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The Force Defeated: Remembering "The Empire Strikes Back" on its 35th Anniversary

May 21, 2015 - 5:12 pm   |   by

The Empire Strikes Back joins The Godfather, Part II as one of the rarest of films—a sequel that lives up to and expands upon its original.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

There is no question this year is a huge one for fans of Star Wars. While the whole galaxy awaits Episode VII: The Force Awakens, let us not forget this year also marks the 35th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, one of the most revered sequels of all time. The Digital Bits celebrates the occasion with this retrospective featuring a compilation of box-office data that places Empire’s performance in context, quotes from well-known movie critics, production and exhibition information, a list of the opening-week, limited-market theaters that were the first anywhere to play the movie, and an interview segment with a group of filmmakers and historians who discuss the attributes of the movie and examine why Empire is frequently labeled the fan favorite.  [Read on here...]

 

EMPIRE NUMBER$

  • 1 = Rank on list of top-grossing films of 1980
  • 1 = Rank on list of top box-office rentals of 1980
  • 2 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 2 = Rank on all-time list of top film rentals at close of run (domestic)
  • 2 = Rank on all-time list of top film rentals at close of run (worldwide)
  • 2 = Rank on all-time list of top-grossing films at close of run (worldwide)
  • 3 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 3 = Rank on all-time list of top-grossing films at close of run (domestic)
  • 11 = Number of weeks top-grossing film (weeks 1-3 and 5-12)
  • 12 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing films (adjusted for inflation)
  • 54 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
  • 59 = Number of days to surpass $100 million*
  • 61 = Number of weeks of longest-running engagement
  • 62 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing films
  • 127 = Number of opening-week bookings
  • 823 = Number of bookings during first week of wide release
  • *Established new industry record
  • $38,972 = Opening-weekend per screen average
  • $1.3 million = Opening-day box-office gross
  • $4.9 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (3-day)
  • $5.0 million = Amount of profit Lucas shared with cast & crew and Lucasfilm employees
  • $6.4 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (4-day)
  • $7.4 million = Box-office rental (1982 re-release)
  • $9.6 million = Opening-week box-office gross (7-day)
  • $10.8 million = Box-office gross for first weekend of wide release (823 theaters, June 20-22, 1980)
  • $13.3 million = Box-office gross (1982 re-release)
  • $14.2 million = Box-office rental (1981 re-release)
  • $28.0 million = Box-office gross (1981 re-release)
  • $34.0 million = Amount 20th Century-Fox received in advance guarantees from exhibitors
  • $32.0 million = Production cost
  • $40.0 million = Amount 20th Century-Fox earned in distribution fees
  • $67.6 million = Box-office gross (1997 re-release)
  • $91.7 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $120.0 million = Box-office rental (original release)
  • $134.2 million = Box-office rental (original release + 1981 re-release)
  • $141.6 million = Box-office rental (original release + 1981 & 1982 re-releases)
  • $165.0 million = Box-office rental (worldwide, original release)
  • $181.4 million = Box-office gross (original release)
  • $209.4 million = Box-office gross (original release + 1981 re-release)
  • $222.7 million = Box-office gross (original release + 1981 & 1982 re-releases)
  • $290.5 million = Box-office gross (original + 81, 82 & 97 re-releases)
  • $365.0 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, original release)
  • $538.4 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $797.2 million = Box-office gross (cumulative domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $1.5 billion = Box-office gross (cumulative worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

 

A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES

The Empire Strikes Back is a worthy sequel to Star Wars, equal in both technical mastery and characterization, suffering only from the familiarity with the effects generated in the original and imitated too much by others. Only box-office question is how many earthly trucks it will take to carry the cash to the bank.” — Jim Harwood, Variety

Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, like all superior fantasies, have the quality of parable, not only on good and evil but on attitudes toward life and personal deportment and there is something very like a moral imperative in the films’ view of hard work, determination, self-improvement, concentration, and idealism. It does not take a savant to see that this uplifting tone only a little less than the plot and effects is a central ingredient of the wide outreach of the films.” — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

