Discovery Channel last night kicked off their 29th annual edition of Shark Week, a solid seven days of programming devoted to creatures that occupy a unique place in the public consciousness. While most species of shark are relatively harmless to people, one type has excited the imagination and provoked fear unlike most other modern animals: The great white. So with this week being all about the hunters of the open water, it’s a good chance to look back a whopping 42 years at the marketing of Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller Jaws.
The story, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, follows Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the new police chief in Amityville, a small seaside town that relies on tourist travel to its beaches. It’s not long after Brody’s arrival that strange deaths start occurring out in the water, deaths the town’s mayor is quick to dismiss as accidental. Brody’s skeptical though and brings in shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to confirm his fears something is hunting the local waters. To take out the threat the two enlist Quint (Robert Shaw), one of the town’s more colorful fishermen, to go out and find the beast once and for all.
The movie was coming out just three years after the bestselling book hit shelves so it was still enjoying sizable public awareness. That’s why, just as with many many adaptations, the source material is the top value proposition on the theatrical poster. In fact the poster’s design features a similar image to that of the first hardcover printing of the book. Both show a shark coming up toward the surface of the water where a lone swimmer is blissfully unaware of the danger that lurks beneath. Where the book’s cover was more subdued, using a monochromatic color scheme, the movie’s poster goes all-in on the terror. The woman swimming at the top is still there but now the shark isn’t a vague shape, it’s fearsome monster with sharp teeth exposed as it prepares to take her.
It’s always so interesting for me to look back at movies like this because it presents an opportunity to see how reputations and awareness of certain things have changed over time. This was Spielberg’s first major feature and so he’s given no more credit here than any other first-time director over the years. He wasn’t heralded, the trumpets weren’t announcing his arrival. Señor Spielbergo was just another kid who convinced a couple producers to take a chance on him. With the first trailer for Ready Player One referring to him as a “Cinematic game changer,” it’s notable that it was just four decades ago that he was an unknown.
The theatrical trailer starts out by setting out just how dangerous the shark in question is, explaining that it’s an unthinking eating machine that may very well be the physical incarnation of the devil. We hear about the warnings that are given about the danger lurking along the beaches and what it means for the town that relies on people feeling like this is a good place to swim and relax. There are shots from the various attacks the killer shark commits before we switch over to the hunt for the beast involving Brody, Hooper and Quint. Their efforts are intense as they face an opponent that seems more massive than they believed and doesn’t appear stoppable. At the end, we get the cast alongside the key poster art and the narrator warns us to “See it…before you go swimming.”
Once more, it has to be noted that Spielberg is completely omitted from the campaign here. That it’s based on Benchley’s popular novel is mentioned at least once but the director isn’t even given a nod. It’s also interesting how most of the trailer doesn’t show the titular shark. The audience then didn’t have the context we do now about the troubles the practical special effect gave the filmmakers, which led to it being hinted at in the movie more than shown.
With that in mind, the effect is the same, though. The audience is asked to invest in the plight of the characters that are impacted by the shark attacks and the ensuing hunt more than shown the shark that’s causing all this trouble. It creates the impression of the movie being a psychological thriller, which is actually pretty close to what it winds up being, more than a B-grade monster movie. Compare that to the trailers for more recent shark movies like 47 Meters Down or The Shallows, where one or more sharks are shown in stark close-up that emphasizes the size of the danger the protagonists face. For Jaws it wasn’t about what’s out there, it’s about what *could* be out there, which is often more dangerous and intimidating.