Jaws is regarded as a watershed film in motion picture history, the father of the summer blockbuster movie and one of the first "high concept" films. Due to the film's success in advance screenings, studio executives decided to distribute it in a much wider release than ever before. The Omen followed suit in the summer of 1976 and then Star Wars one year later in 1977, cementing the notion for movie studios to distribute their big-release action and adventure pictures (commonly referred to as tentpole pictures) during the summer. The film was followed by three sequels, none with the participation of Spielberg or Benchley. Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987). A video game entitled Jaws Unleashed was later made in 2006.
A week later, a young boy named Alex Kintner is attacked and eaten by a shark while swimming off a crowded beach. His mother places a $3,000 bounty on the animal, sparking an amateur shark hunting frenzy and attracting the attention of local professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). Quint interrupts a town meeting to offer his services; his demand for $10,000 is taken "under advisement". Brought in by Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) conducts an autopsy on Watkins and concludes she was killed by a shark. A large tiger shark is caught by a group of novice fishermen, leading the town to believe the problem is solved, but an unconvinced Hooper asks to examine the contents of the shark's stomach. Because Vaughn refuses to make the "operation" public, Brody and Hooper return after dark and learn that the captured shark does not contain human remains. Scouting aboard Hooper's state-of-the-art boat, they come across the half-sunken wreckage of a local fishing vessel. Hooper dons a wetsuit and discovers another victim, the boat's owner Ben Gardener. Vaughn still refuses to close the beach; on the Fourth of July the beaches are covered in tourists. While a prank triggers a false alarm and draws the authorities' attention, the real shark enters an estuary, kills another man, and nearly kills one of Brody's sons. Brody forces the stunned mayor to hire Quint. Brody and Hooper join the hunter on his boat, the Orca, and the trio set out to kill the man-eater.
At sea, Brody is given the task of laying a chum line, while Quint uses a large fishing pole to try to snag the shark; the first results are inconclusive. As Brody continues his task, the enormous shark suddenly looms up behind the boat. After a horrified Brody announces its presence ("You're gonna need a bigger boat!"), Quint and Hooper watch the great white circle the Orca and estimate that the new arrival weighs 3 tons (2.7 metric tonnes) and is 25 feet (8 m) long. Quint harpoons the shark with a line attached to a flotation barrel, designed to prevent the shark from being able to submerge as well as to track it on the surface; but the shark pulls the barrel under and disappears. Night falls without another sighting, so the men retire to the boat's cabin where Quint and Hooper compare their various scars and Quint tells of his experience with sharks as a survivor of the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The shark reappears, damages the boat's hull, and slips away before the men can harm it. In the morning, while the men make repairs to the engine, the barrel suddenly reappears at the stern. Quint destroys the radio to prevent Brody from calling the Coast Guard for help. The shark attacks again, and after a long hard chase, Quint harpoons it to another barrel. The men tie the barrels to the stern; but the shark drags the ship backwards, forcing water onto the deck and into the engine, flooding it. Quint harpoons it again, attaching three barrels in all to the shark, while the animal continues to tow them. Quint is about to cut the ropes with his machete when the cleats are pulled off the stern. The shark continues to attack the boat and Quint powers towards shore with the shark in pursuit, hoping to draw the shark into shallow waters where it will be beached and drowned. In his obsession to kill the shark, Quint overloads his damaged engine, causing it to explode.
With the Orca immobilized, the trio try a desperate approach; Hooper dons his scuba gear and enters the ocean inside a shark proof cage, intending to stab the shark in the mouth with a hypodermic spear filled with strychnine nitrate. The shark instead destroys the cage, causing Hooper to lose the spear and flee to the seabed. As Quint and Brody raise the remnants of the cage, the shark throws itself onto the boat, crushing the transom and causing the boat to begin sinking. Quint slides into the shark's mouth, slashing at it in vain with his machete, before being pulled under and devoured. Brody retreats to the boat's cabin, which is now partly submerged, and throws a pressurized air tank into the shark's mouth when it rams its way inside. Brody takes Quint's M1 Garand rifle and climbs the rapidly-listing mast of the boat where he temporarily fends off the attacker with a harpoon. The shark circles around and charges one last time at Brody, who is now only a foot or so above the water. Brody starts firing at the air tank still wedged in the shark's mouth. He scores a hit, and the highly pressurized tank blows the shark's head to pieces and sends the rest of its body to the bottom of the ocean in a cloud of blood. Hooper surfaces and reunites with Brody, whereupon the two survivors use the leftover barrels to construct a makeshift raft and paddle back to Amity Island.
