40 Years Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, ‘Star Wars’ Was Born

Star Wars 40th Anniversary
Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd./Twentieth Century

On March 24, 1976, Variety reported that George Lucas had begun filming “Star Wars,” an $8 million film for Fox, in Tunisia. Alec Guinness would play “a bearded old desert rat who was once a leading general in galactic wars.” The article continued that the three younger leads hadn’t yet been revealed, but a few weeks later, Mark Hamill was announced as Luke Starkiller — yes, that was his name then — in “the outer-space comedy-adventure.”

After the movie’s May 25, 1977, opening, our front page proclaimed “Star Wars Best Start Since Jaws,” citing the nearly $2.6 million at 43 locations (an average of almost $60,000 per theater). On June 10, Variety reported “The direct cost of the film was about $10 million. Fox has 60% of the profits, Lucas 40% (from which he dealt out points to others). Break-even is estimated in the neighborhood of $22 million-$25 million.”

In 2017, it’s shocking to think anyone even speculated about whether “Star Wars” would break even.

At the end of 1977, Variety said the film’s domestic total for the year was $197 million, with rentals (the portion of the box office returned to the studio) at a huge $125 million. As of 2017, the estimated worldwide take is $775 million.

When Oscar nominations for 1977 were unveiled, a trio of Fox films led the pack: “Julia” and “The Turning Point,” with 11 apiece, followed closely by “Star Wars,” with 10. Lucas was nominated for both his direction and original screenplay, and the film was also cited for art direction, costume design, editing, music, sound and visual effects. On the night of the awards, “Star Wars” took home the most prizes, including those last six plus a special award to Benjamin Burtt Jr. “for the creation of the alien, creature and robot voices in ‘Star Wars.’” But Lucas won in neither category, and Guinness was an also-ran, losing out as supporting actor to Jason Robards for “Julia.” (Guinness is the only actor Oscar-nominated so far for a “Star Wars” role.) “Annie Hall” was named best picture, and won four awards in all, including director and screenplay.

In the days before the 1980s homevideo explosion, hit movies lingered in theaters a long time after their debut, and nothing was hotter than “Star Wars.” More than a year after its 1977 launch, it was still a big draw. On June 14, 1978, a two-page ad in Variety proclaimed, “‘Star Wars’ is more than a movie. It is the perfect merchandising tie-in for you this summer.” The ad listed 25 companies that had licensing agreements for “SW” merchandise. “You can contact them to make merchandising tie-ins to coincide with your summer playdates of Star Wars.” That ad offers clues to the way business was done in those days. First, the fact that “Star Wars” was still a big draw for theater owners; and second, the idea that merchandise was still in its pioneer days — even though Disney had been doing it for decades, it wasn’t widespread for live-action films. Also outmoded these day but not then: that exhibitors played a key role in deciding what items would sell in their area.

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  1. rodneyfaile says:

    Dear Disney and Lucasfilm,

    As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars — the movie that started it all — the guest of honor is missing. Where is that film? The original 1977 version. The one we grew up with. The one we saw more times than any other movie before or since. The movie that changed our lives forever.

    Whether young or old, whether we saw it in a theater or on home video, it prompted a desire to make movies or just tell stories of our own. George Lucas lit a spark that remains within us today.

    One thing we all share are the memories of where and with whom we saw Star Wars, and even of shooting down imaginary TIE fighters out the back window of the car on the way home. For others, it was a brightly shining light in the middle of a turbulent childhood. If Luke and his friends could triumph over adversity, maybe we could too.

    All these years later, we would love to revisit the Original Trilogy again, to recapture the magic of a long time ago, in a movie theater or living room far far away. Those of us with families want to be able to show our kids exactly what we saw when we were their age, and relive it with them. It should be such a simple thing to do.

    Only it isn’t.

    Watching the original versions means relying on old analog video formats that inch closer to extinction each year. And the now out of print bonus DVD’s from 2006, which used video masters made in 1993, are hardly better, if one can find them.

    None of us ever imagined that these historic versions might fade from memory, ultimately, disappearing from the collective consciousness altogether. To the point where CGI scenes created in 1997 are now mistaken for the innovative groundbreaking FX technology of the 1970s. Film history is being obscured, if not rewritten.

    Today, we live in an era in which even the most obscure of cult films are respected enough to be meticulously restored and made available to the public. Shouldn’t a movie as loved and as culturally significant as Star Wars, and its two sequels, deserve the same treatment in their original form?

    The Special Editions have their place, and we will not bemoan their existence. But there is room for all versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of The Jedi to coexist. The original theatrical versions deserve to be seen again, in the absolute best quality afforded by modern cinema and 21st Century home video formats, so that new generations can experience them.

    We want to give you our money for the original theatrical versions; we really do! Please give us that opportunity. At least give us hope that we will be able to do so soon.

    That is all we ask.



  2. Timely Comment says:

    40 years? What a long, strange trip Star Wars brought to SF…

    Lucas’ space-fantasy-opera has metastasized from its conception as a mythological Science Fiction throwback for kids in the ’70s to watch instead of those psychologically-complex ‘adult’ films in the screens. Pew-pew laser beams, spaceships and special effects, alien creatures (subtitled and doing Jazz even!), and mystical space wizards to fill their imaginations instead of amoral plot meanderings directors then were offering.

    Lucas with Star Wars, then Spielberg, and his cohorts ushered in a blockbuster mentality that changed the movie business forever.

    Too bad that as he got older, that change that was a breath of creative fresh air calcified into soap opera-ish familial revelations, more stereotypes (film ‘hommages’), IP expansionism and character connections, and infantalism as the SW series went on as Lucas steered his ‘property’. A process that culminated in the green-screen Prequels as a metonym of his control, imo.

    What had been constructed to give ‘an hour of joy/ To a boy who’s half a man/ Or a man who’s half a boy’ was changed to an even YOUNGER childhood…. Star Wars was officially a kiddie property.


  3. Grrrrrrrrr says:

    I loved our business before Reagan killed the Paramount Consent Decree.

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