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Friday, 19 January 2018

The original release of Star Wars: when it was seen and where

Star Wars mania at Mann's Chinese Theater

On the weekend of May 27-29 1977, many thousands of people were enjoying a film that was playing on hundreds of American cinema screens. The film took $2.7million at the box office that weekend. 

It was called Smokey and the Bandit

Meanwhile, people in a small number of major US cities had a chance to see a new science fiction movie called Star Wars

The opening dates of Star Wars: separating myth from reality

Smokey and the Bandit was on wider
release than Star Wars in May, 1977

I gleaned the above facts about Smokey and the Bandit from just about the best article I’ve ever read online about the opening weeks of Star Wars

It’s from a site called, which takes a forensic look at the historical record to try and separate myth and hearsay from reality. It examines those heady days when the film opened to a response that almost nobody could have expected. 

The facts about where the film opened, when, and how much money it took, are immutable, though people sometimes get them wrong. But the judgements about why Star Wars prompted the reaction it did are more open to debate. 

How many screens did the Star Wars open on?

George and Marcia Lucas were surprised
by Star Wars' success

Star Wars was released on a Wednesday, May 25, 1977, showing on 32 screens. Another 11 were added to that list over the next two days. So, as far as scale was concerned, it was still no rival to Smokey and the Bandit

But at those 43 cinemas, something amazing was happening. People were standing in line to see the film on the morning of day one. When they had seen it, they spread the word rapidly about how incredible it was. 

A famous story has it that George Lucas was taking his wife Marcia out for a meal during a brief break from mixing the foreign language prints of Star Wars. They came upon a crowd near Mann’s Chinese Theatre and initially had no idea that the phenomenon causing the commotion was George's movie.

You can see a list of those 43 original cinemas here.

But in short, to see the film on May 25, you had to be in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Boston, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Louisville, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Salt Lake City , Seattle, St Paul or Washington DC. 

The film reached Kansas City on Thursday May 26 and Chicago, Dallas, Dayton, Des Moines, Houston, Omaha and St Louis on the Friday.

Despite the immediate furore, the film only reached two more screens on June 3 and another three on June 10. It was only on June 17 that the film’s release widened significantly, reaching 157 screens. 

With 20th Century-Fox producing prints as fast as it could, Star Wars reached 360 cinemas by June 24. The height of the film’s US release would not come until August 5, when it was on 1,044 screens. And most of the world would have to wait much longer.

In the UK, unless you could get to the West End of London over Christmas, Star Wars was not a film of 1977 at all, but a film of 1978. And in some parts of the country, it was well into 1978 before people saw it.

The way films were released in the 1970s was very different from today, when major movies are released everywhere at once and live or die by their opening weekend’s box office. But even by the standards of the time, the opening of Star Wars was quite small. 

Earlier blockbusters like The Godfather and Jaws had opened on hundreds of screens. One of the other big films of 1977 was the tedious actioner The Deep, based on a novel by Jaws author Peter Benchley which opened on more than 800.

Why did Star Wars open on so few screens? There are two theories, depending on who you chose to believe. One was that 20th Century-Fox was mounting a “prestige opening” – showing the film in a small number of venues equipped with the best sound and projection systems, in order to generate enthusiasm ahead of a wider release. The other possible explanation is that few cinemas wanted it. It's said that Fox even told some venues that unless they booked Star Wars, they wouldn’t be able to show the company’s expected hit of 1977 – The Other Side of Midnight

Viral marketing, 1977-style – and the reasons Star Wars was a hit

This artwork by Howard Chaykin was distributed at conventions in 1976 to help raise awareness of Star Wars
The audiences were there on the morning of May 25, 1977, standing in line outside many of those 32 screens. A marketing campaign was paying off. 

George Lucas’s publicity and merchandising supremo, Charles Lippincott, had spent a lot of time promoting the film directly to the science fiction community and young people. He had taken presentations to SF conventions. He had persuaded Del Rey to publish a novel, which had already been out for six months. Marvel had created its comic book. And commercials had been running on college TV stations. Today, we might call some of this activity viral marketing, but in 1977, it surely looked like old-fashioned showmanship.

But clever marketing is no good if the product is disappointing. Lippincott’s strategy helped deliver the crowds, but it helped that the movie was unlike anything anyone had seen before. That’s why people came out of the cinema babbling about how great it was and pledging to see it again. 

Star Wars started as a film, quickly became a news story and was a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon before much of the world had even had a chance to see it.


Kayle Keig said...
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Anonymous said...

Always frustrates me when ever a new Star Wars film releases, journalists jump on the band wagon stating they remember seeing it in the UK in 1977 as a child. Probably not!

Darren Slade said...

Yes, that's a good point. People forget how long British cinema-goers generally had to wait to see big American films.