David Brown and Steven Spielberg: Through Thick and Thin

Film producer David Brown (1916-2010) began his career in 1951 heading the story department at Twentieth Century Fox. His success began early through his involvement with The Robe, an American Biblical epic film that received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 1953.

All through the 1970’s Brown made a name for himself, founding a film production company with Richard D. Zanuck and producing one of the highest-grossing films of all time, Jaws.

In 1973, he hired Steven Spielberg to direct Spielberg’s inaugural film The Sugarland Express. At the end of filming, Spielberg noticed a copy of the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley in the producers’ office. He asked to borrow it, read it, and was so captivated that he asked to direct the movie. Before the release of The Sugarland Express, he was hired to direct Jaws.

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Goldie Hawn and Steven Spielberg on set of The Sugarland Express, 1974.          Source: IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072226/mediaviewer/rm1640303104

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Press release announcing the hire of Steven Spielberg as director of Jaws. David Brown papers, Collection #5574, Box 23, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The filming of Jaws had many complications. It went over budget and past schedule for more than three months, but in the end “…Jaws became the highest grossing film of all time until the release of Star Wars in 1977.  Jaws won several awards for music and editing.

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Excerpt from Premiere Magazine. David Brown papers, Collection #5574, Box 41, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Along with Star WarsJaws was pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which revolves around high box-office returns from action and adventure pictures with simple “high concept” premises that are released during the summer in thousands of theaters and supported by heavy advertising. It was followed by three sequels, none with the participation of Spielberg or Benchley, and many imitative thrillers. In 2001, Jaws was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry, being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Almost two decades later, when Schindler’s List debuted, and even though David Brown was not involved in the movie, he appreciated and praised Spielberg’s directorial work, and sent this message:

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David Brown’s prediction to Steven Spielberg. David Brown papers, Collection # 5574, Box 46, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.


Letter from Spielberg to Brown about Schindler’s List. David Brown papers, Collection # 5574, Box 11, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

David Brown supported Steven Spielberg’s projects, no matter what turn they took. A few years after making Schindler’s List, Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, a nonprofit organization at the University of Southern California dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. David Brown was a financial contributor. Also, in 1994, David Brown was co-chair for Steven Spielberg’s tribute from the American Museum of the Moving Image. In 1995, they teamed up again to produce Deep Impact, for which Spielberg was executive producer.  The movie came out in 1998.

From the beginning, there was a mutual admiration, but also a friendship that endured for three decades.

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Daily Variety Magazine ad bought by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, December 7, 1993. David Brown papers, Collection #5574, Box 46, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.


Thank you note from Steven Spielberg. David Brown papers, Collection #5574, Box 11, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

To learn more about Brown’s career, see the David Brown papers at the UW American Heritage Center.

– Submitted by Alexandra Cardin, Processor, Arrangement and Description Unit, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

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