Paramount Pictures releases the George Pal-produced movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds in American theaters, starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, and Les Tremayne. Featuring groundbreaking special effects photography and painted space scenes by Chesley Bonestell, the movie is an instant hit, and will later inspire a television revival based on elements of this film.
The first Godzilla movie, Gojira, debuts in Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda and starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata, the film is intended to be an allegory to the ravages of the atomic bomb rather than the beginning of a franchise (though the door is clearly left open to a sequel by dialogue at the close of the movie). The franchise proper will not begin until the first sequel five years later. In the meantime, an American dub of the movie attracts worldwide attention to Gojira, eventually rechristening the character Godzilla for much of the world.
The first Godzilla movie, Gojira, is re-released in America, dubbed into English with additional scenes starring actor Raymond Burr, as Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! Despite the quite noticeable differences between old footage and new, the movie proves popular, and sparks the western world’s obsession with Toho Studios’ signature creation. It is also just the first of several attempts to westernize the Godzilla mythos (chiefly for American audiences).
Director Stanley Kubrick writes to author Arthur C. Clarke, initiating a lengthy discussion about “the proverbial really good science fiction movie”, a discussion which eventually leads to the movie (and novel) 2001: a space odyssey. Kubrick’s letter mentions that he is particularly interested in exploring the theme of the effects that first contact with an alien race would have on humanity.
After a year of story development and refinement, filming begins on 2001: a space odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on a story hashed out between Kubrick and SF writer Arthur C. Clarke from their mutual desire to create “the proverbial good science fiction movie” rather than the man-in-a-monster/robot-suit variety of movie that passes for science fiction in theaters. The film is budgeted at a hefty $10,000,000 – an impressive budget for the mid-1960s – including the construction of a rotating, hamster-wheel-like set for the interior of the spaceship Discovery. The unusual post-production and effects demands of 2001 will keep the movie “in production” for over two years.
Based on the popular television series of the same name, 20th Century Fox’s feature film Batman premieres in American theaters, starring Adam West, Burt Ward, and, reprising their villain roles from the series, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin, while Lee Meriwether takes over the role of Catwoman. With a budget significantly greater than that of its TV counterpart, the movie introduces new Bat-vehicles, including a helicopter and a boat, footage of which will be spliced into many a later episode of the TV series.
Starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, 20th Century Fox’s big-screen release of Planet Of The Apes quickly becomes one of 1968’s movie success stories, and easily one of the year’s two most influential genre films. Propelled into the future aboard a spacecraft from Earth, a trio of astronauts find themselves on a world ruled by sentient apes with no love of humanity whatsoever – for humanity nearly destroyed their world. The studio almost immediately sets the wheels in motion for a sequel.
The product of a four-year collaboration between visionary SF writer Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, MGM’s 2001: a space odyssey premieres, delighting fans of hard SF and bewildering audiences and critics. It is released alongside Clarke’s novel of the same story, which both clarifies some of the more inscrutible story points (such as the reason for the behavior of HAL, the ship’s computer) and confuses others (the book depicts a mission to Saturn; the movie depicts a mission to Jupiter). Many critics and science fiction writers regard the movie as an instant classic of the genre, one which continues to be hugely influential in the years and decades to come.
ABC premieres the two-hour TV movie Earth II, starring Gary Lockwood (2001: a space odyssey) and Mariette Hartley. The movie is intended to serve as a pilot for a potential series, but despite making a powerful impression on science fiction fans, Earth II doesn’t draw a large enough audience to merit a series pickup.
Service Electric Cable, the local cable company in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, embarks on an ambitious experiment, launching a movie channel that only a few hundred of their subscribers pay extra to receive. The channel, Home Box Office, is the brainchild of a New York City broadcasting entrepreneur seeking a workaround for the tendency of the city’s own high-rise architecture to block over-the-air signals. Originally code-named the Green Channel (presumably for the cash it is hoped it will rake in), HBO begins life with a mix of movies and live sports events (such as pro hockey) with no commercial interruption. Within a year, HBO will be acquired by Time-Life, expanding to nine hours of programming every day. With HBO having proven that cable subscribers will pay extra for an ad-free movie and sports channel, competing pay cable networks such as Showtime will spring up in the years to come. HBO also pioneers the concept of broadcasting exclusively via satellite, years ahead of the broadcast networks.
The last of the original cycle of time-bending sequels, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes is released in theaters. Facing diminishing returns, and a desire on the part of 20th Century Fox to exploit the Apes franchise on the small screen, the series comes to a suitably post-apocalyptic end.
