Steven Spielberg’s effect on the movie industry cannot be overstated. He is one of those rare widely respected filmmakers who seems to elicit enthusiasm from audiences, critics and awards shows alike. This comes as no shock because if you look at the choices for the kinds of movies that he chooses to direct, they are often stories that are easy to connect with emotionally and yet often spectacular enough to entertain moviegoers who are just looking to eat popcorn and have a good time. In other words he is an intelligent storyteller but he also has a firm grasp on the tastes of the population at large and why we love movies so much.
And Spielberg has been serious about movies ever since he was a child. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1946 and later raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Spielberg started making home movies at the age of 12. He actually used his requirements as a boy scout to earn a photography merit badge as an excuse to film his 9-minute 8mm film The Last Gunfight, but he continued making movies with his father’s camera and took it with him on every scout trip. Even at the age of 13 he made a 40-minute war film called Escape to Nowhere, the first of his films to win an award (at a local state competition).
Spielberg also loved watching movies, which he did at the local theatre every Saturday. He loved fantasies like Pinocchio, sci-fi films like Them! and epic dramas like Lawrence of Arabia.
Spielberg and his family later moved to California where he transferred to a new high school, although Spielberg was completely disinterested in academics and completely focused on being a filmmaker, so he applied to the University of Southern California’s film school where directors like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis got accepted, but Spielberg’s application was turned down because his lack of interest in academics showed in his low grades. He later applied for and got accepted into California State University.
With this educational background and a lot of promise as a filmmaker, Universal gave the young Spielberg a chance to direct a short film called Amblin’ (1968) which Spielberg wrote. The short film followed the journey of two young hitchhikers and it contained all the humanity and sentimentality that Spielberg would later become known for with his feature films.
Universal vice president Sidney Sheinberg was impressed enough by Amblin’ that he offered Spielberg a seven-year directing contract, which prompted Spielberg to drop out of college completely to focus on making movies.
At Universal, Spielberg directed TV episodes in the late sixties and early seventies, including a segment in the pilot episode of Night Gallery written by Rod Serling and starring Joan Crawford, who started out skeptical of the young inexperienced director but by the time shooting ended thought he was a genius.
Other TV shows Spielberg directed include Marcus Welby, M.D., The Name of the Game, Columbo, Owen Marshall and The Psychiatrist. Although this work was not creatively fulfilling, he often earned good reviews for his directing, made good pay and would use the work as an opportunity to experiment with his filming techniques.
Universal’s satisfaction with Spielberg’s TV work led to Spielberg getting the opportunity to direct the television film Duel (1971), adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson about a man being pursued on the road by a psychotic truck driver. Duel got positive reviews and Spielberg would direct other TV movies like Something Evil (1972) and Savage (1973) afterwards, but Spielberg’s talent shined too bright to remain on the small screen.
Spielberg’s first widely released full-length feature film was Universal’s The Sugarland Express (1974) about a young married couple played by Goldie Hawn and William Atherton who go on the run. It got good reviews and its screenplay was honored at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was not a huge commercial success.
But The Sugarland Express’s producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown decided to take another chance on Spielberg with a different kind of film, the horror film Jaws (1975) about a great white shark terrorizing beachgoers, based on the novel by Peter Benchley and starring Roy Scheider as the police chief, Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist and Robert Shaw as the shark hunter who try to put an end to the shark’s reign of terror.
Jaws was Spielberg’s most challenging shoot yet and Universal threatened to cancel the film at one point due to the huge production costs, but Spielberg delivered, and the film became an astonishing success at the box office, essentially inventing the concept of the modern summer blockbuster (a high-budget simple-concept action thriller that is expected to make millions of dollars) which every Hollywood studio has copied from that point forward. Jaws made Spielberg a household name as well as making viewers around the world scared to go to the beach. It was the highest-grossing film in history when it was released in 1975 and it would remain so until 1977 when Star Wars came out and really kicked the door down and made sci-fi the new big genre.
Speaking of sci-fi, when Steven Spielberg finally became a respected director and a box office king thanks to the enormous success of Jaws, he was able to have more creative control over his projects, and one film that he had been wanting to make since before Jaws came out was a sci-fi film based on his 1963 film Firelight that he secured with Columbia Pictures in 1973. Firelight was inspired by an experience from Spielberg’s childhood when he and his father watched a meteor shower together, and this sci-fi feature, which Columbia was eager to distribute after Spielberg’s success with Jaws, would be Spielberg’s most ambitious project to date.
The film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which was written by Spielberg and told the story of a blue-collar Indiana man (Richard Dreyfuss) whose encounter with a UFO changes his life, was released to critical and financial success.
Spielberg helped usher in a new kind of film thanks to his work in the seventies. A film that takes the simple concept of a 1950s sci-fi B movie or a typically corny Roger Corman horror movie and brings a new level of realism and spectacle to them with brilliant acting, writing and direction.