By all accounts, the first cut of Jaws was a disaster. The eponymous predator looked just like what it was: a submersible machine sheathed in rubber. The film was already 300 percent over budget, so building a better shark and reshooting was out of the question. What was to be done? Legend has it that director Steven Spielberg dreamed up an ingenious solution: focus on reaction shots, build tension like crazy and expose the entire shark only in the final reel.
It worked, of course. Jaws premiered in the summer of 1975 on more than 400 screens, an unusually wide release in those days, and was hyped on TV by $700,000 worth of advertising, at a time when most films were promoted exclusively in newspapers. Spielberg’s fish broke box-office records and spawned the modern blockbuster. It also devoured the New American Cinema, a movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s that included bold young directors such as Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. These upstarts had staked a claim for character-driven, auteurist films that deviated from the desperate, big-budget movies like Hello, Dolly! that the Hollywood establishment was churning out in the ’60s.
Hollywood had long been an exclusive club, and a new director could gain entree only if he knew somebody on the inside. Yet many of the New American Cinema directors were total outsiders, like Scorsese. How could a working-class kid from the Lower East Side possibly hope to impress the Hollywood jet set? Luckily, a few of the new players had access to major studio promotion and distribution channels. Bert Schneider, for one, was the son of the president of Columbia Pictures. In 1969, following the wild box-office success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, which Schneider and Bob Rafelson’s company, Raybert, had produced and Columbia had distributed, Schneider, Rafelson and Steve Blauner formed the production company BBS and signed a deal with Columbia, which would distribute six of its films. Budgets would be restrained (under $1 million per film), but directors could do whatever they wanted.
Although the new approach was to treat the director and script as the “star,” and to forgo the glamour of the old star system, many of the New American Cinema actors were hardly radical newcomers. Peter Fonda did not have to struggle to get parts (even if they were in B-movies); his name guaranteed him auditions. Jack Nicholson had acted in numerous B-pictures directed by shlockmeister Roger Corman before his breakthrough role in Easy Rider. Hopper came to that film as a seasoned performer, having appeared in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, and TV shows ranging from Bonanza to The Twilight Zone. He had even appeared in True Grit, the film for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. Warren Beatty, of course, had starred in Splendor in the Grass before making Bonnie and Clyde.
Hollywood’s old boys network had opened the door to a few new kids, but grudgingly. After all, this was a really old boys network: in 1965 Adolph Zukor was 92 and still on the board of Paramount. He and other execs were disgusted with films like Easy Rider; as Ned Tanen of Universal put it, they “didn’t want to see ponytails and sandals in the commissary while they were eating.” Yet Universal, Paramount and other studios were floundering. Big-budget films had failed to attract the youth audience and to recoup older viewers lost to television. On top of that, the studios had yet to rebound from the federal anti-trust decision that deprived them of theater ownership—and untold income—in the postwar years. Audacious filmmakers like Hopper had tapped into the youth movement’s sensibilities and frustrations, and small production companies like BBS were able to foster new countercultural talent. The suits ended up hiring the longhairs because they made movies that were popular and “didn’t cost anything.” For a brief period, it did seem that the inmates had taken over the asylum.