January 31, 2017 marked an important but often overlooked anniversary in the long pop culture history of Star Wars. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Star Wars Special Editions, the first of which (ANH) was released in theaters January 31, 1997. TESB followed on February 21 and ROTJ on March 14. As is often the case with anything having to do with modern fandom and “geek” media, too much attention has been paid to the controversies and not enough on how really important those three months were in 1997. (For the record, I take the Harrison Ford position on the “who shot first” issue: I don’t care. I happen to think the 2004 DVD cut had the best version of the scene.)
1996’s “multimedia event” “Shadows Of The Empire” was a dress rehearsal for the Special Editions which in turn were a dress rehearsal for the prequels. Lucasfilm was riding a wave of resurgent popularity and this was to keep the momentum going while at the same time stretching muscles at everywhere from PR to licensing to ILM’s visual effects department that hadn’t been used for a long time, or at least not coordinated together since ROTJ’s release in 1983. But let me be clear: this wasn’t top-down manipulation. There had been a renaissance of interest in Star Wars beginning in the early ’90s. Moviegoers missed Star Wars. They missed the excitement those movies brought. Meanwhile, there was a younger generation of fans whose only experience with Star Wars was on the boob tube. They yearned to see Star Wars the way God and Lucas intended them, on the big screen. They wanted to camp out on the sidewalk like fans did in the early ‘80s and dress up in costumes. They wanted to cheer with a big audience. Some of the most memorable ads for the Special Editions were aimed directly at that audience. Remember the one that started with the tinny sound and the X-wings on a little t.v. before it burst out onto the screen? It was genius.
This is why I had no doubts at all about the Special Editions succeeding. To a lot of the media, it seemed “risky” and a “gamble.” Why would people go to the theaters to pay to see movies that had been out on cable, network television, and home video for years? It seemed absurd. But Star Wars was different and at that time in 1997, there was a perfect storm ready to break out and astonish the world.
ANH: SE had a shocking $35 million opening weekend, which set a record for a January opening and remains one of the biggest January openings even 20 years later. It sat at the top of the box office for three weeks, racking up $138.6 million in its entire run and passing “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” to become the top-grossing film of all time (domestic) until James Cameron and Leonardo DiCaprio ruined everything a year later. The three existing Star Wars film grossed a total of $447 million worldwide during their combined run. That’s right…movies that were 14-20 years old made as much money if not more than just about every newly made hit released in 1997.
As per usual, complaining fans didn’t see the trees for the forest, preferring to dither on what was changed and how that made Lucas a horrible person. It’s like your team wins the Super Bowl or the World Series and all you could do is complain about your team’s ugly uniforms and how much you hate the coach while everyone else around you is celebrating. It probably indicated what was coming with the prequels.
But the Special Editions were a triumph for Star Wars and for George Lucas. They proved that Star Wars was a permanent part of the cultural landscape and they introduced the theatrical experience to a new generation of fans. In fact, the experience of seeing the films on the big screen after so many years and noticing how much was lost watching them on a t.v. influenced this fan to see the prequels as many times in the theater as possible when they were released. The hype for new Star Wars films went into overdrive. In fact, one could say this was the beginning of the prequel era. I think TPM would’ve been a success even without the Special Editions but they probably would’ve had to have worked a lot harder to make the film an event. The Special Editions pre-sold that audience two years in advance and built the excitement to make TPM the movie event of the decade.
This article has all of the info on how the Special Editions performed, making the process of writing this a lot easier and faster.