Thursday, May 25, 2017

Star Wars: A Somewhat Personal Remembrance

It was 40 years ago today that Star Wars (1977), later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope, was released. The film would prove to be an utter phenomenon. It earned $461 million in the United States alone. It also spawned a franchise that includes seven movies (and counting), numerous books, numerous comic books, two TV shows, a huge amount of merchandise, and much more. Star Wars would prove to be one of the most successful franchises of all time. Indeed, the original movie is still the second highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, surpassed only by Gone With the Wind (1939).

Of course, at the time no one expected Star Wars to be so successful. 20th Century Fox did not have particularly high expectations for the film, and did little in the way of marketing beyond a few T-shirts and posters. Lucasfilm's marketing director, Charles Lippincott, was the one responsible for the many marketing deals regarding the film, including a Marvel Comics adaptation, the Del-Rey novelisation, and so on. While today we regard Star Wars as a merchandising bonanza, before the films' release it was sometimes difficult to convince various companies it would be. Mego, then the top maker of action figures in the United States, turned the licence for Star Wars down. It then went to Kenner Products. While Star Wars would prove to be a merchandising bonanza, until the film proved itself to be a mega-hit, not that many companies were rushing to fill store shelves with Star Wars merchandise.

And at the time there was little reason for them to do so. Although called a "blockbuster" today (and it would indeed turn out to be one), Star Wars cost only $11 million to make. That was less than many other films from 1977, including The Spy Who Loved Me (with a budget of $14 million),  Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with a budget of $20 million), and A Bridge Too Far (with a budget of $25 million). Many in Hollywood probably expected Star Wars to simply be a science fiction film that would do moderately well at the box office before disappearing, not unlike 1976's Logan's Run. When Star Wars debuted on May 25 1977, it was only in 32 theatres. It would expand to eight more theatres over the next two days. 20th Century Fox actually thought The Other Side of Midnight would be their big hit of the summer.

Of course, we now know that Star Wars would turn out not only to be the blockbuster of the summer of 1977, but one of the highest grossing and most successful films of all time. Indeed, it proved to be something of a sensation. As of its second week of release, Star Wars was only playing at 43 theatres, and yet it grossed a staggering $47,968. As Star Wars opened at more and more theatres around the country this phenomenon would occur again and again. People often had to stand in long lines to see Star Wars, and it broke attendance records at quite a few theatres.

I had just turned 14 when Star Wars came out. And I have to admit that I would have no idea that it would be the highest grossing film of 1977, let alone the 2nd highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. I certainly did not expect that it would become the phenomenon that it has become. What is more, I didn't particularly care if it did become a success. I was simply looking forward to the movie. At 14 I was arguably at the perfect age for one's first experience of Star Wars, and I was already predisposed to liking it anyway. I was already a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy. I had watched Star Trek in reruns from an early age. I read a tonne of science fiction and fantasy novels. I had already had my first experience of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. As a young sci-fi and fantasy geek, there was little way I was not going to like Star Wars. Indeed, I had already read the novelisation before seeing the movie. It had been published in 1976, nearly six months before the movie came out.

As it was, Star Wars turned out to  be almost the perfect movie for my 14 year old self. Although Star Wars is often described as "science fiction", it is perhaps more accurately termed "science fantasy". It is a deft blend of tropes from both the science fiction and fantasy genres. Like such space operas as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon before it, Star Wars was filled with spaceships, ray guns, strange aliens, and unusual planets. Like such fantasy works as Lord of the Rings it had a princess (Leia, of course), knights (the Jedi), swordplay (in the form of light sabres), and even magic (in the form of the Force).  Common to both genres were an evil Empire and a bad ass villain (in the form of Darth Vader). It helped that Star Wars also had stars of whom I was already a fan. I knew Sir Alec Guinness from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Peter Cushing from various Hammer films.

When I first saw Star Wars in the summer of 1977 like many others I had to stand in line. What is more, it took some time before I reached the ticket booth of the theatre. Fortunately there were several people there I knew, including my older friend Al and his wife Amy (Al would be responsible for making me even more of a sci-fi geek than I already was).  Regardless, I did not mind waiting in line at all. I was finally getting to see Star Wars. And ultimately I decided Star Wars was worth the wait in line. While my experience of seeing films in theatres was somewhat limited at the time, I thought it was the best movie I'd ever seen in a cinema. In the end I would be one of the vast number of fans who eagerly bought the various comic books, novels, posters, and other merchandise that came out in the film's wake. I would also be one of a number who would eagerly await every new Star Wars movie to come out.

Indeed, Star Wars proved to be such a hit that in the months following its release there was simply not enough merchandise out there for fans. Ben Cooper, the top maker of Halloween costumes at the time, could not produce enough Star Wars costumes to keep up with demand. Kenner was unable to produce enough Star Wars action figures for Christmas in 1977, and had to resort to selling certificates that could be sent to Kenner in exchange for an action figure. Marvel's initial comic book adaptation of the film went through several printings, and is actually credited with saving Marvel Comics financially. Eventually more and more companies would jump on the Star Wars band wagon, so that entire sections of stores could theoretically be filled with nothing but Star Wars merchandise.

While 20th Century Fox had little in the way of expectations for Star Wars, it ultimately became one of the most successful films of all time and a merchandising bonanza. I know in the late Seventies and early Eighties I bought a good deal of Star Wars merchandise, including posters, books, and t-shirts (I was already too old for action figures when the first film came out). And I certainly was not alone. Star Wars would develop one of the biggest fandoms of any movie, TV show, or other media product. Star Wars merchandise has grown ever since. That is certainly not bad for a film that debuted in only 32 theatres.

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