When Star Trek first hit the big screen

Star Trek is Paramount’s biggest franchise, and it’s amazing how it keeps going on and on after all these years.

The original show only lasted three seasons, and it barely made it to its third season because NBC was going to cancel it, but fan protests kept it on the air. (By 1968, Trek was finally taken off the air, and like Firefly it became a hit in re-runs).

A big screen Star Trek was in the works for years, and when it finally came out in 1979, it almost killed off the franchise again.

Although Star Trek the Motion Picture is quite a bore, the story behind it is actually pretty interesting, as I read through it again recently in the Kim Masters biography of Michael Eisner, The Keys to the Kingdom. Eisner was an executive at Paramount at the time, and his assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was put in charge of the Star Trek film, which put his career on the line.

Paramount had been hitting up Gene Roddenberry for years about doing a Star Trek movie, and he finally started writing a script in 1974. Gene went back to his office on the Paramount lot, and one day William Shatner visited the soundstages and heard typing coming out of Roddenberry’s room. “Hey Gene!,” Shatner yelled. “Didn’t anybody tell you? We got cancelled!”

Roddenberry wrote a much darker story, which the studio rejected, and the top filmmakers of the day, Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola, all passed on directing a Trek film. Roddenberry was as difficult to work with as ever, and wouldn’t compromise his vision for the film, which caused many problems with the studio. Then Paramount was hot to make the movie when Star Wars and Close Encounters both exploded in 1977. 

Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Day the Earth Stood Still) came aboard to direct not because he was a Trekkie, but because his wife loved the show. Spock almost wasn’t in the film as well because Leonard Nimoy was suing Paramount at the time over merchandising royalties, and he had a contentious relationship with Roddenberry. Finally Paramount settled the suit, and Nimoy didn’t want to be the lone hold out from the original Star Trek gang not to do the movie. 

The shoot took forever while everyone waited for a final script to get finished, and Nimoy and Shatner did some rewriting themselves. The budget eventually climbed to $46 million, the biggest in cinema history at the time. Paramount was in luck in that they already had $35 million in theater owner guarantees, as long as the film was ready by December 7, 1979. 

But the word of mouth on the movie was bad, and as former Paramount exec Barry Diller told Masters, “Once the theater owners realized we pulled this scam off on them, none of them liked it. They were all trying to get out of it and we knew that if we didn’t open this picture on December 7, the guarantees would evaporate. The movie was horrible and we were scared to death.”

When Shatner saw the film at the Washington D.C. premiere, he also figured it would be the last nail in the coffin for Trek. “That’ll never happen again,” he lamented. But the film was actually a hit, and much like the last three Star Wars films, the fans came out of loyalty to the franchise, not because the movie was particularly great. 

Even though Paramount escaped disaster by the skin of its teeth, and none of the executives involved wanted to repeat the experience, Charles Bluhdorn, the chairman of Paramount, wanted a sequel, The Wrath of Khan, which brought the franchise back stronger than ever. Producer Harve Bennett was brought into a meeting at Paramount, and Bluhdorn asked him his opinion of the first Star Trek movie. “I think it was really boring.”

“Can you make a better picture?”

“Well, you know, yeah, I could make it less boring – yes, I could.”

“Could you make it for less than forty-five f*cking million dollars?”

“Where I come from, we could make five movies for that.”

“Do it.”

And the rest is genre cinema history.