Career Breakthroughs: Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most well-known movie director and producer in all of film. He is best known for making entertaining pictures which appeal to a wide audience. Examples of these films include Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, Jurassic Park, E.T., and War of the Worlds.  However, his films have not only found widespread popular appeal, but many of them are also critically acclaimed. Spielberg has been nominated for 18 Academy Awards, winning once for Best Director, and once for Best Picture. Some of his best known critically acclaimed films include Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Lincoln, Munich, and Schindler’s List. Altogether he has been involved as director in 32 feature films which have grossed more than $10 billion total at the domestic box office when adjusted for inflation. On top of his filmography as director, Spielberg has been an important producer as well. He has helped to produce many extremely popular films, including Back to the Future, Gremlins, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Twister, Men in Black, and Transformers.

It can be said plainly; Spielberg has found a lot of success in the movie industry. Because of this success he is an influential figure who has earned his place as one of the greatest filmmakers who have ever lived. Of course, Spielberg’s success didn’t happen over night. It is the result of a lot of hard work, ingenuity, and some good fortune. This is the story of how Spielberg got his start in the industry and how his 1977 film Jaws made his incredible career possible in the first place.

In The Beginning…

Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1948. His father was an electrical engineer who contributed to the development of computer circuitry and tape data recording. Because of his father’s work experience, the family moved around frequently when Spielberg was a child, eventually settling in California. Spielberg attended Hebrew school from 1953 to 1957, and experienced a lot of prejudice because of his religion, and this impacted his studies where he earned average grades at best.

At the age of 8 his father took him to a theater to see the circus epic film The Greatest Show on Earth. Young Spielberg thought that they were going to the circus, and was a bit disappointed. However, there was a scene in the movie of a train crash, which caught his eye. Later, he asked his dad for a train set, which he would use to crash himself in recreation of what he saw in the movie. Understandably, this upset his father who forbid him to crash his toys together. Spielberg came up with a solution of filming the crash so that he could watch again and again without having to further damage his toys. From then on, he became fascinated with film.

Initially he used the family’s home video camera to film family outings. He experimented with setting up shots, before moving on to provide his own narration and rudimentary special effects. His father would tell him stories from WWII, and Spielberg began making short films of these stories. In 1958 he received a Boy Scout merit badge in photography for creating a short film called ‘The Last Gunfight’. In 1961 he won a prize for another war film entitled ‘Escape to Nowhere’ about a battle in East Africa. At the age of 16 he made his first feature film on a $500 budget. This film was a science fiction film called Firelight, and his father rented a local theater one night to show it off, where, thanks to a generous attendee, it made a profit of $1.

Starting a Career…

After completing High School, Spielberg could not get into film school because of his grades. Instead, he attended California State University, Long Beach, where he studied English. During this time he interned at Universal Studios in the editing department. As part of this opportunity he was allowed to make a short film. That film, called ‘Amblin was later entered into the 1969 Atlanta Film Festival. It was well received and began being shown at several other festivals and in a limited run in theaters. This caught the eye of Universal Studios who gave Spielberg a 7-year contract to direct for them.

Spielberg started his career at Universal by directing television show episodes. He worked on Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D. and Columbo, among others. Spielberg received bigger and bigger opportunities to direct, including his first paid feature-length opportunity, a 90-minute episode of The Name of the Game called “L.A. 2017”. Executives were so impressed that they signed a contract with Spielberg to have him direct 4 films. The first film he directed was the 1971 made-for-TV movie Duel, which is widely considered Spielberg’s official feature debut. Duel was a hit with audiences and would be released in theaters outside of the US to widespread acclaim. Duel went a long way to making Spielberg a star. It made him one of the most popular up-and-coming faces in Hollywood, and everyone was eager to see what he would do next.

The Breakthrough…

Although the positive response to Duel was substantial enough to suggest that Spielberg’s breakthrough was on the horizon, it didn’t exactly happen as expected. Instead, Spielberg’s career took a step back before moving forward again. After Duel, Spielberg was inundated with offers to direct many different films. He reviewed many scripts but just couldn’t find anything that sparked his interest. He essentially withdrew from the studio to work on his own project, which became The Sugarland Express, released in 1974. Although this film would be appreciated by critics, it was not very successful in theaters.

In many ways, Spielberg’s drive to be an auteur filmmaker was in contrast with the direction of his career at that point in time. Spielberg was part of the “New Hollywood” movement, in which filmmakers exercised more control over their productions than had been typical in the past. Previously, film studios had significant control over the films that they produced, and directors were little more than project managers. With the rise of the Baby Boomers in the mid-sixties, there was increased need to appeal to a younger audience. As such, studios were giving new filmmakers more freedom in the hope that the films they made would better appeal to changing audience expectations. Although Duel afforded Spielberg some freedom away from the studio system, he was not yet popular enough to survive on his name alone. Part of the problem was that his career grew through the studio system, not independent of it as was the case with some of his peers. In order to continue making the types of films that he wanted to make, Spielberg needed support from the studios.

And so, Spielberg went back to the producers who had hired him for Duel and agreed to direct their next film. That next film was Jaws. Spielberg was reluctant at first because he thought it would be too similar to Duel, and he didn’t want to be typecast. Furthermore, he was more interested in other projects at rival studios. However, he agreed to do Jaws for two important reasons: one, to honor his contract, and, two, because the studio agreed to allow him more freedom of choice on future projects. This freedom is what Spielberg had failed to achieve with Sugarland Express.

Of course, Spielberg didn’t necessarily need an agreement from the studios to have more freedom on future projects. Jaws blew up at the box office and made an incredible amount of money. Spielberg’s style that prioritized audience excitement fundamentally changed the way movies would be made. The studio’s methods of promotion and decision to release the film in a very wide release essentially established the tradition of the summer blockbuster. If audiences didn’t already know Spielberg, Jaws made sure that they would moving forward. This recognition, along with the immense profitability that Spielberg proved movies could be capable of, allowed him to do whatever film projects he wanted from then on. Looking back at Jaws today, it seems obvious how much this film assisted in Spielberg’s career trajectory, but prior to the films’ release, the positive impact was much more uncertain.