Celebrating the Star Wars Franchise’s Box Office Impact as The Empire Strikes Back Turns 40

Photo Credits: Disney, Fox

Today, May 21, marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

In celebration of one of the most iconic series in cinema history, we’re taking a look back at what became the template for all modern blockbuster franchises when George Lucas’ space-fantasy epic took the world by storm over four decades ago, launching a series of eleven (so far) live action films that have captivated and inspired generations of fans.

From 1977 to 2019, this is the box office story of Star Wars… so far.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
May 25, 1977

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws may have been the first film to ever clear $100 million at the domestic box office (doing so with $260 million in its original 1975 run), but George Lucas’s ode to Saturday morning serials and classic mythology set the standard by which all blockbusters are now judged in terms of both box office performance and cultural impact.

A New Hope, when it was originally titled just plain ol’ Star Wars, was a hit out of the gate with $1.55 million from 43 locations during its four-day Memorial Weekend opening, a figure which it continued to build on for months as it went on to earn $307.3 million by the end of its first run — nearly tripling the next-best grosser of 1977 (Smokey and the Bandit, $126.7 million) and skyrocketing to the top of the all-time box office chart.

The film would add another $15.5 million to its haul with a 1982 re-release, but its 1997 Special Edition re-release reintroduced existing fans and helped spawned a new generation of them when it earned another $138.3 million domestically, still representing the highest box office revenue of any re-release in history. Adjusted for inflation, A New Hope‘s modern day box office would translate to nearly $1.5 billion from North America alone. It is estimated to be among the top ticket-sellers in history — with very few examples like 1940’s Gone with the Wind considered to be challengers to that title.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
May 21, 1980

When the first film turned out to be a massive phenomenon, Lucas knew he could continue telling his story of the Skywalker family — and the world was eager to see it. The Empire Strikes Back debuted three years after the original film’s enormous success and drew $6.4 million over its four-day Memorial Weekend launch, more than four times its predecessor (albeit, with triple the number of locations at 126).

Reception, as you know, was nothing short of shocking to fans at the time with the final act reveal of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father. It’s the kind of plot twist that would be at high risk of being spoiled on social media in this day and age, but one that stunned moviegoers and has gone on to become one of the most referenced and parodied plot twists of all time.

Winning its box office year in 1980, Empire continued the streak of changing the movie business as we know it. Even though the film took the bronze medal in the original trilogy’s box office standings with $209.4 million in its original run — plus another $13.3 million in 1982 and $67.6 million in 1997 — Empire is often held up by film critics as a gold standard of sequels and trilogy middle-acts.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
May 25, 1983

By the time most of the world knew about Luke’s lineage, three years later, the conclusion to Lucas’s first trilogy was primed for more box office records. As the industry kept evolving during those times, Return of the Jedi was able to leverage the franchise’s previous success into a nationwide opening at 1,002 locations in North America over Memorial Weekend in 1983. In the process, it broke the previous opening weekend record (held by 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, $14.35 million) with a $23 million three-day bow and $30.5 million four-day holiday take.

For the third time in as many tries, a Star Wars film was the top grossing release of its year by more than a two-to-one margin. Jedi ultimately closed out its first run with $252.6 million before an $11.3 million re-release in 1985, and of course, another $45.5 million in 1997.

The trilogy had come to an end, but the franchise and its appeal to generations of fans was only just beginning.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
May 19, 1999

Years (nearly decades) of anticipation… A new generation of kids growing up on the original trilogy at home and with 1997’s Special Edition re-releases… The most penetrative, large-scale marketing campaign of any film in history up to that point (even MTV was airing a John Williams music video for “Duel of the Fates”)…

All of these elements played into massive expectations for Lucas’s long-simmering, first-in-a-new-trilogy prequel, and the results showed it. Phantom Menace delivered the second biggest opening in history with $64.8 million on opening weekend in 1999, just missing out on The Lost World: Jurassic Park‘s $72.1 million record (due to the latter opening on Friday sans Thursday night shows, whereas Phantom opened on a Wednesday).

Reception was infamously mixed due to the reasons you’re likely aware of and which need not be covered ad nauseum (Jar Jar, acting, etc.), but Episode I still proved to be a massive success as it attracted fans and families all summer long — never dropping more than 36% until its 17th weekend of release.

