1975: How "Massive" Promotion Built 'Jaws' Into a Summer Blockbuster
Prior to the wide release of Jaws on June 20, 1975, the film's producers were busily readying the global rollout of what would be a defining summer blockbuster. Universal launched "the largest expenditure on advertising of a release in the history of the company," the studio's publicity director told The Hollywood Reporter for a June 26, 1975 feature. That article, originally headlined "Ripping Response to Jaws," is an in-depth look at the savvy media strategy that built excitement for the film. Read it below.
There is very little doubt left in many people's minds that Universal's Jaws will be a major blockbuster. In only four days of general release, the Richard Zanuck-David Brown film has grossed $8,919,576 in 409 situations nationally. Yet, the apparent ease with which this $8 million-plus film has succeeded belies the massive pre-release advertising and promotional campaign staged primarily by the film's producers.
Having acquired the Jaws manuscript for approximately $175,000, Zanuck and Brown's first concern was to help make the book a best-seller. Once Bantam Books picked up the paperback rights for the Peter Benchley novel at a cost of $575,000, Zanuck, Brown and Bantam's chairman, Oscar Dystel, initiated a public opinion sampling by personally sending the Doubleday hardcover version of Jaws to selected "opinion holders."
To preserve the identity of the film and book, Zanuck and Brown determined that all advertising and promotional material should bear the same Bantam-designed logo showing a shark rising on a girl swimmer. This logo has since appeared in advertising for the film itself, on the cover of the Bantam paperback, on billboards throughout the country, and even on the editorial pages of several newspapers.
Richard Zanuck seen with Jaws merchandise in 1975.
In order to begin a word-of-mouth campaign, copies of the book were mailed to such diverse people as restaurant owners, visible heads of large corporations (David Mahoney of Norton Simon Inc. was one such recipient), and personal friends of Zanuck and Brown in broadcasting (John Schneider of CBS was also mailed a copy of the book).
A coordinated country-wide distribution of the book was subsequently started, utilizing field men from Universal in cities throughout the country as well as Bantam's wholesale outlets. Even the picture's location, Martha's Vineyard — a prime vacation spot for many of the East Coast's prominent and influential personalities — was a big plus in Zanuck and Brown's word-of-mouth campaign. "We created an aura of excitement," noted Zanuck.
"A movie company on the island with its own problems was attractive and exciting. The only question was how to keep the excitement going," he commented.
To accomplish this, Zanuck and Brown decided to take the film to Cannes, though not as a festival entry despite numerous invitations to do so. "We went to the Cannes Film Festival almost a year early because the press is always there looking for a story," observed Zanuck. Also arriving in Cannes to promote the film were Peter Benchley and the film's director, Steven Spielberg.
"We had no idea that the novel would be a best-seller," reflected Spielberg. "We involved ourselves in the project when it [the book] was only 400 pages of triple spaced galleys."
Steven Spielberg and Roy Scheider on-set during the filming of 'Jaws' in 1975.
As Spielberg arrived in Cannes, Zanuck and Brown took off for Paris and a meeting with Hachette, France's largest publishing firm. Later, they flew to London to meet with executives of Pan Books to arrange Jaws' British distribution. There, Zanuck and Brown were interviewed by the BBC and ITV.
Commenting on their successful effort to woo the international press and public, Zanuck and Brown emphasize, "The cost of this worldwide promotional endeavor was small in our judgment — although Universal may disagree with us — compared with the results in terms of television and radio air time and print exposure."
In the two weeks prior to Jaws' general release, Spielberg, Benchley, Zanuck and Brown toured 11 U.S. cities, saturating every major market. Jaws star Robert Shaw made guest appearances on Today, Dinah!, The Mike Douglas Show and Tonight. And there was, of course, the Time magazine cover story during the week prior to release.
"The cover on Time magazine," said Brown, "was the most important. It was a recognition of the film's news value primarily and the building of the phenomenon of Jaws."
The June 23, 1975, cover of Time magazine.
"The two specials on ABC's American Sportsman show — three months apart — were one of our other great boosts," added Zanuck.
Spielberg, however, saw another dimension to the film's success. "The release pattern was a key element in its [the film's] success. Initially, Universal was as excited about marketing the film as Bantam was in marketing the book. Universal had planned a mass-saturation blitzkrieg campaign in more than 1,000 theaters. I didn't think then that Universal knew what it had on its hands."
According to Spielberg, once the studio's executives (including Universal Pictures president Henry Martin, general sales manager Bob Carpenter, MCA board chairman Lew Wasserman and president Sid Sheinberg) had seen the film at a March screening in Long Beach, a new releasing strategy was formulated that pared down the number of situations to 409. "They began handling the film with kid gloves," remarked Spielberg.
"The decision to cut back [on the number of situations] occurred before the film went out on bid," noted Universal publicity director Clark Ramsey. Reached in New York, Martin confirmed this and maintained that reducing the number of theaters would permit the film "to play for a longer period of time at each theater."
Refusing to release advertising figures on the $8 million film, Ramsey did confirm that the money spent on the pre-release advertising for Jaws was "the largest expenditure on advertising of a release in the history of the company."
"We attempted to buy 30-second commercials on every primetime show on June 18, 19 and 20, the three days leading to the release. We got 85 percent of what we were looking for in primetime spots with local buys.
"We evaluated each market and spent approximately 47 percent of our money in print media and the other 53 percent on the electronic media, TV and radio."
According to Ramsey, there was never any thought of Universal getting their money in and out of the film quickly, thereby precipitating the initial 1,000 proposed theater bookings. "We were always certain that we would have a very successful film. But until we actually saw it before an audience, we had no idea of how superb a film we had."
No one is willing to make an estimate on how much Jaws will eventually gross. Universal, however, is continuing to pour money into promotion, having licensed the merchandising of nine Jaws items at theaters playing the film. Wall plaques, posters, post cards, beach towels, shirts, plastic tumblers and even shark's tooth necklaces are now available.
MCA Records is currently distributing the Jaws soundtrack album and it looks as though the film's editor, Verna Fields, may have understated the case when she said "Jaws will be an enormously successful film." — John Charnay and Doug Mirell, originally published on June 26, 1975.
A trade advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter's July 8, 1975, issue.