The Empire Strikes Back is a lifeless copy of Star Wars propelled chiefly on the momentum of that earlier film. Without the likes of a Peter Cushing or Alec Guiness to add some dignity and solid support, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford flounder in roles that are certain to doom their careers regardless of the series’ success. Critics who labeled this film ‘better than Star Wars’ must have been watching the audience instead of the performance.” — Frederick S. Clarke, Cinefantastique

“This is no ordinary sequel. Lucas and his company have used their Star Wars profits to make a film far more sophisticated in its technical effects. Lucas’ imagination is as bountiful as ever, and he seems to have taken up where Disney left off. There are disappointments in The Empire, but it retains that special sense that fairy tales have—a moral dimension that touches us much more deeply than one-dimensional action adventures can.” — Gerald Clarke, Time

“Amazingly, the sequel to Star Wars is almost as good as the original movie, and it should be just as successful. Less frenetic and less rounded, it has the compensating virtues of more complex relationships and even more dazzling special effects.” — Richard Freedman, The (Springfield, MA) Morning Union

“The film’s problem is that the ending isn’t really an ending. So many loose ends are left dangling that one finds almost maddening the prospect of waiting three years for the third movie to resolve the situation.” — Paul Johnson, (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette

“Along with its breathtakingly spectacular special effects, the film is to be applauded for its ability to incorporate the themes, values and characters of the first film and move ahead without repeating itself.” — Eric Gerber, The Houston Post

“Visually, the new installment conveys a sense of generosity that surpasses even the original: in any corner of the frame one can discover a delightfully gratuitous detail—a space lizard climbing up a tree, a puff of rocket exhaust, a barely glimpsed robot—that creates a sense of a totally inhabited fantasy world. The Empire Strikes Back is a technological triumph, a cornucopia of intergalactic tchotchkes.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

“The long-awaited sequel to Star Wars is equal to its stellar predecessor. It’s a first rate achievement that shouldn’t be missed.” — Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

“When I went to see The Empire Strikes Back I found myself glancing at my watch almost as often as I did when I was sitting through a truly terrible movie called The Island…. The Empire Strikes Back is, perhaps, proof of something I’ve been suspecting for some time now. That is, that there is more nonsense being written, spoken and rumored about movies today than about any of the other so-called popular arts except rock music. The Force is with us, indeed, and a lot of it is hot air…. The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from a bank…. I assume that Lucas supervised the entire production and made the major decisions or, at least, approved of them. It looks like a movie that was directed at a distance. At this point the adventures of Luke, Leia and Han Solo appear to be a self-sustaining organism, beyond criticism except on a corporate level.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

Empire is the only motion-picture sequel I can think of—ever—that is not less effective than the original. Usually, the popular elements of a hit film become the ingredients of the sequel formula, repeated in the hope that large audiences will again flock to see the same things they loved the first time around. If Lucas was that kind of filmmaker, Empire would have included another cantina, another garbage compactor, another planetary destruction and another regal ending. But it didn’t. And we didn’t get the Star Trek treatment either—wherein characters we all know and love recite their standard familiar lines all over again.” — Kerry O’Quinn, Starlog

“Even for those without the tunnel vision of a movie fanatic, The Empire Strikes Back rivals the numerous world crises as one of the day’s important topics. We can all relax—and, for that matter, maybe even rejoice. The Empire Strikes Back is funnier, spookier, more technically advanced and frequently just as clever as Star Wars, its record-breaking antecedent. It also makes Superman seem like a soggy Milk Dud and Star Trek: The Motion Picture seem like evaporated milk.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“A more impressive and harrowing magic carpet ride than its fundamentally endearing predecessor, Empire pulls the carpet out from under you while simultaneously soaring along.” — Gary Arnold, The Washington Post

