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Marketing 101: Distribution
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“It wasn’t like a movie opening,” actress Carrie Fisher, who played rebel leader Princess Leia, later told Time magazine. “It was like an earthquake.” Beginning with–in Fisher’s words–“a new order of geeks, enthusiastic young people with sleeping bags,” the anticipation of a revolutionary movie-watching experience spread like wildfire, causing long lines in front of movie theaters across the country and around the world.

Star Wars opened initially in a mere 43 locations across the United States. An immediate sensation, it accumulated incredible per-screen averages and broke numerous box office and attendance records at the few locations lucky enough to have been playing the movie. The film industry was abuzz, and exhibitors everywhere couldn’t wait to get their hands on a print. The film’s distributor, 20th Century-Fox, had the lab cranking out prints as fast as they could as they accelerated their plans for a broad, nationwide release of the film. During the second week of release additional engagements were added in Los Angeles and Cincinnati to help accommodate high turn-away business in those markets. Still a week away from the start of the nationwide expansion, the third week saw two new engagements begin in Honolulu, Hawaii as well as an extra engagement added in the New York market. (The additional Los Angeles engagement, by the way, was booked into the Winnetka Drive-In and was presented in the newly-developed Cine-Fi car audio format.) The expanded release began with over 100 new engagements added throughout the U.S. during the week beginning June 17 (some runs began Wednesday the 15th) with additional engagements added each week (generally between 50 and 200) throughout the summer. At its peak in August and September “Star Wars” was playing in just over 1,000 theatres in the United States and Canada and was well on its way to surpassing “Jaws” (1975) and becoming the new all-time box office champ.
Although there were certainly fewer movie theatres in operation during the 1970s compared with today, a “wide” release of a mainstream, non-specialized film at that time typically meant a few hundred engagements. To illustrate just how low the number of theatres was that “Star Wars” opened in, even by 1977 standards, here is for comparison a sample of some of the highly-anticipated films from the spring and summer of 1977 followed by the opening-week number of engagements for each: “A Bridge Too Far” (400+), “The Deep” (800+),”Exorcist II: The Heretic” (700+), “New York, New York” (400+), “Orca” (700+),”The Other Side Of Midnight” (500+), “Rollercoaster” (400+), “Smokey And The Bandit” (300+), and “The Spy Who Loved Me” (200+).

So why was “Star Wars” released to so few theatres initially when, in retrospect, the film seemed like such a sure-fire hit? Former 20th Century-Fox executive Gareth Wigan offered an explanation: “‘Star Wars’ only opened in forty theatres because we could only get forty theatres to book it. That’s the astonishing thing.” “No one knew it was going to be a big hit,” remembers Ben Burtt, who was responsible for “Special Dialogue & Sound Effects” on Star Wars.
Charles Lippincott, former Lucasfilm Ltd. Vice President for Advertising, Publicity, Promotion and Merchandising, mentioned that “If the film was redone today, on the basis of the way movies are released with a couple of thousand prints, it probably would have been unsuccessful. Theatres didn’t want the movie. We were lucky to get thirty theatres to open it.”
Lippincott also remarked in that publication on the importance and prestige of getting booked in a major Hollywood theatre and the difficulty Fox faced in finding such a venue for “Star Wars.” “At that time, Hollywood Boulevard was still very important for opening films. We only got on Hollywood Boulevard because the new Billy Friedkin film (“Sorcerer”) wasn’t ready yet. It was supposed to be ready by May 25 but wasn’t, and we were given a month in the Chinese. It was the only way we got into Grauman’s.”
To accommodate the opening of “Sorcerer” on 24 June, “Star Wars” was in fact moved to another theatre a couple of blocks away. But the space opera that at one time no one wanted would have the last laugh. As Friedkin’s remake of “The Wages Of Fear” failed to live up to expectations while “Star Wars” continued to perform in stellar fashion, Lucas’ epic moved back to the famous Chinese beginning August 3, where it stayed until June 1978. This marked the first time a film had returned to the Chinese for a second first-run engagement in the theatre’s then fifty-year history.
In contrast with the belief shared by many that “Star Wars” was a tough sell to exhibitors, others feel that at least a few people at 20th Century-Fox had a hunch the movie could be a big hit if marketed carefully and given a platform-type “prestige” release, specifically keeping the number of engagements limited to key markets during the initial weeks of release. Other movies from 1977 given successful prestige openings included “Julia,” “The Turning Point,” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” Peter Myers, Vice President of Domestic Distribution for Fox at the time, first saw “Star Wars” in a test screening three months before scheduled release. He was very impressed, and contemplated the best approach to marketing the film. “The answer,” Myers revealed to the Associated Press a few months following the movie’s opening, “was to position the picture in the proper theatres and give it the proper presentation so the people themselves could discover it and spread the word.”

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