Watch: UK Star Wars fans gets their first glimpse of the film in 1977
This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series.
Some people can’t believe that no-one was expecting much of Star Wars: A New Hope, which opened in the UK, on this day — 27 December — in 1977.
The franchise’s success over the subsequent decades means it’s difficult to understand how uninterested most people were when reports surfaced of a young director called George Lucas making a lowish-budget space opera at Elstree Studios just outside London.
British journalist Garth Pearce, who visited the set of the first instalment, was fairly underwhelmed by what he saw, as, it seems, were the PR people assigned to help him on the day. Carrie Fisher was “a bit odd”, Harrison Ford was “boring”. Sir Alec Guinness simply refused to talk to the press because he thought the project was a load of nonsense.
You know what happens next. The first Star Wars was released in the U.S. in May 1977 and became the biggest phenomenon movies had ever seen. Along with Jaws, it literally defined the word blockbuster. But this was the 1970s. Streaming didn’t exist, nor did DVDs.
When a film came out in America, Britain sometimes had to wait up to a year for the film to reach cinemas on these shores. The cult of Star Wars had already taken over the world, but almost no-one in the United Kingdom had seen it.
Reviews had already started to emerge of course, pointing out the delay. “Should prove to be a pre-sold mass audience draw unless the long-delayed opening proves to have an injurious effect,” wrote Marjorie Bilbow in trade publication Screen International. “The natives are getting restless!”
So it was with unprecedented anticipation that crowds lined the streets outside the two (yes, really) London cinemas it was initially shown in, one in Leicester Square (now the site of the Odeon West End), the other the Dominion on the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road which has since become a theatre (it was the longtime home of We Will Rock You).
Pre-sales were spectacular: £890,000 worth of tickets reserved in today’s money, with 24-hour queues. 20th Century Fox told Screen International it had “all the symptoms of a hit”. The cinemas kept one showing – the 10:50a.m. – walk-in only since most seats were booked until March 1978. Even then people were queuing from six in the morning.
It finally opened in London on 27 December 1977 and lived up to expectations. Crowds were bussed in by coaches with their windows covered in Star Wars posters and stickers on the windscreen saying “Wookiees need love too”.
“It’s the thing to do to go and see Star Wars, so we’re all here doing the thing to do,” one young man told an ITN camera crew, there to see the film with his mates because of, as he and they admitted, “publicity”.
What’s interesting to see from the news footage of the day is how few of the people in the queue are children. Maybe they were still at home playing with all the merchandise they’d got as Christmas presents. Instead, the TV cameras mostly caught up with adults. “Fantastic, really good,” said one.
Another wasn’t quite so complimentary, although accidentally savvy about who the film was really aimed at. “I thought it was stupid!” she said. “You’d got to be an eight-year-old to enjoy it. It was so long and drawn-out. The only bit of it that was any good was the end of it when the fighting was on.”
But despite any misgivings and such a small initial release, A New Hope became an inevitable smash, netting almost £750,000 in its first week of release – that’s triple the take of previous record holders like Fiddler on the Roof and A Bridge Too Far. An amazing stat considering it was still in just two cinemas. It was so popular that touts were trying to resell £2.20 tickets for £30 (that’s £190 today).
As 1977 became 1978, the release expanded to the suburbs and beyond, the ABC Basildon, the Odeon Liverpool and more and the Star Wars universe was off and running on this side of the Atlantic.
By the time the film’s producer Gary Kurtz was interviewed in December 1977 on the cusp of the U.K. opening, thoughts were already turning to The Empire Strikes Back, or as it was then simply known, Star Wars 2.
With the script being developed by co-writer Leigh Brackett, it was already booked to start shooting at Elstree Studios in January 1979. However, he did already know that Lucas was going to take a break from directing.
“We see it as the sort of film school situation where everybody gets the same story and makes the same film – but each films turns out to be amazingly different,” he told Screen International. “We always thought the Star Wars saga should be directed by different people each time. Each person brings their own ideas, even though the parameters are more or less fixed.”
Ironically, Empire director Irvin Kershner had been George Lucas’s teacher at film school in California.