“In a notably unexciting year for American movies, the long-awaited sequel to Star Wars stands out as an impressive, bountiful entertainment stuffed with goodies that should satisfy the most rabid fans of the original—while baffling newcomers unfamiliar with the Star Wars characters and jargon…. The picture isn’t as funny as Star Wars, and its different sections aren’t as smoothly coordinated. On the other hand, Kershner gives the material a sense of peril and tension that the original conspicuously lacked. If the first film was adventure-as-a-lark; Empire is adventure with menace and meaning.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“It is a dazzling feast for the eye, the sort of film with so much going on in each frame you want to see it again immediately.” — Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer

“As with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back is the sort of movie that will delight the little kid in everyone. The fun comes not only from the special effects and the large-than-life storyline, but also from some very snappy dialogue, particularly the exchanges between Leia and Solo and between See Threepio and Artoo-Detoo, and from director Irvin Kershner’s success at finding room to develop the characters amid all the laser blasts and other battle mayhem.” — Steve Millburg, Omaha World-Herald

The Empire Strikes Back has arrived. And it’s wonderful…the audience is on its feet cheering.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Empire’s effects are dazzling but the characters are pure comic strip.” — Bill von Maurer, The Miami News

The Empire Strikes Back joins The Godfather, Part II as one of the rarest of films—a sequel that lives up to and expands upon its original…. It’s not an exaggeration to compare the world of Star Wars to the Land of Oz. The Star Wars saga—a series of nine planned films—promises to be an even more complete world than Oz, and just as enduring. The appeal of visiting Oz is that it is a magical place over the rainbow. The appeal of Star Wars and, now, The Empire Strikes Back, is that it also takes us to a magical place—the childhood of our mind.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

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THE ORIGINAL ENGAGEMENTS

Between May 17th and 20th, 1980, a series of charity premieres in various cities were held for The Empire Strikes Back. The first of these screenings, which doubled as the film’s world premiere, was held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Listed below are the theaters in the United States and Canada that opened Empire on May 21st, 1980. Unlike a nationwide, saturation launch commonplace today, Empire opened initially on only 127 screens in 125 theaters in 89 markets. All of these “first wave” bookings were shown in 70-millimeter and Six-Track Dolby Stereo (with the exception of a couple of drive-in bookings). These were the only theaters that showed the movie during its first month of release. The duration of the engagements, measured in weeks, has been included in parenthesis after each entry to illustrate the movie’s success.

Also on May 21st, Empire opened in London at the Odeon Leicester Square and was the only international booking to open on the same day as the United States and Canada. A day earlier, on May 20th, the film was given a Royal Premiere with members of the Royal Family in attendance.

During its fifth week, Empire’s release was expanded by about 700 bookings (mostly in 35mm), with additional bookings added weekly throughout the summer and into autumn. By the end of the movie’s lengthy run it had played more than 1,500 engagements (plus hundreds more internationally) and, not surprisingly, was 1980’s top-grossing motion picture. These subsequent-wave bookings have not been cited in the list below.

70mm-Dolby-1980

ALABAMA

No theaters in Alabama played Empire during Release Wave #1

ALASKA

No theaters in Alaska played Empire during Release Wave #1

ALBERTA

  • Calgary — Famous Players PALLISER SQUARE TWIN (20 weeks)
  • Edmonton — Famous Players PARAMOUNT (29)

ARIZONA

  • Phoenix — Plitt CINE CAPRI (30)

ARKANSAS

  • Little Rock — United Artists CINEMA 150 (20)

BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Vancouver — Famous Players STANLEY (18)

CALIFORNIA

  • Corte Madera — Marin CINEMA (18)
  • Fountain Valley — Pacific FOUNTAIN VALLEY DRIVE-IN (17) <35mm>
  • Fresno — Festival Enterprises FESTIVAL 6 (38)
  • Los Angeles — General Cinema Corporation AVCO CENTER CINEMA I-II-III (22)
  • Los Angeles — United Artists EGYPTIAN I-II-III (30)
  • Newport Beach — Edwards NEWPORT TWIN (25)
  • Orange — Syufy CINEDOME 6 (#1: 30)
  • Orange — Syufy CINEDOME 6 (#2: 11)
  • Paramount — Pacific ROSECRANS 3 DRIVE-IN (#1: 9) <35mm>
  • Paramount — Pacific ROSECRANS 3 DRIVE-IN (#2: 4) <35mm>
  • Sacramento — Syufy CENTURY 6 (39)
  • San Diego — Pacific CINERAMA (30)
  • San Francisco — Plitt NORTHPOINT (28)
  • San Jose — Syufy CENTURY 22 TRIPLEX (43)

