AndyO Blog

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Summer of Star Wars: Part II - By the Numbers

Today, we're used to hearing about movies that gross $200 million on their opening weekend. But in 1977, things were a little different.

Here are a few facts about Star Wars that might surprise you (data from Box Office Mojo).

1. Star Wars opened in only 32 theaters

Yes, you read that correctly: Star Wars opened in 32 theaters on May 25, 1977. Evidently, a lot of those theaters didn't want to book Star Wars, fearing it would be a bomb (Sci-Fi was out of style back then). But even in those 32 theaters, Star Wars performed far above expectations. During its first week alone, it made $493,774 -- or an average of $15,430 per theater. Word of mouth about this astonishing movie spread quickly.

During its second week, when it began playing in 43 theaters, the average per theater gross was a staggering $47,968! You can bet that the executives at 20th Century Fox were pulling out all the stops to make more prints. (This was a film that was almost shut down during production by the Fox board of directors, but was saved by CEO Alan Ladd, Jr.

Here's a chart of the average earned per theater gross using the data from Box Office Mojo: (Note: I've removed a few weekends that had missing data.)

Star Wars Avg. Per Theater (Weekly) - Chart


2. The max number of theaters showing Star Wars: 1,096

Today, blockbusters open in thousands of theaters -- and usually closer to 4,000. For example, during the week of June 12-18, 2015, Jurassic World opened in 4,274 theaters. By the third week, it dropped to 3,802 theaters.

By the time I saw Star Wars (probably during the week of July 8-14, 1977), it was playing in 589 theaters and averaging $18,741 per theater.

Here's a chart that shows the number of theaters where Star Wars played in 1977. Note that the number of theaters continued to increase until nearly three months after it was released, peaking during the week August 19-25.

Chart: Star Wars Theater Count (weekly)


3. Star Wars played in theaters throughout much of 1977

Star Wars was a constant attraction in many theaters from July to December 1977. (And it played in some for a year!) Following the increase in theaters, its weekly gross continued to climb until August 5-11, 1977 ($12,473,041).

Chart: Star Wars Gross (weekly)

Its total gross would eventually be $194,821,449 by the end of 1977 -- and $307,263,857 during it's initial domestic release. But Star Wars still wasn't done. It would return two more times (1982 and 1997) and generate a total gross of almost $461 million.

Chart: Star Wars Gross % by Release

I remember when Star Wars: Special Edition came out in 1997. I tried to go, twice in fact, but it was always sold out. (I finally ended up going on a weeknight.) Like its first run in 1977, theaters hadn't completely anticipated the demand Star Wars would generate -- but they were certainly better prepared. Instead of 32 theater, it opened on 2,104 theaters. It was #1 at the box office for three weeks. How many films can be re-released after 20 years and claim the #1 box office position?  

Even when you compare the total gross by week against modern blockbusters, you can see Star Wars' unique trajectory. It made its money over a long period of time, and continued to grow even months after its release.

Chart: Star Wars Total Gross (weekly)

Even if modern blockbusters stay in theaters for months, they make most of their money in the first four weeks.

Here's the total domestic gross for James Cameron's Avatar (2009):

Chart: Avatar Total Gross (weekly)

And here's Marvel's The Avengers (2012):

Chart: The Avengers Total Gross (weekly)


4. Star Wars has sold more tickets than other current blockbusters

In this list of top-grossing movies, sorted by estimated tickets, you can see how Star Wars stacks up, selling an estimated 178 million tickets -- second only to Gone with the Wind (202 million).

  • Rows that are highlighted green are movies released after 1990.
  • Rows that are bolded are films George Lucas produced, wrote, or directed.

Chart: Top movies by ticket sales

Using ticket sales and factoring in current ticket prices, Star Wars' domestic gross today would be $1.4 billion instead of $460 million.

Here's the same chart using each film's actual lifetime gross:

Chart: Top movies by actual lifetime gross


5. Stephen Spielberg made an estimated $40 million from Star Wars

This is one I actually didn't know until recently. The story goes that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were vacationing in Hawaii in 1977 before the release of their films. Spielberg told Lucas that he thought Star Wars would be more successful than Close Encounters, but Lucas didn't agree. So they bet on it, giving each other 2.5% of each other's films. This article estimates that Spielberg could have made as much as $40 million from this bet.

