May 4 is Star Wars Day. That’s May 4, as in May the Fourth be with you. Turns out there is a similarly clever Sith-inspired sequel that falls on May 5, known in the Star Wars universe as Revenge of the Fifth.
Here is the kind of Hollywood studio exec I would have made: I would have stopped after the original Star Wars. No sequels, no prequels; one and done. Not because I didn’t like the first Star Wars, but because I loved it. Special effects blockbusters and comic book movies are “as common as weather, expected as seasons,” writes Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson about the upcoming Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War. So it’s hard to remember just what an outlier, out-of-left field phenomenon the first Star Wars was when it was released on Wed. May 25, 1977.
Remember, this is 1977, B.C (Before Cable). Before home video. Before social media. Few saw Star Wars coming. That includes buyers who were lukewarm at best on gambling whether to book it for their theatres. “In the months before it opened, “ Erik Loomis, who went on to become a Weinstein Co. distribution executive, told The Hollywood Reporter. “A lot of the older guys thought of Star Wars as a kiddie movie. The cast meant nothing, and no one knew who George Lucas was. I was working for a circuit called Sameric Theatres in Philadelphia. We thought we got hosed because the competition got the big "A track" picture, The Other Side of Midnight” (a box office flop).
Star Wars opened on that Wednesday in 32 theatres, expanded to 43 on Friday. Let me repeat that—32 theatres, expanded to 43. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the 2015 franchise reboot, opened in more than 4,100 theatres.
Movie-wise, 1977 was a pretty good year. Playing in theatres the week before Star Wars opened was Oscar-winner Rocky, future Best Picture-winner Annie Hall and Mel Brooks’ classic, Young Frankenstein (also the James Brolin thriller, The Car, but three out of four isn’t bad).
And then came Star Wars. It was what it was; a valentine to the B-movie sci-fi Saturday matinee fodder of George Lucas’ youth (with a little John Ford’s The Searchers and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress for added inspiration), but with pioneering, game-changing special effects that were literally out of this world. It instantly became the Thing to See. Theatres at the time mostly had one or two screens. This meant lines; long, glorious lines that snaked around theatres and heightened the anticipation. And when it was over, there was the delirious excitement about wanting to see it again.
That excitement diminished for me with each succeeding film (and yes, that includes The Empire Strikes Back. I look forward to your emails). I would have been very happy to let this singular, sensational movie-going experience stand alone.
What would that have meant? On the plus side, no Ewoks, no Jar-Jar, no “You killed younglings.” But we wouldn’t have Patton Oswalt’s great routine about going back in time to stop Lucas from making the prequels or his heroic Star Wars-themed filibuster on “Parks and Recreation.” And we wouldn’t have The Force Awakens, which was to the franchise what Casino Royale was for the James Bond series. And theatre owners, 20th Century Fox (now, Disney), and George Lucas would be out billions.
So on this May the 4th, I reflect back on the little film that few wanted, except for audiences. To borrow a line from another cult favorite, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was great when it all began. I would have been content to leave it that way.