Monday, February 06, 2012

Birth of the Blockbuster

The movie business changed during the summer of 1975. A new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was established when “Jaws” opened in 465 theaters, coast-to-coast, and became a box office smash.

Typically, in those days, major releases opened initially in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. Which meant the advertising buys were all local. The unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence, because its distributor had to spend millions on national advertising and strike at least 465 prints of the film.

Before that summer was over “Jaws” had already broken all-time Hollywood box office records.

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that the distributor, Universal, chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way. Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown; it was run by the National Association of Theater Owners and seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

At this time I managed the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street in Richmond. My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the DeeCee screening room over the 12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The first and only screenings of “Jaws” took place about a month before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities on the same night. As I remember it, in DeeCee the function was at The Ontario.

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws.” My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house and the show itself went over like gangbusters. The rather jaded audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to put up a big cash-in-advance bid on “Jaws.”

Ordinarily, such a picture would play at the dominant theater chain’s flagship house. I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to steal the picture by out-bidding Neighborhood Theatres, Inc., for the Richmond market.

Well, we didn’t get the money. But it was privately satisfying watching “Jaws” go on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” everybody in Hollywood rushed out to try to duplicate the way the producers and distributors had handled it. Thus, in 1975, the age of Hollywood-produced summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make self-absorbed guys like me feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I actually had a great job for a 27-year-old guy who loved movies, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track.

Fast-forward 30-some years and I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was on Turner Movie Classics. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining. Directors and other players from that time were interviewed.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen, because he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater.

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger.

Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years.

Well, flashing back on my silly jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud.

Then I looked Spielberg’s age up; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I Googled around and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting 34 years to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.

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This story is part of a series called Biograph Times. All rights reserved by F.T. Rea

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