Written and directed by science fiction author Michael Crichton, Westworld debuts in theaters, mashing up familiar western tropes with a tale of cyborgs gone mad. Richard Benjamin (Quark), James Brolin, and Yul Brynner guest star; Majel Barrett (Star Trek) and Dick Van Patten play cameo roles. A hit for MGM, Westworld will spawn many attempts to follow up on its success, from the 1976 movie Futureworld to numerous TV revivals well into the 21st century.
With a budget of $8,000,000 behind him, writer/director George Lucas begins filming his ambitious new science fiction film Star Wars. The location shooting in Tunisia is far from easy, with every thing from dust storms to the language barrier between the filmmakers and the locals impeding progress.
The MGM movie Logan’s Run premieres, starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter, and based on the science fiction novel of the same name by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. Set in an unspecified future, Logan’s Run depicts a world where citizens of a domed society must be euthanized at the age of 30 (21 in the original novel), supposedly to alleviate overpopulation; those who try to avoid this fate are labeled runners, to be pursued by armed Sandmen. Logan is a Sandman who finds himself running as his 30th birthday approaches. A television version follows in 1977, though without any of the movie’s cast.
After grueling location shooting in Tunisia and lengthy studio filming at Elstree Studios in England, principal photography wraps up on George Lucas’ Star Wars. But returning to America, Lucas finds his newly-founded special effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic, in disarray, and months of miniature and second-unit filming must still be done before the planned (and later rescheduled) release date of Christmas 1976.
Having tried to find a suitable script for a big-screen relaunch of Star Trek virtually since the cancellation of the television series, Paramount – riding the coattails of the much-publicized unveiling of the Space Shuttle Enterprise – issues a press release announcing that the first Trek movie is finally underway – in this case, a still-in-development script called Star Trek: Planet Of Titans, featuring a radically redesigned Enterprise concept by illustrator Ralph McQuarrie, whose other recent genre work – designs for the yet-to-be-released Star Wars – has yet to make him a household name.
On or around this date in 1976, the very first teaser trailers for an upcoming 20th Century Fox movie called Star Wars is shown in theaters for the first time, with the ominous voice of Malachi Throne (who had, coincidentally, appeared or done voice-overs numerous times in classic Star Trek) declaring that “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.” With no hint of the genre-defining soundtrack music, unfinished visual effects, stand-in stock sound effects, and a logo rendered in Helvetica, the effect is perhaps a bit underwhelming.
In a pre-holiday telegram to 20th Century Fox’s distribution team, the studio’s VP of domestic distribution, Peter Myers, boldly predicts that the upcoming George Lucas film Star Wars could break all standing box office records in America. “Exceptional entertainment usually pays off,” Myers writes, “but when it is coupled with a spectacular and innovative presentation, the critics, opinion makers, and the public will be electrified, and it is quite possible Star Wars will emerge as the all-time box office champion.” Though enthusiastically championed by 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr., Star Wars has thus far been considered a risky prospect by 20th Century Fox shareholders and executives.
At Anvil Studios in Denham, England, John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra convene for the first recording session for the Star Wars soundtrack. Over the course of the next 11 days, and with director George Lucas in attendance in the recording booth, all of the music for Lucas’ movie is rehearsed and recorded. Williams and Lucas had been introduced by their mutual friend Steven Spielberg, with whom Williams had worked on 1975’s Jaws (whose score had gone on to win Williams his second Oscar); Lucas’ original plan was to “score” Star Wars entirely with classical pieces. The first scene scored by Williams and the LSO is the rapid-fire chase through the Death Star, culminating in Luke and Princess Leia swinging across a chasm; other pieces recorded on the first day include the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the iconic theme music.
Marvel Comics begins shipping the first issue of its six-issue adaptation of George Lucas’ upcoming film Star Wars, with Lucas reaping the rewards of the licensing arrangement directly since 20th Century Fox has allowed him to keep all merchandising rights to the yet-to-premiere movie. Adapted from the screenplay and edited by Roy Thomas, with artwork by Howard Chaykin, lettering by Jim Novak and colors by Marie Severin, the first six issues offer an interesting visual take on a universe whose visuals were not finished enough for the artist to view ahead of time. After the six issue movie tie-in, Thomas and Chaykin would begin concocting the budding franchise’s first-ever non-film storylines.
After spending months in development, the much-publicized big-screen relaunch of Star Trek is cancelled by Paramount. Unable to find a satisfactory script, and having great difficulty negotiating with the stars of the TV series, Star Trek: Planet Of The Titans is dumped by the studio, with no other plans to revive Star Trek in the works. Mere weeks later, a record-breaking movie not originating from Paramount convinces the studio to get back into the big-budget science fiction space race.
