The Spontaneous Spectacle of STAR WARS

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI will make its premiere December 15, one week after the 4th edition of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival. The unveiling of the latest chapter in the STAR WARS saga will of course be a spectacle. The film will be screened in roughly a million theaters, fans will dress in STAR WARS regalia, and merchandise will be on every corner and in every Happy Meal.

But none of this will compare to the impromptu, organic spectacle that occurred when STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE debuted May 25, 1977. 20th Century Fox didn’t have much hope for the film, which it slated as a “B track” to its supposed summer hit, THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT. STAR WARS opened in fewer than 40 theaters nationwide. It immediately broke box office records, effectively becoming the first blockbuster hit.

“Star Wars was one of the first movies to become an event,” says former Fox studio executive Alan Ladd, Jr. “I had no idea how all these people knew about it, we didn’t have any screenings before the opening, but they sure did.” In New York City, among the line standers were Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, and Senator Ted Kennedy. Hugh Hefner sent a Playboy bunny to the line in front of Hollywood’s famed Chinese Theatre offering a date to anyone willing to give up their place in line. There were no takers.

“Movie theatres started clearing the house between shows,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “They realized people would pay to come back and see a film again. This was huge. It was a sea change economically for the movie business.”

This is what I did in 1980 for the premiere of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. After thoroughly loving the film, I got right back in line and watched it again. But that doesn’t come close to what my older brother, Alan, accomplished for the original in 1977—watching it thirteen times in the first two days after it debuted!

Back in the day, we waited in line because we had to. That was the only way to see the show. By contrast, a month before its release, THE FORCE AWAKENS had already surpassed $50 million in advanced ticket sales, breaking the overall record previously held by THE HUNGER GAMES more than eight times over.

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When I purchased my ticket for THE FORCE AWAKENS online, I was initially pleased with how easy it was. I didn’t have to leave my couch. But besides my wife and dogs, I had no one to share the experience with. And I had to wait months to fulfill my expectations for the film. Yes, when I was younger I complained about having to wait in line—sometimes camping out overnight for tickets to an anticipated film or concert. But at least then I earned my ticket and place in line. I also got to share the experience with like-minded souls. Before the advent of Facebook, this is one of the ways we made new friends.

The experience of camping out may have been grueling but it was an experience. I felt like I was a part of the action, not just a consumer of it. People still camp out for some things—iPhones, for example—but today’s ‘experiences’ feel more manufactured, less organic. And when it comes to STAR WARS sequels/prequels, expectations are destined to be dashed, at least to a degree, by comparison to the spontaneous spectacle of the original.

Please join us May the Fourth for A STAR WARS DAY CELEBRATION at 4th Tap Brewing Co-op, where we will screen a stellar program of fan films. They'll be brewing up some special beers just for us (a dark and a light, so prepare to pick your side), as well as a costume contest and other surprises. Best of all, the event is FREE!