Why Was Star Wars So Popular in 1977?

Beginnings of a Cultural Phenomena


You already saw Star Wars 10 times!

I was reading about the phenomenal success of Star Wars and the savvy marketing done to give the film a  legacy still felt today.  Somehow, the movie became so successful that it is now in our cultural identity.  How is that possible?  A lot of movies have marketing campaigns and enduring success, right?  Why is this movie any different?  The marketing.

Back in 1977, Star Wars whimpered onto screens, being on little more than 32 screens in 1976.  It was expanded from its initial opening, its run lengthened in some cases for many months in some theatres because owners knew the movie would sell tickets.  It earned 100 million in three months in 1977, which was considered good, but it is the longevity of the run that gave it the notoriety.  Why? The marketing.

The marketing campaign was done so intensely and so well that people lined up in droves in 1977.  Many of the cast and crew did the radio & TV circuit like they do more often today.  A Star Wars book, comic and film adaptation were released in 1976, even before the film itself came to theatres.  In a documentary, CNN stated that the opening, or rather re-opening, of the movie was covered on CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in 1977 and Time magazine featured the movie on its cover early on. Time named it movie of the year. With elements of fantasy and classic fairy tales, Star Wars blazed into theatres in 35 and 70mm, impressing audiences with its amazing special effects.  I believe this element alone had a strong influence.  However, all these things, from hype to special effects, caught audiences just right.

Roger Ebert says George Lucas was inspired by the movie The Hidden Fortress.  In his book “The Secret History of Star Wars”, Michael Kaminski explains that both Hidden Fortress and Flash Gordon influenced the making of Star Wars.  The story is told from the perspective of two peasants, a point which Lucas took and used.  The plot of Star Wars follows the two droids for the most part and a young farm boy.   With the lowliest and smallest characters guiding the story, we are not burdened by over-exposition or monologues.  We can still see some dramatic action, but it is really the growth of Luke that makes us root for him.  Much like Flash Gordon, he’s not the most skillful guy in the bunch, but he believes in what he’s doing and will give it his all.  You’d think following the lesser of all the characters would be boring, but it is sort of quirky and interesting in a way.

The movie appealed to everyone but hooked kids.  I should know.  Kids are perhaps the most powerful audience in the USA, as many movies and franchises have been won or lost based on toy rights.  Every boy wanted the early edition Star Wars figures and the franchise rights seemed to snowball, becoming as popular as any toy license ever.  I’m not sure Star Wars is in itself a very unique story and most of the actors were unknown.  This is not exactly the recipe for an “instant” success, but they certainly worked at it and the toys, commercials, and hype became ingrained it in us.  Kids loved Star Wars and made it what it is today.

Star Wars was full of action, a blindingly fast pace, and portrayed an incredible vision, a masterpiece of design and picture.  You could really imagine the possibility of a bar like the “Cantina” on Tatooine really existing.  Many of the other landscapes were realistic.  Even the technology had some aspect of possibility and ratio, as if the rebels were relegated to small craft and the Empire dwarfed them at every opportunity.  The gritty space, a lived-in world, contrasted many science fiction epics and became a staple of George Lucas.  The vision, combined with the marketing, the effects, and let’s not forget the drooling kids, all made Star Wars a success.