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

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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