COLORADO

  • Denver — Commonwealth COOPER (30)

CONNECTICUT

  • East Hartford — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 8 (30)
  • Orange — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 5 (18)
  • Stamford — Trans-Lux RIDGEWAY (16)

DELAWARE

  • Claymont — SamEric 3 TRI-STATE MALL (30)

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

  • Washington — Kogod-Burka CINEMA (29)

FLORIDA

  • North Miami Beach — Wometco 163RD STREET (22)
  • South Miami — Wometco DADELAND TWIN (21)
  • Winter Park — Wometco PARK TWIN (23)

GEORGIA

  • Atlanta — Plitt PHIPPS PLAZA 1-2-3 (30)

HAWAII

  • Honolulu — Consolidated CINERAMA (30)

IDAHO

No theaters in Idaho played Empire during Release Wave #1

ILLINOIS

  • Belleville — Bloomer Amusement Company CINEMA (14)
  • Calumet City — Plitt RIVER OAKS 1-2-3-4 (19)
  • Champaign — Kerasotes VIRGINIA (20)
  • Chicago — General Cinema Corporation FORD CITY CINEMA I-II-III (16)
  • Chicago — Plitt ESQUIRE (18)
  • Lombard — General Cinema Corporation YORKTOWN CINEMA I-II-III-IV (18)
  • Moline — Dubinsky PARKWAY (26)
  • Niles — Fink GOLF MILL 1-2-3 (19)
  • Norridge — Marks & Rosenfield NORRIDGE 1-2-3-4 (16)
  • Orland Park — Plitt ORLAND SQUARE 1-2-3-4 (16)
  • Peoria — Plitt MADISON (16)
  • Schaumburg — Plitt WOODFIELD 1-2-3-4 (18)
  • Springfield — Kerasotes ESQUIRE 1-2-3-4 (18)

INDIANA

  • Fort Wayne — Mallers-Spirou HOLIDAY TWIN (20)
  • Indianapolis — Young & Wolf EASTWOOD (23)

IOWA

  • Des Moines — Dubinsky RIVER HILLS (30)
  • Dubuque — Dubuque Theatre Corporation CINEMA CENTER 4 (12)

KANSAS

  • Wichita — Dickinson MALL (22)

KENTUCKY

  • Erlanger — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 6 (36)
  • Lexington — Mid States NORTHPARK 6 (14)
  • Lexington — Mid States SOUTHPARK 6 (30)
  • Louisville — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 9 (37)

LOUISIANA

  • Metairie — General Cinema Corporation LAKESIDE CINEMA I-II-III-IV-V (20)

MAINE

No theaters in Maine played Empire during Release Wave #1

MANITOBA

No theaters in Manitoba played Empire during Release Wave #1

MARYLAND

  • Towson — Rappaport HILLENDALE TWIN (19)

MASSACHUSETTS

  • Boston — Sack CHARLES 1-2-3 (22)
  • Seekonk — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 6 (19)
  • West Springfield — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 8 (18)
  • Worcester — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 4 (17)

MICHIGAN

  • Bloomfield Hills — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 5 (17)
  • Burton — Plitt EASTLAND MALL (18)
  • Harper Woods — Suburban Detroit EASTLAND 1-2 (18)
  • Livonia — Suburban Detroit TERRACE 1-2 (30)
  • Southfield — Nicholas George AMERICANA COMPLEX 1-2-3-4 (28)
  • Southgate — Nicholas George SOUTHGATE TRIPLEX (29)
  • Sterling Heights — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 7 (30)

