Star Wars, the space epic no one believed in when first film opened
It may have grossed more than US$750 million at the box office but at the time, not many thought the space opera would be a success
It may well be one of Hollywood's biggest success stories, but when the original Star Wars film was released in 1977 many people, including creator George Lucas, believed it would be a flop.
“I don't think anyone could have predicted what a smash hit and what a cultural phenomenon it was going to become,” said Jonathan Kuntz, professor at the University of California Los Angeles’ school of theatre, film and television. “As soon as anybody saw Star Wars, they were converted and they fell in love with it.”
But the beginnings of the space epic didn't look that rosy.
Twentieth Century Fox, the film's distributor, hesitated over the film's US$8 million budget and wasn't convinced a science fiction movie would fill theatres.
Such was the lack of enthusiasm that the studio planned a limited release and had to twist the arm of some theatres to agree to show the movie.
Given the budget constraints, Lucas agreed to a lower salary in exchange for full merchandising rights to the movie and any sequels – a deal that would make him very, very rich.
Prior to the film's release, Lucas organised a private showing to a group of film director friends and most, including Brian De Palma, gave it a thumbs down.
“It was a disaster,” recalls Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars films. “Everyone was like ‘Oh, I don't know, it may not work’.”
The only supportive voice came from Steven Spielberg, who predicted the movie would be a hit.
Still, Lucas was so convinced the movie would flop that on May 25, the day it was released, he went on holiday to Hawaii instead of attending the premiere.
And, as everyone knows, Star Wars immediately became a sensation and went on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time.
It played in theatres for one straight year, winning six Oscars and earning US$775 million at the box office.
Overall, the space epic has generated US$4.4 billion at the box office.
While that number is lower than that earned by the James Bond or Harry Potter movies, the upcoming release of the seventh instalment – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – as well as two planned sequels will likely make it “the undisputed champion of the box office as far as franchises go,” says Jeff Bock, of the box office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
The secret to the success of Star Wars, studied and analysed in universities the world over, rests primarily with its multigenerational appeal, Kurtz says.
“Audiences of all ages could identify with the characters,” he says. “Even little kids three or four years old got the basic structure of the story and enjoyed being sucked into that kind of adventure.”
The space saga, inspired by the Flash Gordon film serials of the 1930s, tells a classic story of good versus evil in a “galaxy far, far away,” and mixes visual effects, a romantic plot and battle scenes.
“It jump-started the whole science fiction and fantasy era that we are still living in,” says Kuntz.
“Star Wars is a non-stop action movie with goofy characters and humour and portrays so many alien worlds,” he adds. “It opens the door on a fascinating new universe.”
And unlike other sci-fi hit movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix, the series also gives fans reason for optimism.
“It's not total dystopia, there is still hope,” Kuntz says.
Still, the reason behind the stellar success Star Wars may never be known, said Kurtz.
“I would have never thought that 40 years after the first film was released, people would still talk about it,” he says.