Forty years ago today, 20th Century Fox dropped Star Wars off into the 32 theaters they could convince to screen it.
It was a Wednesday. The studio was worried the movie would be swallowed by other summer releases, so they pushed it back to Memorial Day weekend and gave it some room to breathe with a mid-week release, a tactic still common with movies a studio doesn’t expect to do well. Theaters didn’t even want it — Fox had to threaten to withhold Charles Jarrott’s The Other Side of Midnight, their most anticipated film of the summer, to get just those theaters. Some executives had an inkling that they had a hit on their hands, but no one really understood what was about to happen.
Audiences went berserk.
They went to see Star Wars, then they went to see it a second time. Then a third. Then a fifth. Then a tenth. No one could get enough of this movie. Thirty-two theaters were already scheduled to become 40 by the weekend, but became as many as 1,096 by the end of the summer. The Other Side of Midnight rolled through theaters to the respectable tune of $24.7 million. Star Wars had pocketed $133.7 million by Labor Day and wasn’t slowing down. It soon overtook Jaws as the record-holder for highest-grossing movie ever, a record it would keep until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial hit theaters in 1982.
Cast members became overnight celebrities, to the point that even crew and model-makers were being asked for their autographs. Writer/director George Lucas had already given up on the film’s profitability and was vacationing in Hawaii with his wife during its release. By the time he got home, he was wealthy. Fox’s share prices doubled in three weeks. The company posted an annual profit of $79 million, dwarfing its previous yearlong best of $37 million.
Star Wars would be re-released in theaters every year until 1982, skipping 1980 in deference to a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Each year, releases of just a few weekends topped $10 million. Now the better-regarded movie, The Empire Strikes Back brought in $145.9 million after spending its own stretch of almost three solid months as the box office king in 1980, and a second sequel, Return of the Jedi, pulled $252.5 million over a 42-week run starting in 1983. And still, audiences wanted more.
Over the course of producing the original trilogy, Lucas grew tired. Though he’d previously boasted about a nine-film saga, he wrapped things up with Return of the Jedi and expressed no desire to return to the series.
Even so, he was fascinated by rapidly advancing special effects technology, and his wife took much of his fortune in their 1987 divorce. And through it all, Star Wars remained incredibly popular. Novelizations of the movies and spin-off adventure books about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and even Lando Calrissian sold like hotcakes, culminating in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire reaching the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list in 1991.
After Jurassic Park demonstrated how far special effects had advanced in 1993, Lucas announced special extended editions of his beloved series — and soon after, an entirely new prequel trilogy.
The changes in these special editions almost universally weaken the films and the prequels now stand as three of the most hated movies ever made, but that didn’t stop anyone from going just as berserk as they did for the original. The Phantom Menace made $28 million its first day and had made it to $100 million in just five days, both records. An estimated 2.2 million people skipped work to see the movie as soon as possible, resulting in an estimated $293 million loss in productivity. The movie would make $431 million over 37 weeks in release. Attack of the Clones would draw $302.2 million over 25 weeks, and Revenge of the Sith $380.3 million over 22 weeks as the movie market began to accelerate in the early 2000s.
Criticism for the prequels was intense, to say the least. Lucas, who wrote and directed all three, took his toys and went home, content to milk Cartoon Network’s interpretations of the franchise. But still, audiences wanted more, and soon, Disney came knocking.
After a $4 billion deal for the property, the mouse is giving viewers what they’ve wanted for the past 40 years — more Star Wars. Just two years ago, The Force Awakens shattered even recent box office records with its $248 million opening weekend. A December release, it would have been one of the top 10 movies of the next year if you only counted its intake from Jan. 1, 2016, when it was already three weeks old, onward. Rogue One, the first movie outside the main series, opened at $155 million and brought in $532.2 million overall in spite of a troubled production. December’s The Last Jedi will surely rank among this year’s top earners as well, with droves of viewers already going berserk for it.
Because 40 years later, we never really stopped.