Friday, 4 December 2015

How the release of The Force Awakens will be a galaxy away from the opening of the original Star Wars

Then and now: teaser ads for Star Wars in 1977 and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens 

It's almost here. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will be released next month. And it's being awaited with such rapt anticipation that there's a danger we'll have nothing left in reserve to welcome the Second Coming.

How different is all this from the release of the first Star Wars in 1977? Episode Nothing considers

I'll be seeing The Force Awakens in the same cinema were I saw Star Wars on its first UK release, in February 1978. I imagine relatively few people can say that, since so many cinemas that existed in the 1970s have disappeared. But the movie-going world has changed in many more ways than that. Here are a few key differences.

1. Star Wars opened on just 32 screens in the US. The Force Awakens is expected to open on 4,500.

Crowds outside Mann's Chinese Theater in 1977

That's right. On Wednesday, May 25, 1977, Star Wars could be seen on just 32 screens across the entire United States. That number would rise to 43 by the weekend.

It has often been suggested that 20th Century-Fox was struggling to get exhibitors interested in the film. That might seem a fair conclusion, given that a tedious movie like The Deep had opened on 400 screens. Certainly the studio was to get in trouble for telling some cinemas that unless they booked Star Wars to play on their screens, they would not be allowed to show the film that Fox was expecting to be its hit of the year, The Other Side of Midnight

In fairness to Fox, Peter Myers, then its senior vice-president, has argued that the studio was pursuing a careful strategy of opening the film only on the screens with the best projection and sound systems. It would then spread to other screens across the country. These days, that idea of a 'prestige' opening, followed by a wider release, has disappeared. Films open everywhere and are judged by their box office performance on the opening weekend. Any film's status as hit or bomb will have already been pretty much sealed before word gets around about whether it's any good. 

2. Standing in line: the first day crowds for Star Wars

First day queues for Star Wars in 1977

Young cinema goers may think they have stood in line to see a film, but they really haven't. Not in the 1970s sense.

Star Wars opened in a world where credit card booking had barely been heard of. If you desperately wanted to see a popular movie, you turned up early and waited. People queued around the block. Hence the word blockbuster.

There was an attempt to revive the spirit of 1977 many years later when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in the US without advance ticket sales. But in 2015, waiting in line outside the venue is likely to be of little use. Many millions of first night tickets were snapped up in October by people wearing out their computer's 'refresh' button or refreshing the booking app on their mobile.

3. Publicity: The hard work of selling Star Wars

Poster by Howard Chaykin produced before
the release of Star Wars and later adapted
for the first Marvel Comics cover

The Force Awakens is being released into a world where every TV channel, print publication and website on the globe would gladly give it endless publicity for free. The media need Star Wars much more than it needs them.

Back in 1977, however, a lot of hard work had to go into arousing interest in the original film.

There's a certain amount of controversy on this point. Many accounts have suggested that Twentieth Century-Fox didn't know how to promote the movie -- and that George Lucas and his publicity and merchandising right hand man Charles Lippincott had to do much of the job themselves. The people behind the publicity at Fox have understandably taken exception to this version of events, pointing out that Fox was throwing a considerable amount of money into advertising the film and its prestige opening on the best available screens.

What is clear, as we saw in this post, is that Lucas and Lippincott had done a lot to arouse interest in the film among science fiction and comic fans, and with the young people who were likely to be its core audience. Lippincott had visited SF conventions to show artwork and stills from the film while it was still being made. Ads had been run on campus television stations. There was a reason seats sold out on day one of its release.

But we shouldn't ignore that potency of the traditional media channels either. The newspaper critics had seen the film and almost all of them liked it a lot. What's more, Time magazine in the week of the film's release carried a strap line on its cover reading "The best film of the year?" Combine the conventional promotion and the more grassroots efforts of the Lucas-Lippincott approach and you had a film a lot of people wanted to see.

4. Dolby Stereo, 70mm: The Star Wars cinema experience

70mm and Dolby stereo were a selling point for Star Wars

The Force Awakens will be shown in IMAX and Real 3D, with all the sophistication of today's multi-channel sound systems.

Back in 1977, many of us had not even heard a film in stereo before. Star Wars was by no means the first movie to use the Dolby system, but that was still unusual enough to be a selling point, and the fact that John Williams' music and Ben Burtt's sound effects were so rich and crisp were much commented on at the time. Here's Lesley Salisbury of Britain's TV Times magazine: 
“You’re nobody in Hollywood unless you’ve seen Star Wars three times – and seen it every time from the 25th row of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the stereophonic sound is at its most piercing. Once was enough for me: I found Darth Vader terrifying and the soundtrack deafening."

The luckiest viewers, such as those at Grauman's, saw Star Wars blown up to 70mm for extra image quality as well. It looked and sounded like nothing that had been seen before. The spirit of Flash Gordon had been harnessed to the best technology movies could muster.

5. Tie-ins: The original 1977 Star Wars merchandising

The first 12 Star Wars action figures from Kenner 

The release of The Force Awakens has been heralded by the release of a baffling amount of merchandising. It's not just the toys, the Lego models and the inevitable soft drink tie-ins. The Star Wars name is now printed on everything, from socks to batteries to bottled water.

The original Star Wars pretty much started all this. But the amount of merchandising that was around in May 1977 would look tiny today. In fact, much less significant films than The Force Awakens are released today with more merchandising than was linked to Star Wars back then.

Lucas and Lippincott had convinced Marvel to produce a Star Wars comic, Del Rey to publish novels and 20th Century Records to release the soundtracks. The Star Wars novel, by the way, formed a key part of the campaign to attract SF fans. As mentioned in this post, it's written in pretty highfalutin prose, surely in an effort to attract genre enthusiasts, and it was released in August 1976, selling half a million US copies before the film was out.

Lucas and Lippincott had also managed to convince Kenner to prepare a range of action figures, although as we saw in this post, these were not even in the toy stores until after Christmas. The nascent industry for movie merchandising was struggling to respond to demand.

The $10m gamble of Star Wars; the $200m certainty of The Force Awakens

With $10m behind it, Star Wars was a gamble

I think a myth has grown up around the original Star Wars which holds that it was a small film that nobody expected to succeed.

But this was a $10million movie, a very significant amount in of money 1977. It was filmed on huge sets, with principal photography on two continents. Its visual effects involved a lot of time, money and innovation, and it had music performed by one of the world's leading symphony orchestras. It may not have been the sort of film that bankrupts studios if it flops, but Fox had been concerned about its production overruns and was keen to see what would happen to its investment. The board of Fox had been on the case of executive Alan Ladd Jr about the production busting its schedule and budget, and Ladd had responded by telling them that it would be the greatest film ever made.

In 1977, Fox was gambling $10million with no idea what the return would be. In 2015, The Force Awakens is expected to break all box office records. Its budget is may be the wisest $200million a studio ever spent. 

We first generation fans will just be gambling our ticket money on the chance that JJ Abrams may be able to recapture the freshness and excitement of 38 years ago. 

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