Of course, Lucas made some money, too, since Close Encounters would go on to gross $303 million worldwide. 


What does it all mean?

Star Wars (and Jaws before it) created the modern blockbuster. Before this time, films just didn't make this level of money. It's astonishing to think that a film that played on only around 1000 screens could generate $307 million in its initial release. But Star Wars was an event -- not just a movie. Think about how all the modern blockbusters are sold as "events" -- even before they've become events (thinking of The Lone Ranger and John Carter here). But instead of costing $11 million, like Star Wars, they cost the studios hundreds of millions of dollars.

Star Wars also set the template for the type of movies being sold as blockbusters. These typically fall into the Action, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy genre and are loaded with special effects. Star Wars also set up the idea of a "franchise." Hollywood has always loved sequels, but today it seems like there's more of an emphasis on sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and reboots. There's much less risk producing something that's already been successful.

Here are some of the top franchises:

Chart: Top movie franchises by total gross

Even though Star Wars helped to create the modern blockbuster template, a lot has changed in the film business. 

First, it's clear that there's much more competition for entertainment revenue today. As a result, fewer people are going to the movies than in 1977. According to a Wall Street Journal article (March 2014), "The number of tickets sold fell nearly 11% between 2004 and 2013, according to the report, while box office revenue increased 17%." More people are happy to stay home and watch YouTube, play Xbox, or watch a movie on their home theater system. The rise in revenue is coming from increased ticket prices and premium experiences like 3D and IMAX (or the premium-premium 3D/IMAX). It's estimated that 3D/IMAX accounted for 25-40% of Avatar's total gross, and 80% of its domestic gross came from 3D and/or IMAX.

Second, the international percentage of a film's gross has become much more important. Star Wars made 40.5% of its profits from international audiences in 1977. As a comparison, modern blockbusters get 59%-77% of their gross from international audiences. 

In the end, films are first and foremost a business. What Star Wars showed was that a successful film could balance story, art, entertainment, innovation, and commerce. We can only hope that Star Wars: Episode VII will continue this tradition.

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posted by AndyO @ 5:58 PM   0 comments

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Summer of Star Wars: Part I

A long time ago, in 1977... information didn't move as fast as it does today. And even when you did hear about something noteworthy, like a groundbreaking summer film, it was usually through word of mouth. That's how I found out about Star Wars.

I was attending a summer camp as a 10-year-old when I heard the other kids talking about Star Wars. No one had actually seen it yet. The reason was that it still hadn't made it to our local cinema in Richland, Washington. Instead, boys arrived at camp with the Marvel comic adaptations of Star Wars.     


Once Star Wars finally did make it to our local theater (I'm guessing by late June or July), I opened the Tri-City Herald and stared at the black-and-white advertisement that probably looked something like this:


Similar to the comics, the images in that low-fidelity advertisement seemed to evoke more mysteries and questions. Was that guy holding a laser sword? What was that menacing mask floating in the background? Why were those ships flying toward that small moon? Or is it a space station? (Little did I know Han Solo would make the same mistake.)

Seeing Star Wars

Eventually, I did see Star Wars with my family at the Uptown Theater in downtown Richland. The Uptown was built in 1950s, and like most of the theaters from that era, it featured a single massive screen. We stood in line for a while, and as we inched toward the box office I gazed upon the full-color poster. It was most likely the Tom Jung version: 


But it could have been the Brothers Hildebrandt poster:


After buying a tub of buttered popcorn, we settled into our seats in the sold-out auditorium. But once the movie started, I probably stopped eating my popcorn. The image of that starship whizzing by (which I later learned was the Rebel Blockade Runner) and then the colossal Star Destroyer giving chase, must have made my little jaw drop. (Later I'd learn that even the people who worked on Star Wars were awestruck by that opening scene; they had no idea it was going to look like that.) 



As spectacular as the opening was, I also remember being a bit perplexed: Were the Stormtroopers robots? Was Darth Vader a robot? But I soon forgot about my questions; there was just too much to see and hear.