Three mechanical sharks were made for the production: a full model for underwater shots, one that turned from left to right, with the left side completely exposed to the internal machinery, and a similar right to left model, with the right side exposed. Their construction was supervised by production designer Joe Alves and special effects artist Bob Mattey. After the sharks were completed, they were shipped to the shooting location, but unfortunately had not been tested in water and when placed in the ocean the full model sank to the ocean floor. A team of divers retrieved it.
Location shooting occurred on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, chosen because the ocean had a sandy bottom while out at sea. This helped the mechanical sharks to operate smoothly and still provide a realistic location. Still, the film had a famously troubled shoot and went considerably over budget. Shooting at sea led to many delays: unwanted sailboats drifted into frame, cameras were soaked, and the Orca once began to sink with the actors onboard. The mechanical shark frequently malfunctioned, due to the hydraulic innards being corroded by salt water. The three mechanical sharks were collectively nicknamed "Bruce" by the production team after Spielberg's lawyer, and Spielberg called one of the sharks "the Great White turd". Disgruntled crew members gave the film the nickname "Flaws".
To some degree, the delays in the production proved serendipitous. The script was refined during production, and the unreliable mechanical sharks forced Spielberg to shoot most of the scenes with the shark only hinted at. For example, for much of the shark hunt its location is represented by the floating yellow barrels. This forced restraint is widely thought to have increased the suspense of these scenes, giving it a Hitchcockian tone.
The scene where Hooper discovers a body in the hull of the wrecked boat was added after an initial screening of the film. After reactions to that screening, Spielberg said he was greedy for "one more scream" and, with $3,000 of his own money, financed the scene after he was denied funding from Universal Studios.
Footage of real sharks was shot by Ron and Valerie Taylor in the waters off Australia, with a dwarf actor in a miniature shark cage to create the illusion that the shark was enormous. Originally, the script had the shark killing Hooper in the shark cage, but while filming, one of the sharks became trapped in the girdle of the cage, and proceeded to tear the cage apart. Luckily, the cage was empty at the time, so the script was changed to allow Matt Hooper to live and the cage to be empty. Despite the rare footage of a great white shark exhibiting violent behavior, only a handful of these shots were used in the finished film.
The role of Quint was originally offered to actors Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden, both of whom passed. Producers Zanuck and Brown had just finished working with Robert Shaw on The Sting, and suggested him to Spielberg as a possible Quint. Roy Scheider became interested in the project after overhearing a screenwriter and Spielberg at a party talking about having the shark jump up onto a boat. Richard Dreyfuss initially passed on the role of Matt Hooper, but after seeing a screening of a film he had just done called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, he thought his performance in that film was awful. He immediately called Spielberg back and accepted the Matt Hooper role (fearing that no one would want to hire him once Kravitz was released.) The first person actually cast for the film was Lorraine Gary, the wife of then-studio chief Sid Sheinberg.
Spielberg himself was not present for the shooting of the final scene where the shark explodes. Spielberg believed that the crew were planning to throw him in the water when this scene was complete. It has since become a tradition for Spielberg to be absent when the final scene of a film he directs is being filmed.
