Friday, May 25, 2012

The Debut of Star Wars

Most people probably don't remember what movies were like before the "Star Wars" franchise was born on this date in 1977.

I do, but, in all honesty, I don't remember the "Star Wars" premiere. There was no fuss about it that I can recall.

It was definitely a "summer blockbuster" — it was made for $11 million and wound up earning nearly half a billion dollars — but the concept of the summer blockbuster was still new. Hollywood has turned it into a marketing art form, but it was still a bit primitive in 1977, and, to be candid, "Star Wars" caught nearly everyone by surprise.

Today, it isn't uncommon for movies to spend a month or so at theaters — if that — before being yanked and prepared for cable and home video markets, but, in 1977, cable represented an extremely small share of the market, and home video was still in its infancy.

Thirty–five years ago, movies often spent months showing at theaters, many of which were still single–screen facilities, and then went on to drive–ins, where the objective was to squeeze a few more dollars in revenue, after which they were relegated to commercial television.

In 1977, successful movies spent months at theaters. It was the flops that were gone in a matter of weeks, seldom to be heard from again.

And there were some movies that got quite a bit of fanfare upon their release — but "Star Wars" wasn't one of them, and such fanfare could accompany just about any movie at just about any time of year.

It probably seems remarkable today, but movie promoters seemed to be oblivious, at least until 35 years ago, to the fact that there were huge potential audiences out there — teenagers — who had time on their hands and money in their pockets.

But nothing about "Star Wars" seemed designed to appeal to a mass audience.

With the exception of Alec Guinness, I suppose nearly everyone in the movie was an unknown to the moviegoing audience, and the book upon which "Star Wars" was based was familiar to sci–fi fans — but few others. James Earl Jones, of course, was familiar in both face and voice, but only his voice was used in the role of Darth Vader.

I was working on a maintenance crew that summer, and one of my co–workers — Brad — told me under the least glamorous conditions imaginable — while we we stood knee–deep in fresh manure and shoveled it into flower beds — about the movie he had just seen.

Now, Brad was a sci–fi fan, and he had read the book. He raved about the movie, and I promised him I would go to see it — probably figuring that I never would.

But I did, about three months later. It was a group excursion from my hometown of Conway, Ark., to the nearby state capital of Little Rock to see the movie.

"Star Wars" had been causing quite a stir by then. Promoters of that time hadn't done the things that promoters would do in years to come, and they had to play catch–up as first the movie and then the double album soundtrack made buckets of money.

I was dating my first serious girlfriend — Karen — at the time, and she wanted to see the movie. So did her parents and her younger brother and sister — and the foreign exchange student who was living with them. And so did my mother.

So all eight of us piled into her parents' Volvo station wagon — four of us in the rear area — and drove to Little Rock one hot August night.

Karen and her family had only moved to Conway a year earlier. They had lived in northern California and Indiana before they moved to Arkansas, and the car they drove did not have air conditioning. I remember how grateful I was when we arrived at the theater, and I felt that wonderful cold air on my sweaty skin when we walked inside.

I was even more grateful when I got a cold drink and felt that icy liquid go down my parched throat.

But I felt no real sense of excited anticipation before the movie began.

For that matter, I had no real sense that I had seen the first installment in a series of movies that would define the art of filmmaking for the next three decades. I enjoyed it, but, if someone had asked me, I would have said I thought it was a one–shot deal, an entertaining movie but with very limited long–term appeal.

In fact, I remember vividly being somewhat surprised when I heard Karen and her siblings speculating about what the sequel would reveal. Until that moment, I had not even thought about the possibility of a sequel.

With whom would Princess Leia end up — the rakish smuggler Han Solo or the still naive Luke Skywalker who was training to be a warrior? That was at the heart of their discussion.

As I say, I enjoyed the movie, but I thought little of the notion of a sequel. I didn't think there would be one.

History has shown that I seriously underestimated the market's appetite for the story.