Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
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The Star Wars Theatrical Experience
Coming Soon to a Lobby Near You
In 1977, the phrase “I’ll just wait for the DVD” was not the common recourse it is today, when fans can wait a few months for a film to make its way to the home video market. Back then, home entertainment systems and videocassette players were few and far between, and television movie premieres were often broadcast years after a film’s theatrical debut. So, to catch the latest movies, people went to the theater.
While the exercise of theater-going has changed little over the last three decades — buying tickets, waiting to buy popcorn, finding a good seat, etc. — the theatrical experience itself has changed significantly. Moviegoers now often have a choice of several films, with the added option of digital or traditional projection. In 1977, most small-town theaters offered only a single screen, and a digital presentation was still decades away from the projectionist’s booth. Audience members were also not guaranteed a clear view of the screen from a stadium-style seat, smoking was still allowed, and monaural sound was slowly being replaced by stereo and the new Dolby technology of the day.
It was this old-world, analog setting that greeted the early Star Wars audiences of 1977, whose first stop on their way to that faraway galaxy was often the theater lobby. Unlike today, where posters, banners, standees, and other promotions from any number of movies compete for attention within a theater megaplex, a single film was often the star attraction at venues of the past, and the lobby was the first place to exploit it.
Movie tickets, programs, posters, concession premiums, retailer tie-ins, t-shirts and more all had the effect of collectively dazzling patrons as they entered, adding to the “event” experience of the film they were about to see. What follows is a collection of items that old-school movie-goers might have seen while catching Star Wars at their local U.S. theater back in 1977, or in the subsequent re-releases that ran through 1982.
Handbills, or flyers, were often given away at local businesses, college campuses, and theaters themselves to ramp up excitement for movies either coming soon or already playing. For Star Wars, three different handbills were printed — one that simply said “Star Wars”, another with the “A long time ago…” slogan, and finally a third with the word-intensive “An Entertainment Odyssey to the Edge of your Imagination and Beyond. Far Beyond.”
While admission tickets to see Star Wars were probably the first tangibles most moviegoers received from their theatrical experience of the film, few, it seems, were actually saved. Of course, most theater tickets back in 1977 were generic, with no venue or film information printed on the stub — as a result, fans and collectors saw little reason to keep them. Some big city theaters and benefit organizations managed to print up nicer tickets with the Star Wars title on them, giving some examples (such as cast and crew screenings) an enhanced appeal among collectors.
While today’s theaters will often display movie graphics in the form of a one-sheet (27″x40″) poster or larger banner, back in the ’70s and early ’80s there were several formats theater managers could choose from. Star Wars posters could be displayed in the classic one-sheet size (actually 41″ tall back then), or insert (14″x36″), half-sheet (22″x28″), 30″x40″, or two-sheet (40″x60″) sizes. The two-sheet was also available printed on thick cardstock with an easel, called a standee.
Poster artwork itself was different in 1977. While most of today’s posters are photo-montages composed in the computer with several hands in the design, most posters 30 years ago were beautifully illustrated, with much of the composition left up to a single artist. Star Wars and its various re-releases represented the best of this tradition, with posters such as Tom Jung’s classic Style “A” one-sheet (and re-styled half-sheet) and the retro-inspired White/Struzan “Circus Poster” of 1978. Though not illustrated, the silver mylar “Coming to Your Galaxy this Summer” advance and “Happy Birthday” anniversary posters were also stunners, and have taken on mythic status among collectors. (Collectors note: The famous Style “C” artwork one-sheet by Tom Chantrell was actually distributed exclusively to international venues, although a few “mystery” domestic issues have recently surfaced).
As an interesting side note, many theaters early on were using the commercial Hildebrandt poster printed by licensee Factors Etc. in their lobbies, since distribution of the famous Tom Jung one-sheet bearing similar artwork was allegedly slow to reach them.
Most fans who caught Star Wars in its original theatrical run probably don’t remember seeing a large nine-foot silk-screened banner draped from the lobby ceiling, since few were ever distributed. Little documentation exists to reveal the exact numbers produced for the infamous, cartoon-like nylon banner with gold fringe, but their scarcity make them hotly sought-after among today’s collectors.
Lobby cards, which traditionally depicted photographed scenes from the movie in any number of different sizes, were a lobby fixture dating back to the earliest days of cinema. Sadly, they fell out of favor when single-screen cinemas began giving way to megaplexes in the U.S., and were largely phased out by the mid-1980s.
But in 1977, lobby cards were still in full swing — and for Star Wars, interestingly, lobbies were apparently the primary means of advertising the movie at the theater level in its first weeks of release. Photos of theaters showing Star Wars during May and June of ’77 reveal that lobby cards were often the only form of advertising displayed, with no posters in sight (even the famous footage captured at the Chinese Theatre footprint ceremony held on August 3 shows no posters — only lobby cards).
For Star Wars, there was an endless array of images and sizes produced in lobby card form. There were eight mini lobbies (8″x10″), eight standard (11″x14″), four jumbo (16″x20″), and two scene cards (20″x30″). There were also six portrait cards of the core cast (12″x17″), although these are often found printed together on a single uncut sheet. (Collectors note: The earliest mini and standard lobbies were designated with the number “77-21-0″, while subsequent printings exhibited the same code without the “0″.There were also cards printed with no number codes at all. Also, early printings of the jumbo card depicting Luke and Leia in the Death Star chasm included the soundstage’s floor in the shot just below the heroes. For this reason, most of these jumbo cards are found with the lower edge trimmed by the printer to preserve the scene’s intended illusion of a perilous height).