MINNESOTA

  • Bloomington — General Cinema Corporation SOUTHTOWN (28)
  • Brooklyn Center — Plitt BROOKDALE (30)
  • Roseville — General Cinema Corporation HAR-MAR CINEMA I-II-III (29)

MISSISSIPPI

No theaters in Mississippi played Empire during Release Wave #1

MISSOURI

  • Creve Coeur — Wehrenberg CREVE COEUR (30)
  • Kansas City — American Multi-Cinema MIDLAND / EMPIRE 7 (27)

MONTANA

No theaters in Montana played Empire during Release Wave #1

NEBRASKA

  • Omaha — Douglas CINEMA CENTER 4 (20)

NEVADA

No theaters in Nevada played Empire during Release Wave #1

NEW BRUNSWICK

No theaters in New Brunswick played Empire during Release Wave #1

NEW HAMPSHIRE

No theaters in New Hampshire played Empire during Release Wave #1

NEW JERSEY

  • Edison — General Cinema Corporation MENLO PARK CINEMA I & II (23)
  • Lawrenceville — SamEric TWIN LAWRENCEVILLE (20)
  • Moorestown — SamEric PLAZA MOORESTOWN (22)
  • Paramus — RKO Stanley-Warner ROUTE 4 QUAD (23)

NEW MEXICO

No theaters in New Mexico played Empire during Release Wave #1

NEW YORK

  • Cheektowaga — Holiday Theater Inc. HOLIDAY 6 (20)
  • Colonie — Cinema 5 COLONIE TWIN (19)
  • DeWitt — CinemaNational SHOPPINGTOWN TWIN (22)
  • Lawrence — RKO Stanley-Warner LAWRENCE TRIPLEX (20)
  • Levittown — Loews NASSAU QUAD (23)
  • New York — Cinema 5 MURRAY HILL (19)
  • New York — Loews ASTOR PLAZA (20)
  • New York — Loews ORPHEUM TWIN (18)
  • Pittsford — Loews PITTSFORD TRIPLEX (30)
  • Yonkers — General Cinema Corporation CENTRAL PLAZA CINEMA I & II (18)

NEWFOUNDLAND

No theaters in Newfoundland played Empire during Release Wave #1

NORTH CAROLINA

  • Charlotte — Plitt PARK TERRACE 1-2 (30)
  • Fayetteville — Consolidated BORDEAUX 1-2-3 (28)
  • Greensboro — Plitt TERRACE 1-2-3 (19)
  • Raleigh — Plitt CARDINAL 1-2 (28)
  • Winston-Salem — Plitt THRUWAY 1-2 (19)

NORTH DAKOTA

No theaters in North Dakota played Empire during Release Wave #1

NOVA SCOTIA

No theaters in Nova Scotia played Empire during Release Wave #1

OHIO

  • Columbus — Mid States CONTINENT 7 (30)
  • Dayton — Chakeres DAYTON MALL 1-2-3-4 (30)
  • Springdale — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 6 (36)
  • Toledo — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS 4 (30)
  • Trotwood — Mid States SALEM MALL 4 (29)
  • Whitehall — Sugarman CINEMA EAST (20)

OKLAHOMA

No theaters in Oklahoma played Empire during Release Wave #1

ONTARIO

  • Hamilton — Famous Players TIVOLI (18)
  • London — Famous Players PARK (18)
  • Toronto — Famous Players UNIVERSITY (18)
  • Windsor — Famous Players CENTRE (18)

OREGON

  • Beaverton — Luxury Theatres WESTGATE TRIPLEX (37)
  • Eugene — Luxury Theatres CINEMA WORLD QUAD (33)

PENNSYLVANIA

  • Allentown — SamEric ALLENTOWN 3 (19)
  • Bensalem Township — American Multi-Cinema PREMIERE 2 (30)
  • King of Prussia — SamEric TWIN PLAZA (20)
  • McCandless — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS NORTH 8 (18)
  • Philadelphia — SamEric SAMERIC (30)
  • Pittsburgh — Cinemette WARNER (16)
  • Robinson Township — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS WEST 5 (30)
  • Wilkins Township — Redstone SHOWCASE CINEMAS EAST 5 (17)

