By David Thomson | Thompson on Hollywood October 23, 2012 at 1:06PM
Two days later, there was a second preview in Long Beach. The reaction was the same. Co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb was there in the men’s bathroom at the theater when Lew Wasserman; Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal; Henry Martin, in charge of sales and distribution; and Charles Powell, publicity and promotion, decided how they were going to handle Jaws. Instead of opening in just two cities and a few theaters, Wasserman called for massive television advertising ($700,000 worth) just before and during the opening weekend and going out into maybe eight hundred theaters. This was not entirely original, but it was the sort of plan that smelled of distributor anxiety and an attempt to forestall review damage. David O. Selznick had done it with Duel in the Sun in 1946.
Something tempered the first enthusiasm for outlets, so Jaws opened on June 20 in 409 theaters in the United States and grossed over $7 million in its first weekend. That was astonishing. But schools were just out, and the kids were going to the beach anyway. Spielberg had cut or adjusted some horrific moments to get a PG rating instead of an R. What was more startling was that the box office doubled in the second week. (That sort of surge never happens today.) By June 29 the figure stood at $21 million. A week later (after the July 4 holiday) it was nearly $37 million. The film was in profit already. By early September the number was $124 million, surpassing The Godfather as all-time champ. Its first run, domestically, would settle at $260 million, with a worldwide gross of $470 million. Just before the film’s release, Brown and Zanuck gave Spielberg 2.5 percent of the net profits—his original deal had had no points and a modest salary.
The reviews were in disagreement. In the New York Times, Frank Rich said, “Spielberg is blessed with a talent that is absurdly absent from most American filmmakers these days: this man actually knows how to tell a story on screen.” But Molly Haskell in The Village Voice complained, “You feel like a rat, being given shock treatment.” Decades later, in a rhapsodic monograph on the film, the English writer Antonia Quirke said, “Right before our eyes Spielberg is inventing the almost aggressive purposelessness of his Indiana Jones mode. Jaws is perhaps the most tonally comprehensive thriller ever made—sheer exhilaration at lacking an agenda or a subject in any classical dramatic sense. The film is sometimes nothing more than a dance to music. Spielberg never meant anything really. But neither did Fred Astaire.”
Spielberg would have winced at the suggestion that he “never meant anything really,” just as he was aggrieved to be left out of the Oscar nominations for Best Director (the film won only for editing and music). He claimed that as Jaws earned more money, the Academy lost interest in it— but that had never happened with The Godfather. If anything, the Academy may have learned to ignore “Steven” when they saw how much that irritated him. He didn’t get an Oscar for directing until Schindler’s List (1993), a film loaded with agenda and meaning, on which he took no salary.
Still, Quirke has a point. There are so many matters about which Jaws is not interested: the sea, the people in the community, the shark, the idea of corruption in the town. Even the danger is spurious. (Spielberg may have gone mad making it work, but you know he doesn’t believe in this threat any more than he believed in triceratops in Jurassic Park.) All these elements are sketched in instantly and never developed any more than the characters. Quint is harsh and intimidating. Brody is afraid of the sea. Hooper is cheerful. The shark isn’t. (Yet what does the shark want?) These are figures in a dance where the thing Rich calls storytelling flattens everything into action. But what is story without character or moral consequence? “Agenda” can be an offputting word, but why should “meaning” be rejected? You cannot see Taxi Driver without asking who Travis is and what has made him. Roman Polanski had identified what we treasure in Chinatown by insisting on the defeat of Jake Gittes. But when you see Jaws you are gravity-free, and just as entertained as if watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. You lose Quint, but who cares? You’re asked to watch the screen and its plasticity, and not the quality of life that may exist within the screen. We are wowed, but are we engaged? The notion of “roller coaster” movies came into being around this time, and it’s provocative: on a roller coaster you are caught up moment by moment, physically and nervously, and afterward you are agog with incoherent talk about it. But part of the fun is that the commotion meant nothing. The sensation eclipsed sensibility.
There was no industrywide conference to confirm or enact the principles of Jaws. But there didn’t need to be. So much had been demonstrated: the potency in opening wide, and then wider (like three thousand screens? four thousand?); the opportunity of the summer season for kids at liberty, and the chance of their becoming repeat viewers; the whole economy of a blockbuster film that could suck its money in so fast; the combination of great danger or adventure without any lasting “downer”; the possibility that audiences were ready to see and revel in things that could not happen in life—and still take the illusion seriously. Plus the outline of franchising, of taking a situation and repeating it until there was no one left with patience. Give them something they know they like—make it like fast food.
The movies had always been on to that trick. The comics, silent and sound, did the same routines over and over, from Chaplin and Keaton through the Marx Brothers and Hope and Crosby to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But with the comics we forgave that sameness because we enjoyed the personality of the comedians. The impetus within franchising is the reliable situation in so much television—the sitcoms, the Westerns, the police stories, the family shows. Always the situation endures, like the pitch in the advertising that held such shows in place. That is an endorsement of security in worrying times, just as it is an avoidance of drama or resolution. Because television had set up the precept that the show was so consistent, we didn’t need to watch every week or every minute. You could leave the room for a few minutes, come back, and know where you were. Our attentiveness had been compromised. It was a covert message—and the messengers didn’t need to be aware of it—but we were being told we didn’t really have to watch. Who cares if we’re there so long as it is “on”?
In the next decades, this tendency would receive exponential encouragement from movie systems that photographed things that never could happen: computer-generated imagery. A mechanical shark need never be such a trial again. Well, you may say, King Kong (1933) could not have happened, not on Skull Island or in New York. But if you put King Kong and Jaws in the same sentence you have to feel the naïve poetic impulse that inspires the earlier film, and the cold-blooded detachment in Jaws. People do care about the ape. King Kong trembles with shaky effects. Jaws is as smooth as its cutting, but smoothness can kill emotion. Kong is a tragic character. He has his inappropriate desire, while the shark is just a streamlined source of energy, a convenient killer, a current in the sea, a vector in the game.