Boasting a story and characters with universal appeal, a magnificent soundtrack, and special effects unlike anything that had been seen before, George Lucas’ Star Wars arrives, changing the movie industry and geekdom forever. Word-of-mouth – to say nothing of lines of moviegoers winding around the block, eager to immediately see the movie again – spreads like wildfire, and suddenly it’s okay to be a science fiction fan.
The unexpected runaway success of a dark horse in the summer movie race makes for a mad dash for the toy rights. The winner of that race is Kenner Products, the toy division of cereal maker General Mills, and the prize is the exclusive license to market toys and other products based on Star Wars. Prior to the movie’s release, however, George Lucas has convinced 20th Century Fox to allow him to keep all toy licensing rights, meaning that ongoing licensing payments are made directly to Lucas, providing him with the lion’s share of his future wealth. Kenner executive Bernard Loomis finds himself fighting to convince his own sales team that this movie will attract more than a momentary audience. With the late start and the long lead time on design, tooling and manufacture, Loomis concocts an audacious marketing scheme involving an “empty box” available by Christmas.
At a meeting at Paramount, studio head Michael Eisner formally cancels plans for a Star Trek television series reuniting the original cast (a decision made easier by the other networks strong-arming potential advertisers into freezing out Paramount’s network startup attempt) and sets the wheels in motion to revamp the pilot script, Alan Dean Foster’s In Thy Image, into a feature film. Contracts for the series are renegotiated (or in some cases cancelled) for the movie, but scriptwriters and designers continue to work on Trek TV scripts just in case the movie leads to a small-screen resurgence. The impetus for finally getting the long-stalled Star Trek movie underway? 20th Century Fox’s runaway success with Star Wars.
Produced in the wake of Star Wars mania, Meco Menardo’s disco cover of John Williams’ music from Star Wars tops the Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks. A shortened, radio-friendly single is the song certified as #1, although the album version (titled Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk) is an extended suite lasting over 15 minutes and covering most of the movie’s major music themes. Meco would continue to ride the Star Wars train, disco-style, for years to come.
Columbia Pictures releases the Steven-Spielberg-written-and-directed science fiction film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind in American theaters, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, and François Truffaut. A movie about contact with alien life set in modern-day America, Close Encounters (often abbreviated to CE3K) it a genuine hit in its own right, cementing Spielberg’s future connection to the genre and proving that the sudden surge of interest in science fiction was not attributable only to Star Wars.
A series of story conferences begin between Star Wars writer/director George Lucas and science fiction writer Leigh Brackett, the first work toward shaping the storyline for an anticipated (but still untitled) Star Wars sequel film. Lucas has brought Brackett on board to contribute new ideas, but she will only submit a first draft before succumbing to cancer. The conferences continue through early December; the eventual product of these early story meetings will be 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.
Caught completely off-guard by the seemingly unstoppable runaway success of Star Wars, whose toy license it signed on for earlier in the year, toy manufacturer Kenner does something desperate and unprecedented: it sells a mostly-empty box (contents: the Force?) called the Star Wars Early Bird Kit, containing stickers, pictures, and a card to mail off to receive four figures – Luke, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca – by mail sometime between “February and May 1978.” The delay is needed to ramp up production on the figures, which will also be available at retail in 1978. To the surprise of everyone, including Kenner executive Bernard Loomis, who devised the Early Bird Kit, the result is a runaway sales success story.
With an incredibly tight lead time (rights were secured some weeks after Star Wars became a box-office hit), General Mills subsidiary Kenner Toys brings the first Star Wars action figures to market. A dozen characters are sold individually, with a colorful mixture of the film’s heroes (Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Ben Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca) and villains (Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, Death Squad Commander, Tusken Raider, Jawa). While Kenner brings the figures to market in both the industry-standard 12-inch scale and a smaller, cheaper 3 3/4″ scale, marketing focuses almost entirely on the smaller toys, which then redefine the industry-standard size of boys’ character toys (and make any future vehicles and playsets much more affordable). Ironically, prior to the movie’s release when no one expected Star Wars to take off, 20th Century Fox surrendered all toy and merchandising rights to George Lucas, meaning that the runaway success of the toy range is key to his fortune.
Science fiction writer Leigh Brackett, who is battling cancer, turns in her first and only draft of a screenplay simply titled “Star Wars Sequel” (later to be known as The Empire Strikes Back); this early draft includes the notation “Episode II”. Brackett, a golden-age SF writer hired by Lucas to help him generate ideas for the second film, loses her battle with cancer soon afterward, and the screenplay is revamped significantly before shooting, though the finished movie will retain her writing credit.
