Prompts a Wave of Special-Effects Films

Based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same title, the award-winning film Jaws terrified audiences with a deadly great white shark, spawning a craze of special-effects films and summer blockbusters. The first motion picture to earn $100 million at the box office, it was also director Steven Spielberg’s first major success.

Summary of Event

The phenomenon of Jaws began with the publication of a novel by Peter Benchley in January, 1974. A Newsweek reporter and sport diver, Benchley had long been fascinated by sharks and loosely based his story on a series of shark attacks off the New Jersey coast during the summer of 1916. Special effects, motion pictures
Special effects, motion pictures
Spielberg, Steven
Benchley, Peter
Scheider, Roy
Dreyfuss, Richard
Shaw, Robert
Zanuck, Richard
Brown, David
Gottlieb, Carl
Fields, Verna
Mattey, Robert
Williams, John

Benchley’s book told of a great white shark attacking swimmers at the fictional New England resort of Amity Island. After futile efforts by local officials to cover up the attacks, police chief Martin Brody, ichthyologist Matt Hooper, and a grizzled shark fisherman named Quint are called in to destroy the shark. Both Hooper and Quint are killed by the shark, and Brody is left to defeat it alone.

A close-up of the great white shark from the 1975 blockbuster film Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Jaws was a compulsive page-turner helped by the now-iconic cover art of a shark rushing up from the depths of the ocean to attack an unsuspecting female swimmer. The book shot to the top of the best-seller lists and stayed there throughout 1974. Motion-picture producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown convinced Universal Pictures to buy the film rights for $150,000. They thought they could make a movie aimed at a teenage drive-in audience for the modest amount of $750,000.

Director Steven Spielberg (twenty-seven years old at the time) had just completed his first feature film, The Sugarland Express (1974), which was also produced by Zanuck and Brown. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Steven Spielberg[Spielberg] Thinking Benchley’s novel would make an entertaining action film, Spielberg persuaded the two to let him direct Jaws. He insisted that, to be believable, the film would have to be shot on the ocean, not in a large movie-studio water tank. He understood that 1970’s audiences would never believe a thriller that was shot using such antiquated methods.

Spielberg also chose to cast lesser-known actors who looked the part rather than major stars with attention-grabbing reputations. Roy Scheider, who had played policemen in action films such as The French Connection (1971), was cast as Brody. Rising star Richard Dreyfuss played Matt Hooper, while veteran character actor Robert Shaw won the role of Quint.

To bring the great white shark to life, Spielberg hired special-effects technician Robert Mattey, who had built many legendary film creatures, including the giant squid in Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Mattey designed a 25-foot hydraulic-operated shark to run on submerged rails. Zanuck and Brown also hired acclaimed documentary filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor to shoot footage of real sharks off the coast of Australia, which would be incorporated in the film with footage of the mechanical one.

The filmmakers decided to shoot the motion picture on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, because it was the only place on the East Coast with water shallow enough to operate the shark. Facing a looming writers’ strike, Spielberg rushed to begin filming in May, 1974, before either the script or the shark were ready. Drafts of the script had been written by Benchley, playwright Howard Sackler, and Spielberg himself, but Spielberg remained unsatisfied. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb continued to write the film on the set and even played the minor role of the local newspaper editor.

The first weeks went well, as the crew focused on filming the scenes set on land. Spielberg defused the locals’ hostility to the Hollywood “invasion” of their island by writing it into the script, and he cast Vineyard residents in minor supporting roles. By the end of June, the land sequences were complete and the production needed to move to the ocean for filming of the shark hunt featured in the second half of the story.

The mechanical shark was a problem. Nicknamed Bruce, it functioned well on land but suffered numerous breakdowns when exposed to salt water. On many days, it did not function at all. Spielberg, convinced his Hollywood career was over before it had really begun, began improvising for the nonfunctioning shark. In some scenes, he employed just the shark’s fin. In others, Quint punctured the shark with a harpoon connected by rope to a floating yellow barrel, which signified the shark’s presence under the water.

