How Steven Spielberg saved Joe Dante’s Piranha from a legal injunction

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The 1978 film Piranha was facing an injunction from Universal Pictures – who had Jaws 2 to promote – until Steven Spielberg got involved.

Looking at the personnel behind 1978’s fishy feature Piranha, and it’s a notable stepping stone for a couple of careers. Legendary purveyor of low budget movies Roger Corman pulled the project together, spotting an opportunity to cash in on the success of 1975’s megahit Jaws (the film that’s arguably the first blockbuster movie as we know it).

But four names stick out too behind the camera. Producer Jon Davison – who’d already worked with Corman by this stage – was just a year or two away from producing Airplane!, and less than a decade from RoboCop. Screenwriter John Sayles would get his first on-screen credit for the movie, ahead of a career that saw him became a double-Oscar-nominated hugely acclaimed writer and director in his own right. That, and one of the most lauded of Hollywood script doctors too.


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A young effects genius called Rob Bottin was hired for this one too, and put on fish duty. Years later, he’d be working with John Carpenter on The Thing

And then there’s Joe Dante, the director behind much-loved films ranging from the Gremlins movies and Innerspace through to Matinee and The ‘Burbs. Piranha marked his solo feature directorial debut, having co-helmed 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard.

The latter film, famously, came about as a result of a bet between the aforementioned Corman and Davison, to see just how cheaply they could make a film. ‘For under $55,000’ came the answer, as Dante and co-director Allan Arkush cut trailers for Corman in the evening, and assembled Hollywood Boulevard – using liberal amounts of pre-existing footage – in the day. In under two weeks, they had a feature, and a mildly profitable one.

But Piranha was a little different. Moved quickly into production when Jaws became the sensation it did, Corman et al knew time was of the time essence here. He wanted to take a bite (sorry) out of the market while it was at its peak, and unusually, the resultant film was going to have to compete with a sequel to the film they were ‘borrowing from’ as well.

In the 1970s, the idea of a movie sequel was by distance the exception rather than the norm, and so eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Universal was itself looking to cash in on Jaws-mania and make Jaws 2.

This was a surprising move. Spielberg declined the opportunity to direct, having gone through so much hell making the first and thus having little inclination to revisit those particular waters. In would step Jeannot Szwarc to take over, and the studio set a release date of June 1978.

Jaws 2

Jaws 2

But already, the competition was swarming. Piranha was amongst a bunch of imitators, and in this case, it was set to launch a few weeks after Jaws 2’s bow. Universal wasn’t happy though, describing Joe Dante’s low budget fish flick in alternative and less polite words for ‘you appear to have made a facsimile of our movie’. Along with some international movies as well that were on similar lines, the studio’s discontent was to the point that lawyers were summoned, and things were about to get nasty.

For Universal, this was less about the fact that it felt others had all-but-directly ripped off Jaws, and more about protecting the commercial prospects of Jaws 2. That notwithstanding, it planned to launch an injunction to stop Roger Corman and his releasing Piranha, and to give Jaws 2 clearer wate… oh heck, got to stop these.

Still, the story here took a turn. Amongst the people who’d seen a cut of the film at that stage was the bearded one himself, Steven Spielberg. And he found himself more enamoured with the production than Universal had been.

As Dante explained on the late Gilbert Gottfried’s excellent podcast, Spielberg pointed out to Universal that Piranha, if anything, was a parody rather than a rip-off (or ‘homage’, as Dante described it with a wink). This seemed to come as news to Dante, who knew full well what kind of film he’d been hired to make, and duly delivered it. But Universal, keen to keep Hollywood’s big new director sweet, found itself with little choice but to cede to what Spielberg thought. With its prize director urging it to look again at Piranha, Universal lawyers were ultimately called off, and Piranha could help itself to a summer release.

Dante, for his part, was oblivious to all of this, and he wouldn’t learn exactly what happened until a little bit later down the line (figuring himself an unknown filmmaker, the realisation that Spielberg had not only watched his film, but fought for it, sounded quite something). By that stage though, he had a hit on his hands. In fact, everyone sort of won here. Whilst Universal’s Jaws 2 had gone on to box office success with a global take of $208m – huge money, by 1970s standards (and today’s, for some of us), Piranha had turned a tidy profit as well.

The film had been made in double quick time for around three quarters of a million dollars, and returned $16m. Given the scale and size of the Roger Corman operation, this was very much a (modestly priced) champagne all round moment. The film itself was and is fun too, and Spielberg would – alongside stopping a potential injunction against it – become one of its champions.

In fact, more than that: once Spielberg doubled down on his success and got his Amblin Entertainment production arm up and running, Joe Dante was – wisely – one of the directors he sought out to employ. He first used him on a segment of the infamous Twilight Zone: The Movie, but then the pair joined forces immediately afterwards for one of the biggest surprise hits of the decade. That’d be 1984’s Gremlins, a film that Corman in turn hired a director to make a low budget ri… homage to.

Corman’s running line was that if a director was any good, they’d only have to work for him twice. In Dante’s case, with two films under his belt, he was off to make The Howling next. Which all left the coast clear for a different director to take over for Corman’s Piranha II.

Wonder what ever happened to James Cameron?

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