For Star Wars, the first days were the hardest. Any fan familiar with the film’s history knows the difficult battle George Lucas fought to get the world made.
Every great movie has a history of struggle before it reaches the big screen, and Star Wars had an especially difficult road to the theaters. Lucas couldn’t explain the vision in his head, it made no sense on paper, and hardly anyone knew what they had until they actually saw the finished product.
As George Lucas recalled in the book Blockbuster, “It took me two years to get that thing off the ground and the only reason it got off the ground was that [former Fox president] Alan Ladd Jr. liked American Graffiti and said, ‘I don’t understand this movie, I don’t get it at all, but I think you’re a talented guy and I want you to make this movie.'”
What’s taken for granted today is that opening day a movie plays on thousands of theaters at once. Star Wars opened to a grand total of 32 screens, and 20th Century Fox was lucky to get them.
As Ladd explained in Blockbuster, Star Wars got into the theaters because of a now illegal practice called “block booking,” where a studio holds a big movie hostage in exchange for theaters playing one of their smaller films.
Fox told theater owners if they wanted The Other Side of Midnight, a potboiler based on the Sidney Sheldon best-seller, they had to show this little movie Star Wars too.
“Most people only booked Star Wars because they had to,” Ladd said. “We didn’t give them a choice. As illegal as it was, that’s the way the distribution game was played.” (Note: Universal did the same thing the following summer with Robert Zemeckis’ first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which theaters had to book if they wanted Jaws 2).
On the website In70mm, writer Michael Coate did an excellent job tracking the release pattern of Star Wars, and how quickly it grew. Star Wars was released on May 25, Memorial Day, now a sacred date for blockbuster releases but in those days the deadliest day of the year to release a film. By the week of June 3 it was added to two more theaters, three more the next week, then it made the big jump to 109 by June 17.
“I realized Star Wars was a hit opening night on a Wednesday,” says Ladd. “We broke all the house records of the theaters we opened up in. George was still working on the movie, he was still in the cutting room, when I called him and told him he broke all those records. He was just finishing up the movie, we sent wet prints to the theaters. George’s reaction was kind of pessimistic, like, ‘Maybe this is just the opening. Science fiction opens well, it has legs for a while, then it crashes.’ It never crashed.”
Star Wars was in over 500 theaters by July 8, and by August 5 it was playing on over a thousand screens. As Coate reports, the opening of Star Wars was low “even by 1977 standards.” Consider a handful of films that were expected to be big hits that summer: The Deep opened at over 800 theaters, Exorcist II over 700, Smokey and the Bandit over 300, and The Spy Who Loved Me opened at over 200.
“A big, major release in the mid ’70’s was 800 prints,” says former Fox executive Gareth Wigan. “Star Wars opened on 40 screens because nobody else wanted to book it. Once there was a gigantic demand for Star Wars, there was also a huge demand for having it in Dolby sound. Of the 40 prints it opened with, only three were Dolby. The story at the time was that the Dolby switchboard burnt out on the Monday after Star Wars opened because so many people were calling and asking, ‘How quickly can you put Dolby into my theater?'”
Star Wars was in release for 67 weeks. It was finally pulled from release in September 1978, except for one theater that was still playing it in Portland, Orgeon. The Astor Plaza in New York played the movie for 61 weeks where it grossed close to $4 million in that theater alone.