20th Century Fox files a lawsuit against Hollywood rival Universal Pictures over Universal’s upcoming made-for-TV science fiction saga Battlestar Galactica, which 20th Century Fox contends is a copy of its theatrical smash hit Star Wars. Specificially, the studio behind Star Wars claims that the television series infringes on the script for Star Wars, and requests an injunction to bring production to a halt and keep ABC from airing it. The first decision in the case won’t happen until 1980, by which time Battlestar Galactica will already have ended its TV run.
Still stinging from the business decision to not bid on the Star Wars toy rights, toy maker Mego International is first in line to get the toy license for Walt Disney Studios’ upcoming $20,000,000 science fiction movie The Black Hole, still in pre-production. The license includes action figures and vehicles, and banking on Star Wars levels of popularity, Mego has its products ready to go even before the movie hits theaters in late 1979 (only to see the movie flop in the US).
A California judge sides with 20th Century Fox and Kenner Toys in a million-dollar lawsuit against Hong Kong-based toymaker Arco Industries. At issue in the suit is Arco’s “Spacewar” line of action figures, clearly meant to barely resemble such Star Wars characters as Darth Vader, C-3PO and stormtroopers without actually securing the licensing to do so. Kenner contends that the knock-off toys have been eating into its profits, and Arco is far from the only company to suddenly release generic space figures with designs and sculpts that are suspiciously close to elements of the Star Wars universe.
After nearly a year of George Lucas struggling to revise the script for The Empire Strikes Back after the death of his original co-writer, Leigh Brackett, writer Lawrence Kasdan turns in his revisions for the fourth draft of the movie’s screenplay. Kasdan has been brought on board the Star Wars sequel by Lucas, who is co-producing a movie with Steven Spielberg, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, whose script has also been revised by Kasdan – and at this point, Lucas has yet to read Kasdan’s revisions to the Raiders script.
Heavily promoted and given a prime-time slot on a Friday night in a world starved for more Star Wars, The Star Wars Holiday Special unfolds on CBS, enveloping millions of viewers in the slowly-dawning horror that the promise of a new adventure for Luke, Han and friends has lured them into watching a third-rate variety show, albeit one in which the character of Boba Fett makes his first appearance. George Lucas disowns the Holiday Special almost immediately, and it is never allowed to be repeated again.
Warner Bros. releases the Richard Donner superhero film Superman: The Movie in American theaters, starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, and Marlon Brando. A retelling of the origin story of Kal-El, last son of Krypton, and his arrival on Earth as Clark Kent, the movie successfully introduces a new generation of filmgoers (who may not have been steeped in comic book lore) to the exploits of Superman, turning Reeve into an overnight sensation and ensuring a series of sequels. Though other actors will portray Superman/Clark in years and decades yet to come, for many this film fixes Reeve as the definitive film portrayal of the character.
After a tortured development history dating back to aborted early 1970s attempts to relaunch Star Trek on the big screen, Paramount premieres the much-anticipated (and much hyped) Star Trek: The Motion Picture in theaters. At over two hours, and boasting one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best movie scores, the movie bewilders viewers as much as it thrills them. Paramount claims not to make a profit on the movie at all – primarily by including all of the development costs of years of early movie attempts and the never-made Star Trek Phase II television series as part of the movie’s price tag – but, despite its assertion that the movie lost money, the studio begins making plans for a sequel.
In contrast to 1977, where no toy licensee had a lock on the right to make Star Wars toys until weeks after the movie’s premiere, Kenner rolls out the first toys for The Empire Strikes Back nearly a month ahead of the movie; kids (and their long-suffering parents) make the first wave of figures an immediate sell-out, despite not knowing anything about the movie’s plotline.
With expectations riding higher than they probably ever will for another sequel in movie history, the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, hits theaters and kicks off a whole new wave of merchandise. Yoda, AT-ATs, and Darth Vader’s march are unleashed on the world, while the cliffhanger ending hooks everyone in for the third movie with a shocking reputation about Luke’s lineage.
Long after Glen A. Larson’s science fiction series Battlestar Galactica has completed its run, a California judge throws out 20th Century Fox’s 1978 lawsuit, which alleged that Galactica was too close to elements of Star Wars for the studio’s comfort. (Also at issue, though not specifically mentioned in the legal proceedings, was Universal Studios’ hiring of such Star Wars personnel as FX guru John Dykstra and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to work on Galactica.) Universal’s television series is declared different enough in key areas to not be considered a rip-off – small comfort for the studio, since ABC cancelled had the series earlier in the year. Still, Galactica’s legal status will come into play later, as Universal will later reassert and exploit its rights to the basic Battlestar Galactica storyline in the 21st century. This is not the end of the lawsuit, however; much like both franchises, it too is revived in 1983, and Universal is ordered to pay 20th Century Fox a settlement of nearly a quarter million dollars in 1984.