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Categories: Features

Over his 40-plus-year career, the “Jaws” director has changed the game time and time again.

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The summer blockbuster season is one that, in today’s culture, has become synonymous with the tent-pole franchises, the big comic book movie releases that serve as an entertaining 2 hours of watching things blow up. However, the summer season hasn’t always been that way. In fact, in its short history, it’s covered everything from shark attacks to lands of dinosaurs. And it’s all thanks to one man: Steven Spielberg. 

Until Spielberg, a blockbuster was named after it had already came and gone and made a lot of money. The summer phenomenon changed that, and Spielberg’s Jaws led the charge, presenting a heavily-marketed, high-tension piece that was released in mid June, 1975, during the summer holidays when families would be free to spend time at the cinema in large groups. The result was exponential: Jaws became one of the genre-defying classics, and was the highest grossing movie in the world until Star Wars two years later. Even today (when adjusted for inflation), it’s within the top ten highest grossing of all-time. 

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Jaws is not without its detractors, and for as influential as it was and still is, there are many who claim that its success marked a turning point in the Hollywood culture. In the years following, every studio wanted their Jaws, their event movie that would set the world on fire. Many critics lamented that the term ‘blockbuster’ was now tied to high production costs and marketing, so as costs rose, studios began to take less and less risks, wanting to guarantee returns on their investments but appealing to the broader markets. Thus the age of the auteur had ended.   

Despite this, Spielberg recognised he had a winning formula on his hands, and continued his trend a few years with a double-hit of 1981’s Raiders of The Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Both are now iconic pieces of cinema, and both netted Spielberg several Oscars, including a nomination each for Best Picture, something that’s nowadays nearly unheard of for a summer blockbuster. While Jaws was a master-class of tension, Spielberg used his increased budgets to create movies that are exciting and heartfelt while also being worthy of critical acclaim, showing that neither side needed to be exclusive to each other.

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Not counting the Indiana Jones sequels, it would be over ten years before Spielberg’s next summer blockbuster came about, but it brought with it an adventure 65 million years in the making. Jurassic Park is not only one of the greatest Summer movies ever made, it’s arguably the greatest ever. The ground-breaking visual effects, the timeless ‘man-playing-god’ storyline – everything about it has stood out for the last 23 years and it still has some of the greatest FX work put to cinema. Jurassic Park mirrors Jaws for Spielberg and rightfully so; it’s another horror-styled adventure film that pits a group of characters against nature that broke new barriers on what cinema could achieve. They’re both game-changers and both feel like growth in Spielberg’s catalogue of Summer movies, building on what he’s learnt over the years about excitement and character drama.   

However, it’s also around this time that the critical landscape of cinema started moving back in favour with the auteur. While Jurassic Park did win all three of its Oscars, it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture – though Spielberg did still win the night with Schindler’s List. As much as Park brought about a new benchmark for summer movies, the 90s were a changing time for cinema with Dances With Wolves, Goodfellas, Silence Of The Lambs, Unforgiven, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Braveheart all taking up the first half of the decade. These film were epics, either in scope or in theme, taking their audience into darker places than a summer blockbuster would ever tread. The very fact that Spielberg’s own holocaust biopic won over his iconic dinosaur adventure is telling of how critics were looking back towards the historical and the interesting while audiences still flocked to the safe but exciting. The divide between summer blockbusters and awards season has always been there, but it was around this time that it became as close as it to today. 

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So of course Spielberg decides to change the game again and releases his war epic, Saving Private Ryan, in July of 1998. While definitely an Oscar-type film, the choice to release Private Ryan in the summer was both timely – with the D-Day memorial being just over a month earlier – and cost-effective, with Spielberg again utilising the summer crowds to his advantage. Oddly enough, there is an ironic twist to how Spielberg approached Private Ryan when compared to Jaws. With Jaws, he showed that marketing is key to a movie’s success, bringing about an age of research and timing that has shaped the release schedule of today’s films and made it easier to tell how a film is viewed by its producers depending on when they release it. A summer blockbuster is trying to make money, while something dumped in the middle of September is trying to be forgotten. However, with Saving Private Ryan, he changed the rules again by picking the timing regardless of what type of movie is released. Private Ryan is an awards season movie released in the summer because of its closeness to the D-Day Date, a practice not often copied, but one that has been used a few times to great effect.     

The 2000s did have some strong summer work from Spielberg, but nothing to the level what Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan did in the 90s. But the turn of the new millennium Spielberg had transformed cinema and, for better or worse, invented, reinvented and perfected the summer movie season. While he has moved away from that side of filmmaking and been focused on primarily biopics and historical dramas, his latest film, The BFG, is a children’s adventure perfect for its summer release, while his next piece, an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, has moved from a December 2017 release to March 2018 to avoid conflict with Star Wars, but may in fact end up being a return to form for Spielberg’s Summer blockbuster by returning to what he knows best: his own sense of nostalgia and wonderment.    

Spielberg has already changed film enough times for one lifetime, but there’s no saying he can’t do it again.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Aug 1, 2016

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