The Shark That Killed New Hollywood

The movie blockbuster is the cornerstone of the U.S. Movie industry, and has been since the release of Jaws . The Blockbuster whether it be action/adventure, thriller, the western or romantic comedy, the blockbusters earning power is unequaled by any other movie form. Comedies like The Proposal(2009), , The Hangover and Little Fockers,are sometimes capable of blockbuster-caliber domestic earnings, but rarely matching those of the thriller, nor can they can equal the overseas business. The box office for the most part are lower than blockbusters. Thrillers that are released based on action-driven story lines transcends the barriers of language and cultural nuance. The blockbuster thriller is as much accessible to French audiences as it is to Chinese audiences as it is to U.S. Ticket-buyers.

This was not always the case, at one time the Hollywood landscape allowed room for much smaller, intimate pictures.

The 1970’s was a golden decade for cinema. The rise of filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich captured the imagination of movie going audiences as never before. The concept of auteur film-making (that movies have a sole creative source, the director) took firmly hold in the Hollywood machine and the concept of film-making changed forever. It was an era fondly reflected back on as “New Hollywood”.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s when air conditioning has been installed in the majority of theatres, three movies that enlarged the scope of American movie going public, solely being able to release films like “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), “Easy Rider” (1969), and “American Graffiti” (1973) in the summer months. Air conditioning allowed audience for the first time to fully enjoy movie going in the sweltering summer heat. These three movies were enormously popular with the younger demographic, and studios started to realize the potential of targeting movies to a younger crowd during the summer, when their rates of attendance increased.
When the 27-year-old television director Steven Spielberg arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to film make the movie version of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, he had only one feature film under his belt: a box-office disaster starring Goldie Hawn and William Atherton , The Sugarland Express. He was bound and determined not to make the same mistakes twice. He planned to make Jaws with horror, and realism. Jaws was rife with disasters and challenges. A 55 days shooting schedule expands very quickly to 159 days. Universal Studios had cameras rolling before the script was even finished and Spielberg was busy making a number of notable changes from Benchley’s novel.

By Hollywood standards, “Jaws” was not a big-budget movie. The epics of the 1960s were far more expensive . “Cleopatra” had nearly bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox and saw the demise of studio head Spyros Skouras in 1963 with huge $42-million budget and subsequent box office failure. Both “Spartacus” and “Lawrence of Arabia” had astronomical budgets as well. With adjustments for inflation, the three movies, would cost over $200 million ,”Cleopatra”, $90 million ,”Spartacus”, and $70 million “Lawrence of Arabia”. In today’s dollars “Jaws” would cost only $40 million, nearly $45 million less than the average production cost for a studio produced movie today.
When the movies Jaws was released, its success put Hollywood firmly on the road to where it finds it self today. Jaws based on the best selling Peter Benchley novel about an enormous killer shark, this Spielberg directed movie launched on movie screens in June 1975 .”Jaws was certainly positioned to capitalize on the emerging summer movie going trend . It helped introduce an era in which movies targeted to teens dominate Hollywood’s summer schedule, taking a firm hold with “Star Wars” in 1977. Today movies released between Memorial Day and Labor Day are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the annual box-office revenue for Hollywood films.Prior to the summer of ’75, Hollywood movie studios did not advertise movies on television. That changed with “Jaws.” For three nights preceding the film’s release, Universal saturated the networks with $700,000 worth of 30-second trailers during prime time, and it paid off. “Jaws” quickly surpassed the $100-million mark at the box office, breaking previous records, and went on to gross over $260 million in the United States alone. It became the top grossing film of all time.

The manner in which “Jaws” was released also changed how studio movies were released. Before “Jaws,” Hollywood would slowly roll out release of its films over a several month period. The one exception was “The Godfather” in 1972, which Paramount opened in five theaters at once before moving to 316 theaters the following week.”Jaws,” on the other hand, opened in 465 theaters, and in its first week had already raked in $7 million. By the second week, it had recouped its production costs, and in a mere 78 days had dethroned “The Godfather” at the box office.

Since 1975, a summer release has been the top film of the year 23 out of 36 times, and summer movies have made up 53 percent of the annual top 10’s. The very next year, Twentieth Century Fox duplicated the Jaws strategy — wide release in the summer with heavy TV advertising — with The Omen, which went on to be the No. 4 movie for the year, and the only summer film to make the top 10. In 1977, Fox did the same thing with Star Wars, and what Jaws had started became standard studio practice. Five of 1977’s top 10 movies were summer releases. That has been the trend ever since.

Jaws landed in the theaters in the midst of the legendary “New Hollywood” period, when the free falling studios, eager to lure back moviegoers who’d been put off by the engorged musicals of the late ‘60s, handed the keys to Hollywood to a generation of new, young directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Peter Bogdanovich , often called movie “brats” who learned about the movies by studying them obsessively. They coupled their unique personal visions and combined them with tried and true cinematic genres to create exciting, fresh works like The Godfather, MASH,Chinatown,Mean Streets, and The Last Picture Show. All these films did decent box office business. When Lew Wassermann and his gang at Universal as well as their competitors got a look at the kind of money that could be made by a monster hit like Jaws, reasonable profits from smaller pictures were no longer the goal, they began to insist on replicating the success that Jaws had given them them. The business model shifted from several small successes to gambling big on a few potential big rewards, which is a model that remains in place to this day.

The life-sized, resonant thrillers of the 1960s/1970s have been replaced with a steady output of live-action comic book movies, with scoops fantasy laden on top of them, the richly shaded life-sized heroes have been replaced by pure of heart superheroes or similarly overblown protagonists. With heart attack inducing pace and non-stop action, there is hardly any room for character, texture, or layered plot development. In fact must box office hits of today, utilize hyper-energized constructs and forcing plot and characterization in to easily and universally consumable cartoons. A passion for movies is no longer based on a passion for a story or story telling but on a calculation of how many toys might it sell; how well it might play in Beijing. The cinema of ideas, is essentially dead and gone.

Bigger, costlier, and with huge production value than ever before, the studio epic of today is also easily forgettable and with a design to be more than disposable, with one big budget movie resembling another. Oliver Stone in a recent TV interview stated that movies today are, in the dramatic sense, “growing smaller,” and all the constant regurgitation of large scale action and eye-dazzling effects cannot hide the fact that Hollywood’s movies have “lost (their) magic.”

You can all blame the shark named Bruce.