Friday, 4 July 2014

Selling Star Wars: Fox boss Peter Myers on the film's original release

Audiences outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood,
the cinema most associated with Star Wars
Did 20th Century-Fox know what it had on its hands with Star Wars?

Many books and articles written about the film's first release have insisted that George Lucas had a much better idea than Fox about how to market the movie. 

These people point out, as I discussed in this post, that Lucas and his publicity man Charles Lippincott had been drumming up interest in the film while it was still in production.  Lippincott had taken posters and models to science fiction conventions – and thanks to a merchandising deal with the publisher Del Rey, half a million people had bought the Star Wars novel by February 1977.

The Movie Business
, edited by
Jason E Squire
Meanwhile, the story goes, Fox still thought The Other Side of Midnight would be its big film of 1977, and Star Wars only opened on 32 screens, rising to 43 by its first weekend.

On the other hand, Peter Myers, senior vice-president at Fox at the time, has insisted that Fox was giving the film a "prestige" opening on the screens that were best able to show it with superior sound and picture quality.

I recently came across an essay Myers contributed in 1983 to The Movie Business Book, edited by Jason E Squires.  It doesn't really settle this argument, but it does contain some fascinating facts and figures about Star Wars' first release.

Myers points out that films had "fast and slow release patterns", adding: "The fast pattern is for any well-known or easily exploitable subject that lends itself to a massive, national television advertising campaign. The slow pattern is for a more sensitive picture, without presold ingredients... Obviously, there are variations of each pattern."

The surprise, perhaps, is that Myers says Star Wars' release was "one example of a fast release pattern".  It might not sound like a very fast release today, but Myers tells us what a slow release looked at then by mentioning the Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed film Julia – which opened in only 10 cities, on one screen in each in the hope that lines would build up outside the venues.

Myers tells us how Star Wars remained at 43 cinemas until June 17 1977, when the number increased to 157. "We further accelerated our release because of the huge box-office success, going up to 362 on June 24; 504 by July 1; 585 on July 8; 628 on July 14; 811 on July 21; 956 on July 29; 1,044 on August 5; and 1,098 by August 19," he writes.

After that, the number began to decline steadily, but the film was still on almost 600 screens at the end of 1977 and at 100 in April 1978.  Fox re-released it for the summer of 1978, "resulting in the greatest number of prints bought for any picture".  At the time Myers was writing, the film had grossed more than $295,000,000.

Meanwhile, Myers says, one venue in Portland, Oregon, kept its original run of Star Wars going until Christmas 1978 – landing itself in a legal dispute with Columbia, which had booked Close Encounters of the Third Kind to play there.

Myers points out that the release pattern of Star Wars was replicated three years later with The Empire Strikes Back, except that this time the numbers were bigger. Empire opened on 126 screens on May 21 1980, with 665 engagements added on June 18 and more following throughout the summer.

None of this definitively settles the question of whether Fox has been unfairly maligned over the years for the way it sold Star Wars.  (And elsewhere in his essay, Myers points out that the release patterns for films were planned months in advance, before exhibitors could see them.)  But it is an interesting insight into film distribution in 1977 – a world away from today's environment, where films open on huge numbers of screens at once, and are gone almost before audiences can register their disappointment. 


John I. White said...

Darren, do you recall if Star Wars was advertised on TV or Radio? It wasn't in ireland - I'm pretty certain.
I even recall my family and I remarking that if a film was advertised during TV ad breaks, it probably wasn't going to be any good. Cheapie things like Grizzly or Pirahna perhaps.
It just didn't seem like the way classier films were marketed.

Darren Slade said...

No, I don't remember any ads, but then there had been such a huge wave of free publicity for the film since the summer of 1977 that I suppose it wouldn't have needed any advertising. I think you're right about TV advertising, although it had never occurred to me before - it tended to be for the weaker, lower-budget movies. For example, I vividly remember ads from around the same time for The Incredible Melting Man and Warlords of Atlantis.