Despite vocal criticism from some die hard fans of the original trilogy, kids loved the film while casual fans were a little more forgiving of its flaws, sending the prequel to $431.1 million domestically (before another $43.5 million with 2012’s 3D re-release).

Even though many felt this was the movie that could have dethroned Titanic‘s $600 million as the top box office run in history at the time, Phantom was still the top earner of its year, and to this day, one of the most attended films of the past 25 years — surpassed only by a later Star Wars film in 2015, Avatar, and Avengers: Endgame.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
May 16, 2002

With the promise of an adult Anakin and a stronger focus on Ewan McGregor’s popular portrayal of young Obi-Wan Kenobi, fans were cautiously optimistic about the middle act of Lucas’s prequel trilogy leading up to release. The film opened even higher than Phantom with $80 million on opening weekend (excluding its Thursday opening day), representing the highest weekend yet in the franchise — though it was third for the year behind Spider-Man ($114.8 million) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ($88.4 million).

For years, Lucas warned this film was going to be the least kid-friendly due to its romantic plot revolving around Anakin and Padme, and he was right. Not unlike its second act counterpart, Empire, box office returns for Attack of the Clones ended up serving as the tail end of the prequel trilogy as it finished with $310.7 million domestically.

Die hard fan reactions were again split, another factor contributing to this film’s standing as the first Star Wars film not to become the top box office earner of the year. Clones finished third behind Spider-Man ($403.7 million) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ($339.8 million), but — as always — audiences were still eager to see how Lucas’s prequel story would end.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
May 19, 2005

Anticipation was through the roof by early 2005 with marketing for this trilogy finale emphasizing the full transition of Anakin into Darth Vader, and the long promised final battle between he and his mentor, Obi-Wan.

Revenge of the Sith delivered the first $50 million day in box office history when it opened on a Thursday (mirroring Clones‘ release strategy), leading into a $108.4 million traditional weekend opening — the second highest in history at the time behind the aforementioned Spider-Man and just ahead of 2004’s Shrek 2 ($108.0 million).

With some of the most positive reception among the prequels from fans and general audiences, Sith returned the franchise to its winning ways as the top earner of 2005 with $380.3 million. Despite the darker themes and a first-for-Star Wars PG-13 rating keeping back some of the younger kids often responsible for making up a big portion of repeat viewings, plus the loss of older fans already upset by the first two prequels, Episode III sent the trilogy and Lucas himself out on relative high notes.

At the time, and for several years after, Lucas’s full control over the series and his promise that he wouldn’t make any more films left many wondering if there would ever be another Star Wars film again.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
December 18, 2015

In late 2012, Disney and Lucasfilm dropped the bombshell news that the former had purchased the latter and virtually all rights to the Star Wars franchise. It was a move that took the industry by surprise, provided George Lucas with an even more comfortable retirement fund, and naturally, led to intense speculation and anticipation about the inevitable continuation of live action Star Wars films.

Episode VII, much like the early films, wasn’t without its production issues of delays and rewrites, but fans were encouraged by J.J. Abrams’s role in the director’s chair and Lawrence Kasdan’s return as screenwriter after his work on Empire and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The hype train was immediate, and the internet salivated at every drop of casting and production news.

Disney mounted a monumental campaign throughout 2015 with just as many, if not more, marketing tie-ins and promotions than Phantom Menace did sixteen years earlier. Online ticketing sites crashed in October as pre-sales began, and records were demolished come December as Force Awakens delivered an astonishing $248 million opening weekend just seven days before Christmas break (including the first ever $100 million+ opening day), a figure that was long considered to be impossible outside summer months. It remains the biggest December (and non-Avengers) opening ever.

By and large, audiences hadn’t been this in love with Star Wars in nearly two decades. No Star Wars film has been without its share of detractors, but Force built on its all-time record debut and kept chugging into the new year before amassing $936.7 million domestically to become the highest grossing domestic release in history — surpassing the six-year-reigning champ, Avatar‘s $760.5 million, by over 23 percent.

The Force Awakens brought back nostalgic fans in droves while forming new ones among millennials and Gen Yers, proving to rank among the biggest cinematic events in history. As of 2020, The Force Awakens remains the top domestic earner of all time and the fourth-highest globally with $2.07 billion.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
December 16, 2016

Riding the wave of Force Awakens‘ momentum, Lucasfilm returned one year later with a story many fans had been eager to see told for years: just how did the Rebel Alliance get those plans to the Death Star in the original 1977 film?

