Monday, 2 September 2013

Day one: Star Wars on its first release, May 25 1977

Star Wars mania: Crowds at Mann's Chinese 
Theater in August 1977

There's a famous story about the opening day of Star Wars.

An exhausted George Lucas was busy mixing the foreign language versions of the film in Hollywood that day, May 25 1977. He had arranged to meet his wife Marcia, who was busy editing Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, and the couple headed for a Hamburger Hamlet across the street from Mann’s Chinese Theater.

The story goes that Lucas was so wrapped up in his work that he had forgotten where his film was opening, and had no idea why they became embroiled in a traffic jam. Then the Lucases turned a corner and saw the cinema’s marquee bearing the title Star Wars.

Star Wars mania had started. In both New York and California, people had been queuing to see the film since before the doors opened that morning. House records were being broken everywhere it played. On that first day, the film made $254,309 at thirty-two screens.

It's not hard to see why people would go Star Wars crazy on May 26 or 27, when word had got around that the film was great. But how do we account for the fact that it was breaking records on day one?

The most likely answer is that a clever merchandising and marketing campaign had worked. And much of the credit for that seems due to two men. One is George Lucas. The other is Charles Lippincott, the man Lucas and Gary Kurtz had hired in 1975 to head publicity and merchandising at what was then called the Star Wars Corporation.

Lucas could have received more money than he did from Twentieth Century-Fox for writing and directing Star Wars, but he had chosen instead to ask for the rights to sequels and merchandising. It wasn’t just that Lucas believed merchandising could be a cash cow. He also feared Fox would not be great at promoting the film. He was shrewd enough to realise that merchandising could not only feed off the movie but could actually create interest in it beforehand.

Lippincott had managed to sell the idea of a Star Wars comic book to a sceptical Marvel Comics. He had also convinced the publisher Ballantine, via its Del Rey imprint, to bring out a novelization in advance of the movie’s release, and even to publish a sequel. The deal was not expected to bring in big money for Lucas's company, but it would help make people aware of the movie. Arousing the interest of toy manufacturers proved harder, and it was not until April 1977 that Lippincott would sign Kenner to make Star Wars action figures and models.

Lucas had calculated that America’s hardcore of science fiction fans could almost make his film break even. “The title Star Wars was an insurance policy,” he is quoted as saying in Michael Pye and Linda Myles's book The Movie Brats. Fox’s research had suggested that the word “war” in a title would turn off women. “But we calculated that there are something like eight million dollars’ worth of science fiction freaks in the USA and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars,” Lucas said.

While the film was being shot, Lippincott had toured science fiction conventions, displaying models and pictures from the production. The film was promoted through adverts on local television and college newspapers, and even on cable TV in college dorms. The campaign was clearly working, because the Star Wars novel, published in November 1976, had sold half a million copies by February 1977.

Fox, meanwhile, expected its big release of 1977 to be the Sidney Sheldon adaptation The Other Side of Midnight. It even tried to strong-arm some cinemas by saying they couldn’t show that film unless they agreed to book Star Wars. Whereas The Godfather and Jaws had pioneered the idea of opening a major film on hundreds of screens at once, Star Wars had opened on only 32 that Wednesday, rising to 43 by the weekend. By comparison – as this excellent article at on the film's first week engagements points out – that year's Peter Benchley-derived clunker The Deep opened on more than 800.

Peter Myers, Fox's vice-president of domestic distribution for the studio at the time, insisted the studio was mounting a "prestige" opening for Star Wars. "The answer was to position the picture in the proper theaters and give it the proper presentation so the people themselves could discover it and spread the word,” he told Associated Press shorlty afterwards. So we shouldn't ignore the possibility that Fox did know what it was doing.

One more factor that shouldn't be discounted is that some people had seen the film, including the press. Time had carried a glowing review and teased it on the cover, with the words “Best Film of the Year”, which can't have hurt.

R2-D2 leaves his prints in the cement 
at Mann's Chinese Theater
The extraordinary rush of interest in Star Wars that began on the morning of May 25 never seemed to let up. Before long, such household names as Edward Kennedy, Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali were spotted queuing at their local cinemas. By August 3, See-Threepio, Artoo-Detoo and Darth Vader were leaving their footprints in the Hall of Fame outside Mann’s Chinese Theater. After the Labor Day holiday, when box office figures traditionally dipped, the film's takings picked up again.

That Christmas, some theaters were decidedly unhappy that contractual commitments would force them finally to drop the film in favour of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Plenty still held onto Star Wars, though, and its release would not officially end until July 20 1978. Even then, many venues held onto their prints – because the film’s first re-release started the next day.

Next time: Star Wars comes to the UK, where people have been waiting more than seven months in desperation to see it.

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