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND

No theaters in Prince Edward Island played Empire during Release Wave #1

QUEBEC

  • Montreal — Odeon PLACE DU CANADA (17)

RHODE ISLAND

No theaters in Rhode Island played Empire during Release Wave #1

SASKATCHEWAN

No theaters in Saskatchewan played Empire during Release Wave #1

SOUTH CAROLINA

No theaters in South Carolina played Empire during Release Wave #1

SOUTH DAKOTA

No theaters in South Dakota played Empire during Release Wave #1

TENNESSEE

  • Memphis — Southern Theatre Service PARK (23)
  • Nashville — Martin BELLE MEADE (12)

TEXAS

  • Austin — American Multi-Cinema AMERICANA (30)
  • Dallas — American Multi-Cinema PRESTONWOOD 5 (38)
  • Dallas — General Cinema Corporation NORTHPARK CINEMA I & II (23)
  • Fort Worth — Plitt RIDGLEA (30)
  • Houston — American Multi-Cinema WESTCHASE 5 (38)
  • Houston — Plitt ALABAMA (28)

UTAH

  • Riverdale — Tullis-Hansen CINEDOME 70 TWIN (30)
  • Salt Lake City — Plitt CENTRE (30)

VERMONT

No theaters in Vermont played Empire during Release Wave #1

VIRGINIA

  • Springfield — General Cinema Corporation SPRINGFIELD MALL CINEMA I-II-III-IV-V-VI (30)

WASHINGTON

  • Seattle — United Artists CINEMA 150 (61)
  • Tacoma — Sterling Recreation Organization TACOMA MALL TWIN (30)

WEST VIRGINIA

No theaters in West Virginia played Empire during Release Wave #1

WISCONSIN

  • Fox Point — Capitol BROWN PORT (18)
  • Wauwatosa — United Artists MAYFAIR (30)
  • West Allis — Marcus SOUTHTOWN TRIPLEX (30)

WYOMING

No theaters in Wyoming played Empire during Release Wave #1

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PRODUCTION & EXHIBITION INFORMATION + TRIVIA

The Empire Strikes Back was the first sequel to gross over $100 million at the box office.

The longest, most-successful engagement of Empire was a 61-week run in Seattle at the UA Cinema 150.

Empire was test screened on April 19, 1980, at the Northpoint in San Francisco.

The first public screening of Empire (in finished form) was held on May 17, 1980, in Washington, DC. Attending the event, which took place at the Kennedy Center and was a benefit for the Special Olympics, were director Irvin Kershner, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, producer Gary Kurtz, and stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, and Peter Mayhew. Important political figures who attended included Ted Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Eunice Shriver and Amy Carter (daughter of then-President Jimmy Carter).

Empire was the first Star Wars movie to feature an episode number and subtitle. (The full on-screen title is Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back.) Prints of the original Star Wars were numbered and re-titled a year afterEmpire’s release.

In terms of box-office gross, The Empire Strikes Back is the least successful Star Wars movie. Adjusted for inflation, however, it is the second-highest-grossing movie in the series.

Paul Simon’s 1980 movie, One-Trick Pony, was filmed in New York City during the exhibition of The Empire Strikes Back. Characters can be seen exiting a movie theater playing Empire during one scene. A large Empire logo is visible on an exit door and moviegoers can be seen carrying the film’s program booklets and comic-book adaptation.

Empire won an Academy Award for Best Sound. It also received a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects. (Visual Effects was not a competitive category for 1980.) In addition, the film was nominated, but did not win, in the categories of Art Direction and Original Score. Other awards included four Saturns, one BAFTA, one Grammy, one Hugo, and a People’s Choice award for Favorite Motion Picture. (John Williams’ Best Original Score nomination was his 15th of what has become an astounding 49 nominations, including five wins.)