Some Star Wars licensees tried to reach their target consumers directly at the theater level, touting sweepstakes, rebates, or premiums to generate interest in their products.
In 1977, Toyota ran a sweepstakes which awarded a grand prize customized Star Wars Celica to one lucky winner, a promotion that was advertised both in car showrooms and in movie theaters. Posters and counter displays were sent to theater owners, graced with rare artwork by noted rock-and-roll illustrator John Van Hamersveld. The fate of the stellar auto has since receded into the realm of collector lore.
Kenner finally took its Star Wars merchandising message to theaters in 1979 with a free handout booklet full of coupons and rebate offers — a promotion even called out on the 1979 re-release one-sheet. They followed with a similar promotion for the film’s 1981 re-release, this time installing an attractive countertop display in theaters asking kids to send in their movie ticket stubs for a $1 rebate. Not a bad deal when one considers the cost of a movie ticket in 1981 was about $3.
Coca-Cola offered a concession stand premium in 1982 for Star Wars’ final solo re-release to theaters. With the purchase of a Coke, patrons could get a free 20 or 32oz plastic cup, and for the ambitious, a 50oz pitcher filled with popcorn. Interestingly, the cups and pitcher featured graphics from both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, since both were appearing in re-release that year.
Among the very first Star Wars collectibles available was the movie program, which could be purchased directly from the theater lobby. Unusual for its horizontal format, the first printing was an immediate sell-out, since initial orders did not anticipate the strong level of enthusiasm for the film. (Collectors note: The first printing of the theater program can be distinguished from later printings by its slick cover — later printings have a textured “pebbletone” cover and pink interior pages). Lucky attendees of early preview and benefit screenings took home the relatively scarce credit sheet, which was a slick foldout brochure listing the film’s cast and crew.
T-shirts and Buttons
Twentieth Century Fox issued t-shirts and buttons bearing the “May the Force Be With You” slogan to some theaters for employees to wear. While the t-shirts are quite rare, the buttons are still relatively easy to find, as many theaters ordered hundreds to give away to moviegoers.
Life in 1977
When Star Wars hit theaters in May 1977, punk music pushed out disco and Burt Reynolds became the poster boy for outracing the boys in blue. Take a look back at what life was like in 1977 in preparation for the DVD release of the original theatrical edition of Star Wars! The original Star Wars will be available as a bonus disc packaged with the 2004 Special Edition of A New Hope when the Star Wars trilogy is released as individual movie DVDs on September 12. Click here for more information.
Highlights of 1977:
President Jimmy Carter is inaugurated as the 39th President of the United States; pardons Vietnam War draft evaders in the same year.
Elvis Presley is found dead at his home in Graceland at the age of 42.
The bands the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Talking Heads and Motorhead release their debut albums. The bands the B-52′s, Black Flag, INXS, Whitesnake, Def Leppard and X form.
Stevie Wonder wins the Album of the Year Grammy Award for Songs in the Key of Life.
The television shows “Three’s Company,” “Fantasy Island,” “Eight is Enough,” “CHiPs,” “The Love Boat,” “Soap” and “Lou Grant” debut.
ABC broadcasts the TV miniseries “Roots” — setting ratings records.
Comedian Bill Murray becomes new cast member of “Saturday Night Live.”
A private plane crash kills three band members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Celebrity deaths include Anaïs Nin, Freddie Prinze, Joan Crawford, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, and Charlie Chaplin.
The first Apple II computer debuts.
The New York City Blackout of 1977 lasts for 25 hours, resulting in mass looting.
United States Senate Hearing on CIA mind-control research program Project MKULTRA begins.
David Berkowitz, otherwise known as the serial killer the Son of Sam, is captured after one year of murders in New York City.
Cost of a movie ticket is $2.23, while gas is .62 a gallon. A first class stamp is .13.
New York Yankees win the World Series with help from Reggie Jackson who hits 3 home runs and earns the nickname “Mr. October.”
Top-grossing films: Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, Smokey and the Bandit, King Kong, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and A Star is Born.
Other films released: Annie Hall, Eraserhead, Oh, God! , Orca, Pete’s Dragon, The Goodbye Girl, The Rescuers, The Spy Who Loved Me, Pumping Iron and Carrie.
Annie Hall wins Oscar for Best Picture, and Woody Allen wins for Best Director.
Atari develops the Game Brain — the first Atari system to use cartridges. Cinematronics releases Space Wars, the first vector-graphics arcade game. Mattel releases Missile Attack, the first handheld LED display electronic game.
“Heroes” – David Bowie
“We Are the Champions” – Queen
“Watching the Detectives” – Elvis Costello
“Carry on My Wayward Son” – Kansas
“Go Your Own Way” – Fleetwood Mac
“God Save the Queen” – Sex Pistols
“Margaritaville” – Jimmy Buffett
“Nobody Does It Better” – Carly Simon
“Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” – The Ramones
“You Light Up My Life” – Debby Boone
“Dancing Queen” – ABBA
“Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” – Meco