helped make the film not just a 1975 Oscar nominee for best picture, but also something that forever changed the way we experience and anticipate movies.
“Jaws” marked the arrival of high-concept movies that were easily described and readily sold. A cinema landscape then characterized by the work of Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, et al. quickly shifted its emphasis to “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” and other profit machines. TV promo blitzes became standard. Studios suddenly started looking at summer as high season rather than the off-season. Today, when “The Dark Knight Rises” and other big releases open on 4,000 screens across the country, they’re following a pattern set by “Jaws,” which broke from the platform-release model of opening small and building business gradually. Universal Pictures execs took the unprecedented step of opening wide — on 400 screens! — after test screenings suddenly made them realize what they had on their hands.