May the hype be with you

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By Richard Roeper

AS I’M TYPING THIS, a bearded Jimmy Kimmel is on the muted TV to my left — dressed as Princess Leia and hyping a special Star Wars: The Force Awakens edition of his program, which will have aired by the time you read this.

Wait a minute. There’s a new Star Wars movie coming out? Wow, who knew?!

Answer: Everyone in the conscious universe.

If The Force Awakens isn’t the most heavily hyped movie of all time, I’d like to hear your other contender. Yes, there was a massive buildup to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 (followed by a worldwide Frankenstein’s lynch mob storming the gates of Jar-Jar Binks), but in the late 1990s, there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter — and I’m pretty sure neither Leno nor Letterman dressed as Princess Leia for a full hour of Star Wars mania.

Ever since Episode VII was announced, the hype machine has been dialed up to 11, with fans and the media breathlessly dissecting every bit of casting news, every still photo, every possible spoiler. Some three weeks away from the Dec. 18 release date, the ticket pre-sales already surpassed $50 million in North America alone.

Tens of millions have viewed the trailers on YouTube. A fan video titled “Star Wars Trailer ALL EASTER EGGS (Force Awakens ANALYZED)” has more than 2 million views on YouTube. (“The new Star Wars trailer is here and it brought a tear to my eye,” says a bearded, very pleasant, 30ish guy. “We went through the trailer frame by frame, analyzing everything.” That’s as far as I got. Life’s too short.)

The other day someone on Twitter asked me if I thought Star Wars: The Force Awakens could live up to the hype.

No. Nothing the human eye has ever experienced could live up to this hype. If Jesus himself were to descend from the heavens and introduce the film on opening night, some fans would say, “Ah, I liked him better in the original. The sequel is never as good!”

As for the original Star Wars — which eventually came to be known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope — what was the hype level prior to its release on May 25, 1977?

The anticipation level was medium-warm.

George Lucas was already a pretty big deal in the mid-1970s, what with the breakout success of his American Graffiti in 1973. Around that same time, after Lucas’ attempt to acquire the rights to Flash Gordon was unsuccessful, he decided to create his own space opera, which at one point was titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller.

After numerous production delays, a filming schedule that went over budget, re-shoots and multiple and reportedly drastic editing changes, Star Wars was finally ready to be released. The trailer created some buzz and Star Wars was promoted at a relatively little-known convention called San Diego Comic-Con, but 20th Century Fox and theater owners around the country weren’t exactly doing cartwheels about the prospects for the film. Star Wars was released in 32 theaters on the Wednesday before Memorial Day, with eight more theaters adding the film over the next few days. United Artists turned down the film, as did Disney as well as Universal, the studio that had backed American Graffiti. Lucas finally found a taker in 20th Century Fox.

Anecdotally, I remember going with a couple of my high school buddies to see Star Wars at the Grand River Oaks 1 Theater in Calumet City, maybe a week or two after it had opened — and being shocked at the line snaking around the theater. Was this thing going to be as popular as Jaws? Didn’t seem possible.

As for media coverage, it was decidedly restrained. A week after the film’s release, The Washington Post ran a short item noting Star Wars had set a record for opening-week grosses in the D.C. area, bringing in some $94,992, “exceed[ing] by several hundred dollars the record previously set by The Exorcist.”

Several hundred. Whoa!

An Associated Press report from early June said Star Wars had expanded to 45 theaters and had pulled in a whopping $5.2 million, resulting in a spike in Fox stock from $11.75 to $21 a share.

The AP article also included this helpful information: “Among the good guys in the flick are two robots, See-Three-Pio and Artoo-Detoo, and a hairy creature named Chewbecca, who co-pilots a space cruiser.”

By mid-June, Newsweek was running a story headlined “A Star Is Born,” with a quote from one movie executive hailing it as “the sleeper of the year.”

Something you’ll never hear about The Force Awakens. — Universal UClick