Up until Jaws was released, films had opened slowly, usually in a few theaters in major cities, then "building" across the country—distributors sending more prints to more cities, as the film was perceived to be a success. However, Jaws was the first film to use Sidney Sheinberg's scheme of "wide release"—the until then unheard-of practice of opening the same picture nationwide, in hundreds of screens simultaneously, coupled with a nation-wide marketing campaign. Scheinberg's rationale was that nationwide marketing costs would be amortized at a more favorable rate per print than if a slow, scaled release were carried out. Scheinberg's gamble paid off, Jaws becoming the first film in motion picture history to cross the $100 million mark. The success of Jaws created the new paradigm of distributing and marketing major motion pictures simultaneously, a business practice which continues today.
When Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it opened at 409 theaters. The release was subsequently expanded on July 25 to a total of 675 theaters—until then the largest simultaneous distribution of the same film in motion picture distribution history. On its first weekend, Jaws grossed more than $7 million, and was the top grosser for the following five weeks. During its run in theaters, the film beat the $89 million domestic rentals of the reigning box-office champion, The Exorcist, becoming the first film to reach more than $100 million in theatrical rentals, the money paid to the studio distributors out of the total box office gross. Eventually, Jaws grossed more than $470 million worldwide (around $1.85 billion in 2006 dollars) and was the highest grossing box-office hit until Star Wars debuted two years later.
The film received mostly positive reviews. In his original review, Roger Ebert called it "a sensationally effective action picture, a scary thriller that works all the better because it's populated with characters that have been developed into human beings". Variety's A.D. Murphy praised Spielberg's directorial skills, and called Robert Shaw's performance "absolutely magnificent". Pauline Kael called it "the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made... [with] more zest than an early Woody Allen picture, a lot more electricity, [and] it's funny in a Woody Allen sort of way".
The film was not without its detractors. Vincent Canby, of The New York Times, said "It's a measure of how the film operates that not once do we feel particular sympathy for any of the shark's victims...In the best films, characters are revealed in terms of the action. In movies like Jaws, characters are simply functions of the action. They're at its service. Characters are like stage hands who move props around and deliver information when it's necessary," but also noted that "It's the sort of nonsense that can be a good deal of fun". Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin disagreed with the film's PG rating, saying that "Jaws is too gruesome for children, and likely to turn the stomach of the impressionable at any age." He goes on to say: "It is a coarse-grained and exploitive work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written". The most widespread criticism of the film is the artificiality of the mechanical shark, although it is only seen in the final moments of the film, and is often brushed over by reviewers.
Jaws bears similarities to several literary and artistic works, most notably Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The character of Quint strongly resembles Captain Ahab, the obsessed captain of the Pequod who devotes his life to hunting a sperm whale. Quint's monologue reveals his similar vendetta against sharks, and even his boat, the Orca, is named after the only natural enemy of sharks. In the novel and original screenplay, Quint dies after being dragged under the ocean by a harpoon tied to his leg, similar to Ahab's death in Melville's novel. A direct reference to these similarities may be found in the original screenplay, which introduced Quint by showing him watching the film version of Moby-Dick. His laughter throughout makes people get up and leave the theater (Wesley Strick's screenplay for Cape Fear features a similar scene). However, the scene from Moby-Dick could not be licensed from Gregory Peck, the owner of the rights. Some have also noticed the influences of two 1950s horror films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Monster That Challenged the World.
Jaws was a key film in establishing the benefits of a wide national release backed by heavy media advertising, rather than a progressive release that let a film slowly enter new markets and build support over a period of time. Rather than let the film gain notice by word-of-mouth, Hollywood launched a successful television marketing campaign for the film, which added another $700,000 to the cost. The wide national release pattern would become standard practice for high-profile movies in the late 1970s and afterward.
