It’s always exciting when a movie seemingly comes out of nowhere and becomes a phenomenon, which is pretty much what happened with Star Wars.
In the days before the Internet, or even fax machines, word of mouth spread like wildfire on this little science fiction movie that seemingly had no advance hype or anticipation, and everybody had to see it.
It certainly took the theater owners by surprise because it was only booked on 39 screens opening day, and a lot of movies were pulled from their screens to make room for Star Wars.
As I found out, Star Wars didn’t totally come out of nowhere, simply because there was some advance word in the sci-fi community that spread pretty quickly, and it was a forerunner of what was to come with geek conventions like Comic-Con today. If you think about it, a lot of things geek can be traced back to Star Wars in one way or another.
Before Star Wars, science fiction was not a hot genre, and previous sci-fi flicks were much darker, smaller stories that didn’t explode at the box office. It was with the success of Star Wars, and later that year Close Encounters, that sci-fi films “crossed over” to general audiences, and not just fans of the genre.
Many at 20th Century Fox, with the exception of studio head Alan Ladd Jr., who green-lit the film, had no confidence in Star Wars, and thought their big sci-fi movie was going to be Damnation Alley, which was a disaster. And as noted above, Star Wars was only booked on 39 screens because that’s all Fox could get for it.
Publicist Charles Lippincott, who had also previously worked on Westworld, says, “I knew the audience, and I had to prove to everybody that this audience was real.”
Lippincott figured the way to get the word out was to hit up the sci-fi conventions. He made an advance poster for Star Wars with comic artist Howard Chaykin, took it to the conventions, and sold them for a dollar a piece.
“It was the first time a movie had been to the comic book and science fiction conventions. Because it was the first, it really made a dent. The person who was my mentor as a publicist wanted to do it with 2001, but Kubrick wasn’t ready, and he was a little concerned about doing that,” says Lippincott.
“I wanted to go to the science fiction conventions with Westworld… With Star Wars, I broke a certain amount of barriers, which are now common. It gave us a lot of cachet and it gave us a secret audience the studio wasn’t counting on.”