Principal photography commenced on March 5, 1979, in Finse, Norway, and concluded (several weeks over schedule) on September 24, 1979, at EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, England. The visual effects were created during 1979-80 at Industrial Light & Magic, in Marin County, California.

A fire at Elstree during the production of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining destroyed a soundstage which contributed to Empire going over schedule and over budget.

To complement the existing stages and to make up for the lack of a large soundstage at EMI Elstree Studios, Lucasfilm constructed what became known as the Star Wars Stage, which measured 250 feet long, 122 feet wide and 45 feet high, and was among the largest soundstages in the world. Scenes shot on this stage included all of the scenes featuring the full-scale Millennium Falcon and scenes set on Dagobah.

Cheers and Pixar regular John Ratzenberger appeared in a small role as a Rebel officer.

Empire, at the time of its release, had the industry’s largest one-time order of 70mm prints (124 working prints on opening day, more than a dozen for Release Wave #2, and several more for international release). Some of the markets that played the movie in 70mm that didn’t open until Release Wave #2 included Las Vegas (Parkway), Modesto (Briggsmore), Monterey (Cinema 70), and Tucson (El Dorado). Empire was among eleven first-run movies released with 70mm prints during 1980. Expensive large-format 70mm prints were chosen for the initial and major market presentations of Empire so as to showcase the movie with the best possible projection and sound quality available at the time and to reduce the chances the movie would be pirated and sold on the home-video market.

There were some content differences between the Empire’s 35mm and 70mm prints. The 70mm prints were prepared and distributed first and, as such, more time was available for the filmmakers to finesse the 35mm general-release edition. Ironically, this meant that critics and moviegoers in the major markets did not see the “final” version of the movie. Most of the differences were subtle and editorial in nature, such as a scene beginning or ending with a different transitional effect (wipe pattern, straight cut, dissolve, etc.). Some visual effects were re-filmed and/or re-composited for the 35mm edition. Some scenes featured different takes for selected shots, and the final scene is longer in the 35mm edition, featuring additional spaceship fly-bys, an additional line of dialogue, and a brief music cue borrowed from another scene.

On Day One of its release, the UA Egyptian in Los Angeles and UA Cinema 150 in Seattle began showing Empire at midnight and continued with an all-day marathon.

To be eligible to play Empire during its first wave of release (which commenced May 21st), theaters had to be capable of presenting the movie in 70mm and agree to play the movie for a minimum of 16 weeks with a sliding scale distributor/exhibitor split beginning heavily in favor of the distributor. June 18th was the earliest Empire could be played if a theater was not equipped for 70mm and/or an exhibitor did not wish to commit to the minimum-run terms.

Empire began playing in U.S. military theaters overseas in October 1980 (even though the original Star Wars had not at that time been shown on the Army & Air Force Exchange Service circuit).

The Fox Fanfare & CinemaScope Extension music cue heard in Empire was recorded during the film’s music scoring sessions. The cue heard in the original Star Wars was a 1954 recording heard on many of Fox’s CinemaScope releases. The Empire recording was used on all subsequent Star Wars movies released by 20th Century Fox.

On its first day of release, Empire broke house records in all but two of its engagements.

Dolby Laboratories, Inc. introduced the cinema processor model CP-200 in conjunction with the release of Empire.

As with the original Star Wars, James Earl Jones provided the uncredited voice of Darth Vader. (Jones’ name was added to the credits of the 1997 Special Edition version.)

SP FX: The Empire Strikes Back, an hour-long documentary special, was originally broadcast on CBS-TV on September 22, 1980.

As with the original Star Wars, musician Meco Monardo recorded a disco/rock album based on John Williams’ Empire music. The EP contained four tracks (two of which later appeared on Meco’s Greatest Hits album). Meco also produced a Christmas-themed album, Christmas in the Stars, featuring some vocals by John Bongiovi (aka Jon Bon Jovi).

Empire was re-released theatrically in 1981, 1982 (which included a trailer for Revenge of the Jedi), 1983 (limited-market double feature with Star Wars), and 1997 (restored and expanded by three minutes).

