For the younger people who weren’t around when Star Wars debuted in theaters 38 years ago, it’s hard to describe the impact that Star Wars 4: a New Hope had when it debuted. The effect it had on the fans and on the film industry itself was unprecedented.
In the 1970s, sci-fi films were not very big. This was an era of gritty realism, so films like the Godfather (Parts 1&2) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were the industry standard for what studios and fans wanted. The popularity of the sci-fi genre had faded after the sci-fi boom of the 1950s, and so the 1960s/early 1970s were a wasteland for science fiction. Of course, there was an oasis in the wasteland every now and then, such as 2001: a Space Odyssey and the Planet of the Apes franchise, but for the most part, studios didn’t want to bank on sci-fi projects back then. Even on TV, science fiction was dominated by campy shows like the 6 Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. Ever since the cancellation of Star Trek, we genre fans had little to enjoy.
And then came Star Wars! At first, we didn’t know what to make of the early ads. The advanced advertising was a far cry from the big media blitz we commonly see today. The early push for Star Wars was very modest. The earliest posters were nothing but black background with the words “a Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far, Far Away” emblazoned across the forefront of the poster. We wondered what this was all about. Later, as the posters began to show the cast members (like the famous one where Luke raises his Light Saber to the sky) we were intrigued. The details of the plot were closely guarded, much as was done this year with the promotion for the Force Awakens, but we were intrigued anyway. While us few sci-fi lovers were cautiously excited about a new genre film coming out, most people were ambivalent about it. It was ‘just’ a sci-fi film, after all.
Finally the movie came out… and it blew everyone away! No one had ever seen anything like it. People forget today how revolutionary the SFX were back then. (It won several Academy Awards for visuals, sound and editing.) More than just the FX, however, the film gave us interesting characters, fun action and an interesting mythology, introducing the world to the Jedi Knights and the Force. Darth Vader became an instant sensation and the career of Harrison Ford began to skyrocket. The movie began a mega-hit, breaking every box office record. No one expected this from a science fiction flick.
Star Wars was all anyone could talk about. This upstart sci-fi project with a $10 million dollar budget was the big topic of discussion everywhere. This was the first time that critics started having round-table discussions about a movie, because the experts were taken aback and needed to analyze this sudden explosive pop-culture phenomenon. (It’s very common today to see panel discussions about a movie but it all began with Star Wars.) Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted a whole episode of their movie review series Siskel and Ebert at the Movies to the film. It was on the cover of every magazine possible, even ones that didn’t usually talk about films. (Unheard of for a sci-fi film.)
And it wasn’t only the media who was going crazy. All you could hear from the kids on the playground or on the street was Star Wars talk. Kids gave up playing cowboys or soldiers and began playing Jedi, swinging little sticks at each other in lieu of light sabers. Star Wars merchandize replaced GI Joe and other toy lines as the thing every kid wanted to clutter up his room with.
For the older kids (High school and college age) Star Wars actually became a competitive thing. They started a trend of trying to outdo each other by seeing the movie the most times. Teens were going to see the film 20 or 30 times. (They’d go every week and stay for two or three showing in the same day). It became a badge of honor to say that you’d seen Star Wars more than the other kids.
Trying to cash in on the Star Wars hype, television studios got on board and the Science Fiction Awards were broadcast on network TV for the first time in 1978. Star Wars was mentioned and referenced as much as possible (Although the absolute highlight of the show was William Shatner singing his rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. Priceless moment!)
On the immediate heels of Star Wars came a bunch of rip-off films like Star Crash, Battle Beyond the Stars and the first version of Battlestar Galactica. The huge profit made by star Wars inspired Paramount to revive Star Trek as a film franchise. From that summer onward, science fiction became the dominant genre in the film industry. The genre that no one wanted to invest in (Lucas himself tried for years to get someone to finance Star Wars, and ultimately only got half the budget he wanted) was now the best bet to capture big audiences over the summer, leading to other breakout sci-fi blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: the Extraterrestrial.
Before Star Wars, no one ever camped out for days or weeks in front of a theater to buy tickets to a movie. Before Star Wars, you’d never see the kind of a multi-media advertising blitz which is so common today. Before Star Wars, science fiction was considered a risky genre to invest in. Before Star Wars, no one imaged the incredible things special effects could really accomplish.
After Star Wars, everything was different. 1977 was a turning point for fan expectations and for industry standards. It was a barrier-breaking moment. It was a remarkable thing to experience. There’d never been anything like it before. Maybe there never will be again.