I was a bit sick yesterday, so I am a day late on this, but yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of the “special editions” of the Star Wars trilogy. Released into theaters at the beginning of the year with great fanfare, these remastered (and, yes, somewhat altered) versions of the Star Wars trilogy absolutely dominated the box office for nearly two months. For an entire generation raised on cropped VHS copies, this 20th Century Fox reissue was the first chance to see these films in an actual movie theater. And it came at a time when the Star Wars universe was not necessarily dominating pop culture, with the reissue arguably acting as a kick-off to the marketing campaign for the new Star Wars prequels.
Said reissue was in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the original Star Wars, which means the special edition releases are now as old as the original Star Wars was at the time of the special edition releases. To wit, Star Wars: Special Edition opened on Jan. 31, 1997 and scored an obscene $35 million debut weekend. That was the biggest January debut of all time, and it still ranks No. 9 on the and second when adjusted for inflation behind American Sniper. To put that in greater perspective, the rerelease of a 20-year-old Star Wars movie snagged an opening weekend $5m larger than the franchise-high $30m debut of Star Trek: First Contact just two months earlier.
It topped the box office for its first three weeks, only to be displaced by The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition which arrived on Feb. 21. From Jan. 31 to March 14 of 1997, a Star Wars movie topped the box office for six of seven weekends. Other films released in that period include Dante’s Peak ($178 million on a $116m budget), Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power ($50m on a $50m budget), Jamie Foxx’s Booty Call ($20m on a $7m budget) and the acclaimed Al Pacino/Johnny Depp crime drama Donnie Brasco ($124m worldwide and Depp’s first outright smash since Edward Scissorhands).
The one weekend between the debut of Star Wars and the debut of Return of the Jedi where the Force was not tops was just before the debut of the third Star Wars film. That saw the $14.6 million debut of the much-hyped but not-quite-anticipated Howard Stern biopic Private Parts. If you judged a film’s likely debut by media attention at the time, you would have thought the film was going to open like a Batman sequel. It did not. The well-reviewed Paramount/Viacom Inc. release, helmed by Betty Thomas, was arguably an early case of media interest not translating into mainstream interest. The $28m picture earned just $41m domestic.
By the end of its run, Star Wars: Special Edition had earned $138.26 million in domestic theatrical alone. That gave it a new domestic total of $460.998m, past the $399m domestic total of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, to make Star Wars the biggest domestic earner of all time. Spielberg would have to make due with watching Universal’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park annihilate the opening weekend record four months later with a $74.6m Fri-Sun/$92.7m Fri-Mon Memorial Day debut. And Lucas’s victory would be short-lived as James Cameron’s Titanic would sail off with $600m domestic within a year, making it the first time in 22 years that a movie not directed by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas was the top-grossing domestic earner of all time.
The Empire Strikes Back opened with $21.9 million in Feb. of 1997 with a $67.5m domestic final pushing that film’s overall total to $290m domestic. Return of the Jedi would top its opening weekend in mid-March with $16.2m and would earn $45m in theaters to put that film’s domestic total over the $300m mark with $309m. All told, the Star Wars: Special Edition releases earned $252m in domestic release and $220m overseas for a $472m worldwide cume. Adjusted for inflation, the Star Wars: Special Edition releases earned around $474m domestic and (exchange rates and overseas market expansion notwithstanding) around $892m worldwide in early 1997.
Star Wars: Special Edition alone sold more tickets than all but two Star Trek films (Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the 2009 Star Trek reboot) in North America and it sold more tickets than all but four (Thunderball, Goldfinger, Skyfall and You Only Live Twice) 007 adventures. To this day, it has the second-biggest adjusted-for-inflation (thanks, Box Office Mojo) January debut (around $67 million in 2017 bucks) and is the third-biggest January wide release behind Good Morning Vietnam and American Sniper in terms of tickets sold. The trilogy provided a launching pad for the marketing campaigns for several would-be summer blockbusters (Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.’s Batman & Robin, 20th Century Fox’s Speed 2: Cruise Control, etc.)
It also brought the franchise back to the forefront of pop culture after around a decade (comparatively) on the fringes. That’s not to say Star Wars had vanished from the zeitgeist (Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, those awesome Super Star Wars Super NES video games, etc.), but it had understandably rescinded after the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi. The blockbuster special edition theatrical releases conveniently occurred right as the theatrical chains were expanding into true multiplexes with stadium seating and related goodies and just before DVD upped the quality potential of post-theatrical viewing for the masses. And they also primed audiences everywhere for the real return of the Jedi two summers later.
The changes that George Lucas made to those first three films, including the controversial “Han shot first” switch, paved the way for an ongoing conversation about authorship, when a film is truly done, and to whom these films truly belonged (the artist or the fans). I rather loved the new Return of the Jedi closing song and found it to be a poignant and mournful final grace note on an emotionally impactful finale. But I cannot deny that it was the first step in out current era where many of our biggest franchises now amount to fan-fiction adaptations of yesterday’s glories. Will Walt Disney’s The Last Jedi be its own thing or another glorified fanfic like The Force Awakens and Rogue One?
But the special edition releases were special because they occurred at a time when the very idea of seeing your beloved favorites on the big screen was in itself an event for the masses. Obviously, since then we’ve had the DVD wave, the surge in VOD options and online streaming. In 2017, seeing movies in a theater for most would-be moviegoers is the opposite of special save for the temporary exclusivity. It was not the last successful theatrical reissue, as The Lion King and Titanic would play a similar game in 2011 and 2012 using 3D upconversion as a hook, but it still feels like a milestone moment. But for one glorious moment in 1997, Star Wars was special again specifically because it was playing on the big screen at a theater near you.