A long time ago (May 25, 1977) in a galaxy far, far away, a smallish movie called "Star Wars" opened in just 32 theaters, including the Avco on Wilshire Boulevard. No fanfare, no text-messaged reviews - just a bunch of weird characters, a compelling good vs. evil plotline, and a towering soundtrack. All told, the first "Star Wars" grossed $460 million ($1.4 billion when adjusting for ticket inflation). The overall series generated $4.5 billion. Today's 35th anniversary of the "star Wars" opening is getting lots of attention, but Time's Richard Corliss provided some nice context in a 2006 piece:
The most popular films were the ones that were made for everyone, and that everyone wanted to see once: you, your kids, your mom. That's the broad, if thin, constituency that made blockbusters out of The Love Bug, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Godfather, The Sting--and Jaws, by Lucas' contemporary Steven Spielberg. The majority of these pictures made their money slowly, playing first runs, then gradually reaching the smaller towns and theaters; the theatrical life of one of these crowd-pleasers might be a full year. There were genre movies, of course, but not many science-fiction films.
Star Wars changed everything. It quickly became the top-grossing movie in the 65-year history of feature films (replacing The Sound of Music, if you need evidence of how much things had changed). With its then-wizardly special effects, and the cheerleading use to which they were put, it cued a revival of the s-f genre, which had been a B-movie fad in the 50s. Back then, the kids who gorged on s-f were a Saturday matinee minority. Star Wars arrived just as teen culture was taking over movies. [George] Lucas' film proved that a movie could be a smash by creating a textural density that lured a part of the audience back through the wickets a dozen times. This wasn't your uncle's, and aunt's, hit movie; but if they didn't get it, who cared?
In that same piece, Corliss has an extensive interview with George Lucas in which he says, "I don't have to make money any more. I can just waste it. I call it hobby filmmaking, where you just get to do what you want to do, and you don't have to worry about what anyone thinks about it." As it happens, Lucas did just that early this year with the poorly received "Red Tails," an ambitious telling of the Tuskegee Airmen who flew in World War II. The film cost Lucas $58 million to make - plus marketing and distribution expenses because no studio would touch it.