Today is the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Wars (or as it was later renamed, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.)
To put things into context, Star Wars is as old today as Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was in 1977.
While it seems laughable today, the initial release was extremely low key. The date was brought forward to avoid clashing with movies that were getting a Memorial Day release to effectively kick off the 1977 equivalent of the summer blockbuster season. So few movie theaters showed any interest in Star Wars that 20th Century Fox effectively forced some to carry it if they wanted to also show The Other Side of Midnight, a drama that was expected to be a hit but didn’t quite have the same longevity.
Word of mouth quickly spread and within six months it had earned more money at the North American box office than any other movie, taking the worldwide title two years later. Taking into account inflation, it remains in the top four of all time, clearly behind Gone with the Wind and battling it out with Titanic and Avatar (which had the advantage of premium pricing for 3D showings.)
The movie proved so successful it had five theatrical re-releases, the last being the controversial Special Edition in 1997. The success affected a somewhat unusual bet between Star Wars director and writer George Lucas and Close Encounters of the Third Kind director Stephen Spielberg. Each felt the other’s movie would perform better, so the pair agreed to exchange a 2.5 percent share in the respective profits.
Alec Guinness (Obi Wan Kenobi) was also famously optimistic about the movie’s success. His agent negotiated a relatively low fee of $150,000 but with a two percent cut of any royalties earned by Lucas, later raised to 2.25 percent. Most estimates put that cut as winding up in the tens of millions of dollars.
Gizmodo’s Katherine Trendacosta makes an interesting point about the appeal of the Star Wars universe: while it has a depth of spinoffs and media to match any other ‘franchise’, you can still be a fan just by watching the original trilogy of movies, or even A New Hope. That’s different to, say, Doctor Who or Star Trek where there’s no single start point where a mere couple of hours of viewing will set you up to appreciate quite such a large chunk of the cultural references.
[Picture Source: starwars.com]