Spielberg’s most innovative technique involved filming from the shark’s point of view. This proved particularly effective during the first attack, in which the shark devours a young woman enjoying a moonlight skinny-dip. Film editor Verna Fields proved essential to this process, reviewing each day’s footage and advising Spielberg on what additional shots would be needed to make each scene work.

The long delays stretched the shooting schedule from 55 days to 159 days as the budget climbed to a then phenomenal $8 million. At one point, Universal executives tried to fire Spielberg and move the production back to California, but the actors and producers persuaded them to let him stay.

The long delays had the unintended benefit of allowing the three stars to bond, a process that resulted in some memorable lines of improvised dialogue. Scheider came up with one of the film’s most recognized lines: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Shaw also contributed portions of Quint’s classic monologue about the real-life incident in which sharks devoured stranded sailors after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II.

Once production ended in September, Spielberg edited the film and shot additional scenes in the huge MGM water tank, where the shark finally worked flawlessly. Even after previews, he continued to incorporate new footage when he thought the audience had not screamed loudly enough at a particular scare. Lastly, composer John Williams added his now-classic score to the film, its accelerando of dissonant chords greatly increasing the audience’s terror.

Instead of opening the film in a few theaters and gradually releasing it across the country, as was the usual practice, Universal decided to release it simultaneously in 490 theaters nationwide. The studio was convinced it had a hit, spending $1.8 million on prerelease advertising, including $700,000 on television commercials alone. The strategy worked.

Fourteen days after its nationwide release on June 19, 1975, Jaws turned a profit. By September, it had become the first film to earn more than $100 million, passing The Godfather (1972) as the biggest box-office hit up to that time. Eventually, its worldwide gross reached $458 million, establishing Steven Spielberg as a major Hollywood director.


The success of Jaws forever changed the way Hollywood made and marketed films. Spielberg’s style of filming became widely imitated, particularly in the horror films of the 1980’s. The music, dialogue, and artwork of Jaws all became iconic.

Prior to Jaws, the summer months were believed to be a bad time to release a film. Jaws demonstrated that summer movies could rake in record profits. Jaws spawned the summer-blockbuster mentality, in which studios concentrated their funds in so-called high-concept or tent-pole movies. These relied less on story and character and more on the use of camera, special effects, music, and editing to induce in the audience an adrenaline-fueled roller-coaster ride. Jaws has rightly been called the first “movie as amusement-park ride.”

The studios also learned that by releasing a film in hundreds of theaters across the country at once, they could make more money faster. Jaws also showed that additional money could be made through the licensing of merchandise featuring a film’s logo or characters.

In addition to its impacts on the motion-picture industry, the success of Jaws as a horror film had a lasting effect on sharks themselves. The numbers of sportfishermen who hunt and slaughter sharks increased after 1975, and many species, including the great white, faced endangerment in the first decades of the twenty-first century. At the same time, Jaws also encouraged scientists to study sharks and increase the public’s knowledge of their behaviors. Special effects, motion pictures

Further Reading

  • Andrews, Nigel. Nigel Andrews on Jaws. New York: Bloomsbury, 1999. Film critic for the Financial Times explores not only Jaws the film but also its cultural and cinematic influence.
  • Benchley, Peter. Jaws. New York: Doubleday, 1974. The original novel about a great white shark terrorizing a New England resort town.
  • Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Warts-and-all exposé on the filmmakers, including Spielberg, who made the great movies of the 1970’s.
  • Brode, Douglas. The Films of Steven Spielberg. Rev. ed. New York: Citadel Press, 2000. Presents a film-by-film analysis and critical evaluation of Spielberg’s films.
  • Gottlieb, Carl. The Jaws Log. Rev. ed. New York: Dell, 2005. The definitive behind-the-scenes account of the filming of Jaws.
  • McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. In-depth biography of the director, including many behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
  • Quirke, Antonia. Jaws. London: BFI, 2002. Presents a thoughtful reexamination of the film strictly as a work of art.

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