Yesterday fans all over the world recognized May 25 as one of the most important anniversaries in popular culture: the release of Star Wars on that day in 1977. This comes at the tail end of a number of Star Wars-related anniversaries, including the anniveraries of the release dates of all the subsequent films in the series (with one important exception), the most auspicious being May 19, 1999, the release date of The Phantom Menace, simultaneously the zenith and nadir of the franchise. (It was an extremely important date with a lot of anticipation, but of course we all remember how we felt on May 20th as well. I recall one sad exchange with a friend on that day going something like, “Well… it was better than Jedi…” “Was it, really?”)
May release dates have become associated with big-time movies, as they can kick off the summer, attract College students just out of school (and secondary school students poised to enjoy their summers) and, at least historically, don’t have to compete with first-run TV as shows enter summer reruns. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way at all. In fact, Star Wars was originally slated for release on Christmas 1976, but was pushed back due to endless delays with the special effects. The Christmas season is usually reserved for Oscar-bait films hoping to get into the theatres before the end of the calendar year and be eligible for the Academy Awards, building momentum towards the ceremony usually held in February or March. (By contrast, a film released in March has to compete with first-run TV, falls right in the middle of a school year, and wouldn’t be eligible for an Oscar until the next year, by which time it might be forgotten.) Releasing a big, entertaining film around the Christmas season was unusual, but not unheard-of, and made some business sense, given that many could attend a screening during Christmas vacation. Still, the original release date shows that Fox didn’t have the utmost confidence in this new kind of movie and its young director, George Lucas.
Christmas remained a tempting release date for some of the other Star Wars films, although for the most part, Fox tried to target their biggest franchise for the May window over the course of the 30 years Lucas was producing them. An interesting exception was Return of the Jedi, originally slated for a Christmas 1983 release (some advertising still exists with this date, using the film’s original title, Revenge of the Jedi), but the studio decided to release in May 1983 instead, on the sixth anniversary of the original Star Wars.
The one Star Wars film that actually came out at Christmas was, as we no doubt all remember, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, just five months ago. As is often the case with films, the decision was based on the amount of time available. Despite being a massive franchise film, The Force Awakens was under a certain amount of pressure during production, as the behind-the-scenes documentary on the Blu-ray release reveals. Lucasfilm had just been sold to Disney, and President Kathleen Kennedy realized right away that they had to get a Star Wars movie into theatres as fast as they possibly could in order to establish that the new corporate entity could make an effective franchise entry and establish its legitimacy, and of course, to recoup some of their $7 billion investment spent buying the rights from George Lucas. The film was effectively greenlit before even a director was attached or a script written, a remarkable throwback to the old studio days of filmmaking. It was all about timing. They may have been able to get a film into theatres for May 2015 but there wouldn’t have been the necessary time to give the script the work it deserved, let alone to deal with Harrison Ford’s leg injury on set, which put production on hold for two weeks.
Of course another reason for the Christmas release was that the world is different in 2015 than it was in 2005. Christmas releases for the Lord of the Rings films had become almost a holiday tradition, and a Christmas target also gives Star Wars a chance at promotion during San Diego Comic Con in July, building anticipation over the summer and fall. (The original Star Wars was promoted at SDCC in 1976, but the event was a much smaller-scale and lesser-known affair in those days.)
Upcoming Star Wars films are planned for Christmas releases, starting this Christmas with Rogue One, but there’s one more May release date in the future of the franchise: May 24, 2019 for Episode IX, the grand finale of this new trilogy. It’s a nice touch that brings the franchise we used to associate with May back to its roots.