A 35 Year Old Vertically Integrated Shark

Jaws at Universal Studios

"Amity Island" on the Universal Studios Tour

Jaws recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, and numerous tributes to the legendary film that entertained the world and changed the face of the business in the process have been produced.  A few of Jaws’ innovations:

“Summer Blockbuster” aimed at youth/male audience with action films that play internationally

Merchandise (t shirts, posters, toys) and secondary entertainment experiences like theme parks, sequels and video games which made more money than the films they were based on

Steven Spielberg becomes driving force  in the commercialization of the sci-fi/action genre but continues to create non-blockbusters like 1941 and Amistad (though probably not on purpose).

The key to all these ideas is that the media, merchandise and attraction created a “vertically integrated entertainment” experience that made full use of all its business opportunities. This was the innovation of the great Lew Wasserman, and he deserves credit, not criticism. He helped create the corporate “efficiencies” that would benefit from “synergy” (to use now-common terms) of a “property” such as Jaws, then exploited it when it came along. What’s the problem?

Personally, I saw the film the night before I went to summer camp in 1975, and I was a bit scared even going into the LAKE at first.  Upon returning, Jaws was still playing, and I saw it at least 10 more times that year.  It got a little less scary each time, and like John Podhoretz accurately wrote in a Weekly Standard criticism, it was like a roller coaster you wanted to ride again and again.  As if that’s bad?   He decries how Jaws created a demand for bigger and bigger movies and that the baby boomer audience who were looking for deeper films like Easy Rider were fired by Hollywood in favor of a younger, less discerning teen market.

What he and a recent special on the Biography channel left out was the man who brought it all together behind the scenes, Lew Wasserman.  A few of the writers mention Universal’s reputation for keeping productions under budget, which was Lew’s management style in action.  This enabled the company to churn out television programming, which also served as a breeding ground for talent.  The special points out that young Stephen Spielberg was working on their tv shows after graduating from film school.

MCA was known for purchasing other studios’ talent, but Speilberg was homegrown.

Wasserman had brought Jaws producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to Universal a few years before to try to seize on the so-called “new wave” of lower budget films that had been big hits.  It made business sense that Wasserman should try to have the biggest film at the lowest cost.  The Biography special mentions a strike by the Screen Actors Guild loomed in the middle of Jaws’ production schedule but doesn’t discuss how it had no impact on the production.  Wasserman negotiated a deal that avoided a strike – something he was famous for (or infamous maybe but you didn’t read it here).

He put the talent together for Jaws, bankrolled it way over budget, and hired a relative unknown as director. He is considered cynical or crass by the Weekly Standard writer for having created lines for the film, or “platforming” a release, but that’s why it’s called show BUSINESS, and Wasserman’s knowledge was built over decades of working in theaters, as an agent and now as producer. After a rousing pre-release screening in Dallas where the audience screamed and gasped at all the right spots, Wasserman famously gathered the executives in the manager’s office and mapped out his strategy, reducing the number of theaters by half saying “I want lines.”

People respond to popularity. It’s why every McDonald’s sign still says “80 Billion served.” It’s a technique that Apple computer uses all the time with new technology. Why have stores if you can’t show people streaming into them as fast as possible to buy something? Lew would be proud of the iPad launch, but I wonder how he would take to the blogosphere. He didn’t like criticism he couldn’t influence or control, and he certainly didn’t dig theft/sharing of content. But that’s another story.

I doubt Wasserman would have been interviewed for the program on Biography even if he were alive. His right hand, Sid Sheinberg, is accepting a lot of limelight these days and he deserves a lot of credit for Spielberg’s development especially. The bottom line to this post is that Lew Wasserman was one of the real stars of Jaws, AND a real shark at the same time. He was vertically integrated from top to bottom and is still getting paid!

As David Brown recalled the scary/stoic boss of MCA in The Last Mogul, “the screening of Jaws in Dallas might’ve been the only time in Lew Wasserman’s life that he had an orgasm.”

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