NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly 40 years ago, a group of filmmakers trekked to a quiet resort island for what was to be a very troubled film shoot and changed Hollywood forever when they produced what would become the first-ever summer blockbuster.
An inexperienced director named Steven Spielberg and his cast battled with a malfunctioning mechanical shark nicknamed “Bruce” throughout that summer of 1974 as studio executives, worried about delays and budget overruns, threatened to pull the plug.
About the only thing “Jaws” seemed to have going for it was its source material, the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley on which it was based.
But less than 80 days after its release, the film became Hollywood’s all-time box office champion, a position it retained until the release of “Star Wars,” which took six months to depose the shark thriller, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.
“Jaws” was also the first film to top $100 million in U.S. box office receipts.
Today, Martha’s Vineyard is a summer playground for presidents and Hollywood stars. Its summer population has ballooned, and traffic snarls the streets that criss-cross many of the six towns on the island.
In a few weeks, thousands more visitors will arrive for “Jawsfest,” a four-day tribute to the film that cemented the fame of Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, as the story’s fictional Amity Island.
“Jawsfest,” which runs from August 9-12, also coincides with the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures, which released the film in June 1975.
It will include appearances and discussions by the filmmakers and cast members, exhibitions, shark education and conservation programs and an outdoor screening of the film in Oak Bluffs. Organizers expect from 5,000 to 10,000 attendees.
“Nobody knew this was going to be the hit it was,” said Jeffrey Kramer, who played police chief Roy Scheider’s deputy, the character who got physically sick when he discovered a swimmer’s partial remains crawling with tiny crabs.
The film shoot dragged on nearly six months, or four times the planned timespan.
“But it was such a terrifically exciting, heady time. It brought me to California, which changed my life,” Kramer said. The deputy in “Jaws” was the first Hollywood film role for the Emmy-winning producer of TV series “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice.”
For local resident, mother of five and retired actress Lee Fierro, who played the mother of a boy devoured by the shark, “Jaws” revived a career she had decided to give up.
“I got back into theater, taught and directed for the next 30 years,” said Fierro, who still lives on the island and receives fan letters, mostly from young men who were moved by the story.
Fierro said the malfunctioning mechanical shark proved a blessing.
“It was one reason it became a great movie,” she said. “It didn’t end up getting used much, so because you don’t see it a lot that appeals to the deep fear of the unknown in everybody. That shark is the unknown.”
The movie’s phenomenal success was followed by an explosion in summer crowds on the island, and a boom in construction of lavish homes.
Before “Jaws,” the average summer tourist population was about 5,000 people. After it was released, the figure ballooned to 15,000. It is now about 75,000, but rises to 130,000 during the busiest weeks.
“The traffic is wicked,” Fierro said. “We islanders obviously need tourism, but it has grown immensely. And it has become a tremendously popular place for celebrities to come to.”
Kramer agreed that the island was quieter and more bucolic 40 years ago but added that there are still no chain stores or fast-food restaurants.
“There’s just something magical about this island,” he said.
Fierro said foundations and private owners fiercely guard large parcels of greenery and open land on the island’s 87.5 square miles.
Susan Sigel Goldsmith, Jawsfest’s producer who has been working on the project since the last festival in 2005, said the island has not changed much, due to strict building codes.
“The dock in Menemsha where Quint (Robert Shaw) has his boat is still there, and Edgartown looks the same. For fans, it’s like walking right onto a movie set,” she said.
The festival was structured, she added, to satisfy devoted fans of the film, who will be coming from as far away as Australia, as well as day trippers interested in the shark and memorabilia exhibits.
A Blu-ray edition of “Jaws” will be released on August 14, one of Universal’s 12 films remastered to mark its centennial.
But even the scores of events in “Jawsfest” won’t satisfy the film’s fanatics.
“The fans are clamoring for a ‘Jaws 2’ fest,” said Goldsmith, referring to the first of several sequels.
“It’s not something I have in my imminent plans.”
Editing by Patricia Reaney and David Gregorio