Imagine you're a 10-year-old kid who had never seen Star Wars -- and you're presented with a fantastic world that includes:

  • Jawas (robots or creatures?) driving their giant Sandcrawler vehicle across the sand
  • Luke driving his Landspeeder that floated above the ground
  • The fearsome Sandpeople who almost kill Luke (I jumped when they blocked Luke's electrobinoculars and were suddenly hovering over him)
  • Luke getting his father's Lightsaber from Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi, and then hearing about the "Clone Wars" and the death of his father at the hands of Darth Vader (I don't even remember if I knew the guy at the beginning who throttled Captain Antilles was Darth Vader).
  • The Mos Eisley Cantina: Hammerhead carrying on a casual conversation (I remember my Mom nudging me as if she couldn't believe it either); Obi-Wan slicing some guy's arm off who was bothering Luke a the bar ("He doesn't like you! I don't like you either!"); and Han Solo shooting Greedo under the table (later re-edited by Lucas for the special edition with Greedo shooting first.)
  • The Death Star destroying an entire planet with its laser weapon
  • The Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace
  • Luke practicing with his Lightsaber for the first time -- and using the Force
  • R2-D2 playing a holographic chess game against Chewbacca. (C3PO: "Let the Wookie win!")
  • Luke, Han, and Chewie running around the Death Star, and Obi-Wan attending to the business of turning off the tractor beam.
  • The rescue of sassy Princess Leia and the gunfight in the detention block
  • Luke getting pulled under the murky water in the trash compactor by a one-eyed creature -- and then escaping
  • Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie almost getting crushed in the trash compactor, and the Droids saving the day ("Listen to them R2; they're dying!")
  • Obi-Wan dueling with Vader -- and appearing to lose. Did that Lightsaber incinerate him? Why is Vader stepping on Obi-Wan's empty cloak? (But then we hear his voice in Luke's head, "Run, Luke! Run!")
  • The escape from the Death Star and the incredible battle against the TIE fighters. After Luke blasts one of them, Solo yells his famous line: "Great, kid! Now don't get cocky!"

At this point, I remember thinking the movie was over. They had escaped to Yavin. What more was there to do? Then I saw those sleek X-wing fighters in the hanger, and I knew we were in for an even bigger battle. Best of all, Luke was piloting one of the ships -- and taking R2 with him!


As transcendent as that final act of Star Wars was, there were two scenes that put it over the top:

1) The point-of-view shot of the fighters flying into the Death Star trench.





2) Luke hearing the voice of Obi-Wan telling him to "let go," turning off his targeting computer, and then destroying the Death Star (with Han Solo and Chewie's help, of course).





And if that wasn't enough, Luke, and Solo receive medals from the Princess. (I've never understood why Chewbacca didn't get a medal, but maybe it was against his code to receive awards?)



After the movie, we drove home through darkness and I went straight to bed. But something transformative had happened to me during Star Wars. As I fell asleep, I dreamed continuously that I was Luke in Star Wars. I relived the scene where he dove his X-wing into the Death Star trench. When I woke the next day, it seemed as if the world had changed. This wasn't just a film; it was a historic event, and I was somehow part of it.

Later, I read about other people who experienced similar reactions -- even adults. For example, Roger Ebert opened his review of Star Wars with this:

Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them.

The "out-of-body experience" that Ebert describes might explain what happened to me. Usually when the movie's over and the lights come up, you wake from the cinematic dreamworld. But with Star Wars, the experience was so powerful that it continued right into my own dreams. It seemed like magic. 

Ten or so years later, when I was in college, I found out about Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces through Bill Moyers' show The Power of Myth. Campbell had fused ideas from Adolph Bastian (1826-1905) and Carl Jung (1875-1961) to arrive at "The Hero's Journey" -- the idea that all myths are constructed from similar elements. George Lucas rediscovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces during the writing of Star Wars.

"I spent about a year reading lots of fairy tales--and that's when (the Star Wars screenplay) starts to move away from Kurosawa and toward Joe Campbell," Lucas says. "About the time I was doing the third draft I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I started to realize I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I'll make it fit more into that classic mold."

Rinzler, J. W. (2013-10-22). The Making of Star Wars (Enhanced Edition) (Kindle Locations 1655-1657). LucasBooks. Kindle Edition.

We all have these transcendent experiences in our lives, but for me Star Wars was one that stayed with me. It was the first time a piece of art had reached me on such a deep level. When I finally discovered the keys to how Star Wars had cast its spell, I was surprised that it didn't diminish my view of it as a film. If anything, the more I learned about how this little $11 million film was made, the more interesting it became. To this day, I still buy books about the making of Star Wars, and I'm still surprised by how much creativity is went into it.   


posted by AndyO @ 9:33 PM   0 comments