1977 was pivotal, both for Hollywood, and for single-screen theaters wherever they were straggling out their existences. In New York City and Gallup, New Mexico; in Detroit, Cincinnati, and Youngstown, Ohio; even in L.A., the darkness that, for a decade, would seal the St. George, brought wrecking crews or conversion to formerly glamorous theaters, some of which morphed into warehouses or churches, parking garages — even, in one case, a basketball court.
The strip mall 'plex was hot, a trend famously begun by a man named Stanley Durwood back in the Sixties, who reasoned he could sell twice as many tickets and pay only one staff. It worked. His chain became AMC.
Still, there were problems from the distribution perspective. By '77 there were too many screens, all competing for fairly scarce product, from a Hollywood that was undergoing its own transition, still having not quite risen from the ashes of the studio system.
Released on Memorial Day weekend, two months after we popped our last corn, Star Wars was about to change the whole game, but nobody knew that. There were a lot of back room shenanigans going on, a bidding war of the giants, over George Lucas’ third movie. You might expect everybody wanted it, but if you did, forgive your hindsight. The war was of an inverse kind. You know how in baseball, when you get chosen last to play on account of the fact that everybody thinks you’re a nerd who can’t hit or field? Nobody wanted this quaint epic involving robots and lightsabers and a princess, when they knew The Other Side of Midnight was going to be the blockbuster of that summer. (Remember it? I don’t). Arguably the biggest box office behemoth since GWTW sat on the horizon, but nobody could see it. Star Wars would have been perfect for the St. George; though we would never would have gotten it, even before the big guys knew what they had. It’s nice, anyhow, to imagine filling all 2,672 of our seats, the way we did just once in July of '76, for the re-run of The Exorcist. Ah well, such are the wistful dreams of ex-theater operators, even forty-plus years later.
For palaces, 1977 was a demolition derby; and for Hollywood, conceptually, at least, it was a hard right turn. Before Star Wars, the studios aimed for the dating audience, with a tilt towards what pleased guys (women would come along willingly enough it was assumed). I’d been part of the generation they aimed at, in movies like The Graduate, Alfie, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver; so much for college dating. Star Wars would be all about teen audiences returning again and again, and, while they were at it, buying the accoutrements, the dolls and regalia Lucas was smart enough to keep the rights to. Star Wars “...is modern pop cinema’s very own Big Bang: traces of it are to be found in every blockbuster thundering its way into your multiplex.” After Star Wars, in December of '77, came Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we were on our way.
Sci-fi was suddenly cool, if not intellectual, and it was chock full of special effects. The force, if you consider Tenet or The Shape of Water, is still with us today.
Roger Ebert, looking back in 1999, said it best:
Star Wars effectively brought to an end the golden era of early-1970s personal filmmaking and focused the industry on big-budget special-effects blockbusters, blasting off a trend we are still living through. But you can't blame it for what it did, you can only observe how well it did it. In one way or another all the big studios have been trying to make another Star Wars ever since (pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and even Independence Day are its heirs). It located Hollywood's center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager. (See the review here.)
It was 1982 — coincidentally the year of E.T. — I went alone to a movie, L'Étoile du Nord, starring Simone Signoret and Philippe Noiret; it was what I then called an “after therapy” flick. Having poured out my tale of a fractured family to my shrink, I indulged in a movie I’d chosen in advance, something with good writing (based on a Simenon novel) and character actors you could lose yourself in. The movie delivered. I was just getting up to leave as the lights came on, satisfied by a story that ends as an older woman recognizes her love for a man sent into exile in a penile colony. In the next row two slightly younger patrons shared their impressions, “That sucked! Where were the special effects?”
In case you skipped that earlier link, here’s the back story of how (Mann’s, now TCL — but always Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre grudgingly agreed to take Star Wars for two weeks, then rushed afterwards to refurbish another fleabag theater it owned to hold onto that suddenly-hot flick — check it out.