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How Steven Spielberg's First Theatrical Movie (and Box Office Bomb) Led to Jaws

Pro tip: never refer to a great white shark as a "whale."

By Josh Weiss

A year before he changed the cinematic landscape forever with the release of Jaws, director Steven Spielberg tried his hand at a Bonnie and Clyde-inspired crime caper with 1974's The Sugarland Express (check it out from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment).

The very first theatrical effort from the legendary filmmaker, the movie stars Goldie Hawn and William Atherton as a pair of good-intentioned outlaws who lead Texas police on a merry chase across the Lone Star State in an effort to save their son from adoption. While The Sugarland Express was positively-received by critics, Universal Pictures decided to pull it from theaters after just two weeks due to low box office sales, according to Variety. It ultimately fell by the wayside the following year when a certain man-eating shark brought audiences in by the boatful, led to the creation of the summer blockbuster, and established young Spielberg as a white-hot Hollywood talent.

For More on Jaws:
Model Who Posed As Ill-Fated Swimmer for Iconic Jaws Poster Preaches Shark Protection
Lee Marvin as Quint? Jon Voight as Hooper? Exploring 3 Alternate Currents of Steven Spielberg's Jaws
Steven Spielberg Recalls How a Man Puked on the Theater Floor During an Early Screening of Jaws

How Box Office Dud The Sugarland Express Led Steven Spielberg to Jaws

Even though he's known for much more iconic titles these days, the director was more than happy to pay homage to the motion picture that got his name up on the big screen by attending a special 40th anniversary screening of The Sugarland Express at the Tribeca Festival last weekend. Taking part in a Q&A, Spielberg recalled how producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck — who had an overall deal with the studio — didn't drop him after the movie's lackluster ticket sales. As we now know, all the kid needed was a second chance to prove himself.

"They had the galleys of this book in their office just sitting out called Jaws," Spielberg remembered (via Variety). "I didn’t know what it was; I was intrigued, and I went over to the assistant of Dick and I said, ‘Can I read this?' I read it over the weekend and I was floored by it. I asked him if they would consider having me direct this, and there had already been a director assigned to it. Then about a month later when that didn’t work out, they offered me the movie."

The original director chosen for Jaws, Dick Richards (The Culpepper Cattle Co.), was fired because he famously kept referring to the great white shark as a "whale."

Jaws (and its three sequels) are available to purchase via Universal Pictures Home EntertainmentWant even more Spielbergian goodness? Head on over to Peacock for Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Saving Private Ryan, and The Terminal!