The film conjured up so many scares that beach attendance was down in the summer of 1975 due to its profound impact. Though a horror classic (its opening sequence was voted the scariest scene ever by a Bravo Halloween TV special), the film is widely recognized as being responsible for fearsome and inaccurate stereotypes about sharks and their behavior. Benchley has said that he would never have written the original novel had he known what sharks are really like in the wild. He later wrote Shark Trouble, a non-fiction book about shark behavior and Shark Life, another non-fiction book describing his dives with sharks. Conservation groups have bemoaned the fact that the film has made it considerably harder to convince the public that sharks should be protected. Jaws set the template for many future horror films, so much so that the script for Ridley Scott's 1979 science fiction film Alien was pitched to studio executives with one tag line: "Jaws in space.. A line from Jaws also inspired the name of Bryan Singer's production company Bad Hat Harry productions, as it is his favorite film. The film has been adapted into two video games, two theme park rides at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Japan, and two musicals: "JAWS The Musical!", which premiered in the summer of 2004 at the Minnesota Fringe Festival; and "Giant Killer Shark: The Musical," which premiered in the summer of 2006 at the Toronto Fringe Festival. In a episode of Home Improvement accident prone Tim Taylor (character) tries of get rid of a woodpecker with a remote-control model heliocoper painted with "Shark teeth"; true to form Taylor loses control of the model which "Stalks" Taylor to "Jaws" theme. Likewise a Pink Panther movie cartoon teaser shows the "Pink Panther" stalking Inspector Clouseau via "Jaws theme".
The score contains echoes of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, particularly the opening of "The Adoration of the Earth". Another influence may have been Ed Plumb's score for Walt Disney's Bambi, which uses a low, repeating musical motif to suggest imminent danger from the off-screen threat of Man. The music has drawn comparisons to Bernard Herrman's score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, in which the music enhances the presence of an unseen terror, in this case the shark.
There are various interpretations on the meaning and effectiveness of the theme. Some have thought the two-note expression is intended to mimic the shark's heartbeat, beginning slow and controlled as the killer hunts and rising to a frenzied, shrieking climax as it approaches its prey. One critic believes the true strength of the score is its ability to create a "harsh silence," abruptly cutting away from the music right before it climaxes. Furthermore, the audience is conditioned to associate the shark with its theme, since the score is never used as a red herring. It only plays when the real shark appears. This is later exploited when the shark suddenly appears with no musical introduction. Regardless of the meaning behind it, the theme is widely acknowledged as one of the most recognized scores of all time.
The most significant change from the novel is the removal of an affair between Ellen and Matt Hooper. In the novel, Brody is a native of Amity; his wife, Ellen, was previously a member of the wealthy New York summer holiday set before she married him. Ellen's despair with her life in Amity leads to a short sexual encounter between her and Hooper. In the film, Brody moved to Amity Island from New York with his family to take up the position of the chief of police, and the relationship between Ellen and Hooper is removed.
There are several other differences:
Jaws was first released on DVD in 2000 for the film's 25th anniversary. It featured a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film (an edited version of the one featured on the 1995 laserdisc release), with interviews from Steven Spielberg, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Benchley and other cast and crew members. Other extras included deleted scenes, outtakes, trailers, production photos, and storyboards. In June 2005, on the 30th anniversary of the film's release, a festival named JawsFest was held in Martha's Vineyard. Jaws was then re-released on DVD, this time including the full two-hour documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau for the LaserDisc. As well as containing most of the same bonus features the previous DVD contained, it included a previously unavailable interview with Spielberg conducted on the set of Jaws in 1974.
In the 2000s, an independent group of fans produced a feature length documentary. The Shark is Still Working features interviews with a range of cast and crew from the film, and some from the sequels. It is narrated by Roy Scheider and dedicated to Peter Benchley.
Jaws spawned three sequels, which failed to match the success of the original. Spielberg was unavailable to do a sequel, as he was working on Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Richard Dreyfuss. Jaws 2 was directed by Jeannot Szwarc; Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton reprised their roles from the original film. The next film, Jaws 3-D, directed by Joe Alves, was released in the 3-D format, although the effect did not transfer to television or home video, where it was renamed Jaws 3. Dennis Quaid as Michael Brody and Louis Gossett Jr starred in the movie. Jaws: The Revenge, directed by Joseph Sargent, featured the return of Lorraine Gary, and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. While all three sequels made a profit at the box office (Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D are among the top 20 highest-grossing films of their respective years), critics and audiences were generally dissatisfied with the films.