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Martin Brody, the new Chief of Police in the New England resort community of Amity, is called one summer morning to the beach where the mangled body of a young woman has washed ashore. The medical examiner tells Brody she was likely the victim of a shark attack, but Mayor Larry Vaughn, afraid that a shark panic will kill the island's 4th of July weekend tourism boom, tells him to say publicly that it was a boat propeller. When a young boy is killed in the crowded waters at a popular beach, it is obvious to everyone a predator is in the ocean off Amity. New Yorker Brody must overcome his fear of the water to join crusty old seafarer Quint and ichthyologist Matt Hooper on Quint's boat, Orca, to find and destroy the shark.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: David Brown, Richard D. Zanuck
Screenplay: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb, based on Benchley's novel
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Editing: Verna Fields
Production Design: Joe Alves
Original Music: John Williams
Cast: Roy Scheider (Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), Murray Hamilton (Vaughn)

Why JAWS Is Essential

Purely as a cinematic experience, Jaws is one of the great thrill rides, a scary, tense, funny movie that still has the power to grab hold of audiences, even those who have seen it over and over again (and there are many), and shake them about like an unsuspecting swimmer on a dark...well, you get it. It's also one of those rare cases of the movie being much better than the book it was taken from. After Peter Benchley, author of the best-selling novel, completed his first shot at adapting the story, it was taken on by several hands, including credited scenarist Carl Gottlieb and the uncredited Howard Sackler, John Milius, Robert Shaw (honing his chilling USS Indianapolis monologue), and director Steven Spielberg. They streamlined the plot, losing unappealing and unnecessary subplots, getting rid of some characters and refining others, and above all, putting the focus where it belonged-on the shark.

Is that enough to land this picture on an Essentials list? Maybe, maybe not, but for all of Jaws superlatives as a movie, what secures it a place in cinema history are the reverberations it has had for the entire industry. For one, this is the movie that gave birth to the summer blockbuster. Prior to its release, studios tended to dump their less expensive and lower profile projects in the hotter months, thanks to the standard wisdom that only kids went to the theaters in the summer. Jaws took the cheapie "monster movie" usually popular with the summer youth audience and notched it up a hundredfold in terms of budget, talent, marketing, and distribution strategy. Ticket sales went through the roof, thanks in no small measure to an unprecedented advertising campaign, as well as Universal's decision to open it wide. Up to this point, major releases were usually "platformed," opening in key cities first, then going out later across the country to secondary markets. Jaws was released nationwide on the same day with saturation booking in more than 400 theaters, creating a runaway box office that took hold early on and held throughout the season.

This also marked the beginning of the importance of merchandising to a film's success. Soundtrack albums, stuffed sharks, baseball caps, action figures, T-shirts, etc. not only brought in more money for the studio but kept the picture large in the public consciousness. And because the monster in this story was a real animal, it resonated with people's primal fears like no "creature feature" before it had done.

Today, we can turn on any television entertainment news show or pick up a number of popular magazines and get the inside scoop on the making of most motion pictures-how much they cost, how they were cast, what kind of problems were encountered on set and between the filmmakers and the guys in the front office-the kind of information once primarily the province of industry workers. Jaws changed how we think about, talk about, read about movies, creating a hype and hoopla long before it even hit the screen. Stripped of all that, this is still a fun-filled, scary adventure story that knows just how to get inside moviegoers and keep us enthralled. Steven Spielberg may have had his long and productive career without this mega-launch, and quite likely some executive or producer or director eventually would have figured out all these details that brought about the sea change (gulp!) in the film industry. But Jaws, for better or worse, was there first and biggest, and that secures it a place as an Essential.

by Rob Nixon

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