Star Wars’ First Box Office Win Secretly Ruined Hollywood

In 1977, Star Wars changed Hollywood filmmaking and distribution forever, but its box office success came as it financially destroyed another cinematic masterpiece: William Friedkin’s tough and savagely tense action thriller, Sorcerer (a loose reimagining of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear). Though there are numerous examples of beloved films which are now recognized as classics that initially fell afoul to stiff box office competition, the instance of the first Star Wars movie obliterating Sorcerer is a hugely significant one in cinema history. This moment essentially pinpoints where audiences diverged as it ostensibly ushered in the age of the blockbuster and ended the New Hollywood era – an epoch that afforded more creative control to the director than the studio.

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With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious how Star Wars, with its fantastical imagination, clear-cut morality, and game-changing special effects, would be a hit with audiences. However, its massive success was actually an unexpected shock to the industry. Sorcerer, on the other hand, was the much-anticipated follow-up to Friedkin’s one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist – two Academy Award-winning megahits. However, a film in which a ragtag crew of criminals from different corners of the globe are hired to transport highly unstable nitro-glycerine via trucks across two-hundred miles of treacherous South American jungle proved to be a tough sell against the extravagant draw of Lucas’ film. Sorcerer was originally released after Star Wars but had such a disastrous opening that it was quickly replaced by Lucas' film to satiate the mile-long queues that had already been moved by the Force, highlighting this divide.

Related: Why Movie Theaters Didn't Want To Show Star Wars in 1977

Sorcerer’s failure proved to be one of the final instances wherein a studio afforded a proven director a ton of money and complete freedom to produce whatever he wanted. Though Star Wars was made by affording Lucas the same privileges, its success and Sorcerer’s failure scared studios into exerting more control over their films to oppose the power that many visionary directors were holding over Hollywood. Friedkin was given $22 million to make Sorcerer (roughly $113 million in 2022) – a sum so hefty in the mid-1970s that it required financing from both Universal and Paramount – yet it didn’t even recoup $6 million domestically. Later, Michael Cimino’s even costlier flop, 1980’s monumental western Heaven’s Gate, is generally agreed to be the movie that killed the New Hollywood for good. By contrast, Star Wars' record-setting openings provided a blueprint for success that blockbuster franchises have been trying to build on ever since.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in A New Hope

Perhaps the closest comparison of this kind of cultural shift being indicated by box office figures was when 2008’s Iron Man trounced the Wachowskis' sorely misunderstood Speed Racer – another instance of the blockbuster (this time the nascent MCU juggernaut) proving insurmountable for the idiosyncratic, auteur-led passion project. The conundrum, however, is that while Star Wars and Iron Man were recognized as great films straight away, it took films like Sorcerer and Speed Racer years to be widely embraced – when the financial damage has already been done. Friedkin’s film, an oppressively atmospheric and elemental nail-biter that explores the dark side of destiny, replete with a genuinely grueling sense of dread that permeates its entire two-hour duration (the film’s notorious bridge-crossing centerpiece remains utterly jaw-dropping), was no match for the optimism of Star Wars in 1977.

History, however, has proven Friedkin and Sorcerer right. Many critics who lambasted the film upon its release have since recanted their opinion, now considering it to be a forgotten classic of the 1970s, Friedkin himself considers it to be his finest film, and even professed film-lover Stephen King declared it a favorite movie of his. It also gave legendary synth outfit Tangerine Dream their first score credit, whose influence in providing the soundtrack to so many 1980s classics – Risky Business, Legend, Near Dark, etc. – can still be felt today, primarily with 1980s throwbacks like Stranger Things. So, even though Star Wars became an instant pop culture phenomenon and inspired so many other blockbuster smashes – e.g. the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Jurassic Park franchises – Sorcerer has equally stood the test of time. It only took most audiences forty years to appreciate it.

2022-07-10T22:54:14.000Z

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