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The Main Force Driving Audiences to ‘Star Wars’ Is Marketing

When I plunked down my $4 to see “Star Wars” in Westwood on May 25, 1977, I had no premonition that this would be a historic opening. The buzz on the film had been muted. The project had been knocking around for years at several studios. George Lucas’ release date had been mysteriously delayed six months.

But within a few minutes after the movie started rolling, the “Star Wars” mystique gripped me. So did its sense of discovery.

Studios today desperately wish they could recapture that moment for one of their movies — an instant when a new film totally takes over the public conversation.

Over the past few days, I’ve been talking with filmmakers and production chiefs about the lessons of 2015. In planning their future films, they yearn to find a way to approximate that first “Stars Wars” experience. They also understand that too many of their 2015 releases, particularly in the specialty arena, have been not intrinsically cinematic — or theatrical.

Of course, at the time George Lucas was confronted with a different set of problems. Studio chiefs of the ’70s had little interest in science fiction. Lucas’ small sci-fi film “THX 1138” had done nothing to change that bias. “Star Wars” itself started with a tight $8 million budget, which it breezed past by mid-shoot. Lucas couldn’t meet his Christmas 1976 release date, triggering the sort of negative gossip that had faced “The Godfather,” directed by Lucas’ friend, Francis Coppola, four years earlier.

“Filmmakers and distributors will be enviously monitoring this conversation-grabbing exercise in event-building.”
@mrpeterbart

Hence, Fox was grateful for its $1.5 million (limited release) weekend gross, and also was pleased overall with the reviews. While Pauline Kael sniped that Star Wars had “no emotional grip” and “lacked lyricism,” younger reviewers shared Roger Ebert’s rave. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it a “great comic book adventure.”

Now, 38 years later, on the cusp of the release of the franchise’s seventh film, “The Force Awakens,” Disney clearly isn’t waiting for critical reaction. The release will be sprawled over 4,000 screens, and the studio expects a $200 million U.S. opening.

While marketing-fueled anticipation is in place, however, will there be an accompanying sense of discovery? Audiences surely won’t feel that they “found” the film — the motivation to see it, rather, has been instilled in them by the massive worldwide campaign.

In any case, filmmakers and distributors will be enviously monitoring this conversation-grabbing exercise in event-building. They are keenly aware that cable television has been capturing much of the creative excitement, just as Netflix and Amazon have been stealing the dealmaking spotlight.

They also understand that Lucas, in his own eclectic, nerdy way, was keenly devoted to a genre of storytelling that was intensely cinematic — the kind of movies that would inspire audiences to go to movie theaters.

By contrast, during this year’s awards season, a cluster of films was unveiled that contained essentially television movies in conception, or that focused on topics that could better be explored on cable TV. Even if some inspired critical praise, their box office prospects were severely limited. And none quite managed to conquer the conversation.

Box office results, to be sure, aren’t the only measure of cinematic success. It’s just that I miss that sense of discovery.

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