Today, May 25, is a hallowed day for science fiction geeks everywhere. On this day in 1977, 37 years ago, the original Star Wars premiered. After nearly 40 years of rereleases, remasters, reboots, sequels, prequels and spinoffs, we’re all used to what Star Wars premieres are like: long lines of people in costumes camping out for tickets and huge waves of “buzz” on social media. But it wasn’t like that in 1977. Indeed, Star Wars was an extreme rarity in the history of cinema: a truly organic blockbuster, a runaway success that surprised its creators and promoters as much as its audiences. This simply no longer happens in movies today.
Before Star Wars was an institution and a cultural phenomenon, it was just another movie, and in the eyes of its producers not a very important one. Science fiction in the pre-Star Wars era was a niche interest that was not envisioned as a genre that could sell a lot of tickets to mainstream audiences. Big-budget SF films like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris were more art pieces than classic science fiction. George Lucas, who had directed a SF film in 1971 called THX 1138, wanted to make a kinetic space fantasy, sort of a Western/samurai film in space with many elements throwing back to the movie serials of the 1930s and 40s on which he (and his friend Steven Spielberg) had grown up. After endless battles with producers and studios to get the movie made, Lucas finally called action in March 1976. It was made on a budget of $11 million, the equivalent of about $41 million in today’s dollars–extremely cheap for a sprawling SF epic today, but a ghastly cost for skittish producers at Twentieth Century Fox who had little hope that the movie would find an audience.
Originally scheduled for release in December 1976, post-production delays dragged out the premiere to the following spring. (It was during this post-production period that lead actor Mark Hamill suffered a car accident that has since become the stuff of legend). Fox decided to premiere the film just before Memorial Day to get it out there before summer movies the studio thought would be much more successful, like Smokey and the Bandit, began their run. The distributors had to threaten theaters into displaying the film–by withholding future productions the theater owners wanted more–but even then only 32 theaters in the entire United States had ordered prints of Star Wars for the May 25 opening. Amazingly, George Lucas forgot that the movie was opening that day. After spending the morning of May 25 working, he went out to lunch with his wife Marcia, who was also an editor on the film. They drove by Mann’s Chinese Theater in L.A. and saw a long line of people queued up to see the movie. The Lucases were astonished to learn that the crowd had turned out for their movie.
Most of the immense crowds that came to see Star Wars in its early days were motivated by word of mouth, not by advertising.
Throughout the summer of 1977, Star Wars broke all records then existing in the film industry. Theaters suddenly clamored for prints and added extra showings, some in the wee hours of the morning, to accommodate viewer demand. The original promotion campaign for Star Wars was a shoestring affair because the studio didn’t think it was worth it; now suddenly they began promoting the film like the jewel in the crown, which it quickly became. Twentieth Century Fox’s stock price doubled by the end of June and investors in the film were rolling in dough. The merchandising–especially toys, developed by a formerly unknown toy company called Kenner–began to take off. Lucas would say in later years that selling the merchandising rights to Star Wars to Kenner for a song cost him a billion dollars. The previously unknown stars of the film, Hamill, Carrie Fisher (daughter of Debbie Reynolds) and Harrison Ford, were suddenly household names whose agents were flooded with offers. And Star Wars entered popular culture the world over, with nearly everybody in the Western world, and a lot of people outside of it, knowing what Wookies and Jawas were and recognizing instantly the image of quarrelsome robots C3P0 and R2D2.
In the years since 1977 movie studios have constantly tried to recreate the incredible mojo of Star Wars‘s epic premiere. Studios now routinely spend the equivalent–or more–of a film’s whole production budget to promote a movie and build “buzz” before its release. Loud, tiresome CGI-soaked monstrosities like the abysmal Transformers franchise or the endless gauntlet of comic book superhero movies like X Men and Spider Man are so over-hyped that would-be blockbusters often have to face the headwind of audience backlash because the public is already tired of them before they even come out. Furthermore, studios think they can predict what will or should be a monster blockbuster, but they’re not very good at it; remember when Man of Steel or Hancock were supposed to be the biggest films of the year? Despite being in the creation business, Hollywood studios aren’t very creative. They believe there’s a magic talisman out there that, when invoked properly, will turn a film into a Star Wars-style runaway hit. It doesn’t often work.
The truth is that we, the audiences, still hold the ultimate power over a film. Plenty of excellent films flop at the box office, while pieces of steaming camel dung like Transformers 3 make millions; but a truly organic blockbuster, one that is not built of pushy advertising or clever marketing stunts, can only come from a film that strikes an audience with genuine sincerity. Star Wars did that. It happens once in a generation, but rarely more often than that.