They got their answer, and with Star Wars still on the collective culture’s mind, this prequel featuring mostly unknown characters achieved a $155.1 million opening weekend — cementing mid-to-late December as Disney’s go-to corridor for Star Wars after two successful attempts.

In technical terms, while not considered part of the episodic Skywalker Saga, Rogue One became the top earning “prequel” with $532.2 million domestically by the end of its run — and the seventh of eight live action Star Wars films to become the top box office earner of its release year.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
December 15, 2017

The Star Wars juggernaut was running full steam ahead leading into this middle chapter of the sequel trilogy in the new Disney era, with goodwill from both Force Awakens and Rogue One helping to drive another massive opening to the tune of a $220 million weekend.

Unfortunately, reactions returned to their divisive ways among fans — perhaps never more seemingly at the forefront because of social media, a medium which elevated those unhappy voices in a way never before seen for the franchise even during the prequel era. Camps were formed in the “love it or hate it” groups, generally speaking, as many defended writer/director Rian Johnson’s take on the mythos and the implications of his story choices.

Last Jedi ultimately finished its domestic run with $620.2 million, enough to provide the franchise with another yearly box office crown. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, though, this was the Star Wars film that most shook things up, for better or worse, “depending on your own point of view.”

Solo: A Star Wars Story
May 25, 2018

It was always going to be a challenge creating a prequel to one of the most beloved characters of the franchise, and the behind-the-scenes drama which came to an unfortunate climax in a very public way with a directorial change mid-production underlined that reality.

When Solo was announced, fans were cautious in their expectations of what could be established as Han Solo’s backstory. Still, many were excited by the prospect of learning how he met Chewbecca and Lando during their early adventures, an aspect that ultimately proved to be one of the most popular of the final product. (Reception, in fact, wasn’t dissimilar to that of the prequels if one were to judge by critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The film’s $103 million four-day Memorial Weekend bow was perceived as a disappointment by pundits and jaded viewers. Realistically, though, it — and the eventual $213.8 million domestic finish — may have been viewed in a more positive light had the budget not ballooned and had the film been allowed one creative voice from the writing and directing side.

This was never expected to be an event film on the level of the episodic titles, but it was an unfortunate first major misstep for the franchise that many feel was conceived by a few too many cooks in the kitchen. In fairness, the film has many advocates — particularly given the difficult task Ron Howard was assigned in taking over the film mid-production.

Unfortunately, this was only the second time in franchise history in which a live action Star Wars pic didn’t win its box office year. It finished twelfth.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
December 20, 2019

Billed as not just the end to the sequel trilogy, but also the end of the nine-part Skywalker Saga, Disney went all in by bringing J.J. Abrams back to cap off their initial trio of episodic films.

Breaking with the trend of third acts out-performing the second in Star Wars history, though, anticipation for Rise was hindered by the audience division and missteps of Solo and Last Jedi in such a sort time span. Episode IX launched with $177.4 million on opening weekend, though, which was still enough to rank third among all Star Wars movies.

Critics who supported Johnson’s storytelling direction in Last Jedi were let down by Rise‘s turnabout face to try and conclude story threads established in Force Awakens, but some fans were generally more receptive to the final chapter of Rey and Kylo Ren’s trilogy as this film earned a similar audience score to Force Awakens on Rotten Tomatoes.

The divides were too fresh and too deep, though. Despite more apparent enthusiasm from general audiences than its predecessor, the trilogy-capper had to settle for a $515.2 million domestic run that marked the third highest of 2019 behind Avengers: Endgame ($858.4 million) and The Lion King remake ($543.6 million).

By any other franchise’s standards, it would have been viewed as a massive success. The rich history of Star Wars and its importance to so many people — combined with the general opinion that this trilogy’s storytelling needed one creative voice leading the way for all three films — resulted in more taking the “love it or hate it” side.

In the end, though, that’s something that can be said about the vast majority of Star Wars films, and it emphasizes the passion that continues to drive renewed interest — and evolving opinions — over time as these films age and are discovered by new generations. In the vein of the great mythologies handed down over time, history tends to tell the final story. Just as criticisms of the older films and the prequels have subsided over time, so too may the division of the sequel trilogy.

Eight yearly box office champions and more than $5 billion in domestic ticket sales over the last 43 years is hard to diminish in any way. In the end, every iteration of Star Wars and its influence on the world remains indelible.

Photo Credits: Disney, Fox
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