In 2010, for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant,” Empire was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

The first time Empire was publically shown in the United States as part of a Star Wars triple feature was on September 3, 1984, at the 42nd Annual World Science Fiction Convention (aka LA Con II) in Anaheim, California…. The first time Empire was commercially shown in a US movie theater as part of a Star Wars triple feature was on March 28, 1985, when the trilogy was screened one time only for charity in nine theaters in eight US & Canadian cities…. The first time Empire was publically shown as part of a six-movie Star Wars Saga marathon was on May 23-24, 2007, at Celebration IV in Los Angeles.

Empire was released on home video in November 1984, fifty-four months after theatrical release. The VHS and Beta tapes were priced for rental ($79.98); the videodisc editions retailed for $29.98.

The first cable television broadcast of Empire was on February 1, 1986. The first network broadcast was on November 22, 1987, on NBC.

The Directors Guild of America attempted to have Empire withdrawn from release so that revised credits could be created so that “An Irvin Kershner Film” credit could appear at the beginning of the movie. The DGA argued that placing principal credits at the end of a film was in violation of guild rules. Lucas countered claiming the credits for Empire were presented in the same fashion as the original Star Wars for which there were no complaints. Lucas also argued that Empire was a non-union production principally shot outside the United States and thus wasn’t bound by the DGA’s rules. The DGA insisted their rules needed to be recognized regardless of where the film was produced since the film’s director was a DGA member. Lucas refused to alter the film’s credits, settled the matter by paying a fine, and subsequently resigned his DGA membership. The Writers Guild then followed suit by fining Lucas, which Lucas paid…and promptly quit that organization, too.

National Public Radio broadcast a multi-part radio adaptation of Empire during February 1983.

As with the original Star Wars, there was no shortage of tie-in merchandise, including fast-food chain promos, Kenner’s continuing line of action figures and playsets, Marvel’s ongoing comic series which included a six-part Empire adaptation (issues 39-44), soundtrack album, a story-of album (the movie condensed to album length with narration), novelization, making-of and art-of books, bed sheets, T-shirt iron-ons, video games, and countless other items. Star Wars merchandise, collectively, has out-grossed the movies on which they are based.

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THE INTERVIEW

This segment of the article features a Q&A with filmmaker, author and film historians Laurent Bouzereau, Marcus Hearn, Patrick Read Johnson, Michael Kaminski, and Mike Matessino. The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” format.

Laurent Bouzereau is the author of Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (1996, Titan).

Marcus Hearn is the author of The Cinema of George Lucas (2005, Abrams). 

Patrick Read Johnson is the writer and director of 5-25-77.

Michael Kaminski is the author of The Secret History of Star Wars (2008, Legacy).

Mike Matessino wrote the liner notes and supervised the editing and assembly of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition soundtrack albums.

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Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is The Empire Strikes Back worthy of celebration on its 35th anniversary?

Laurent Bouzereau: Anything Star Wars is worth celebrating!

Marcus Hearn: There is an enormous affection for The Empire Strikes Back. I think most fans regard it as the finest film in the series.

Patrick Read Johnson: It is, undeniably, the cinematic fork in the road that altered the direction of the Star Wars universe, its characters, and its fans, toward a better destination. It was the missing link between Star Wars (it wasn’t called Episode ANYTHING when I first saw it!) and the little J.J. Abrams film we’re all waiting for NOW.

Michael Kaminski: Firstly, it’s important from a business standpoint. Empire Strikes Back was the film that turned Star Wars from a sensationally popular film to a franchise. Of course, there were sequels back then (Rocky II, Jaws 2); but, in hindsight it’s a signifier of something far greater than just a sequel. The term “franchise” is a synonym for gold in Hollywood these days. In a world of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc., it’s not enough to just have sequels to a successful movie, but an entire WORLD of spinoffs, sequels and further adventures that can continue the brand indefinitely. There was the Marvel comic series and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye before Empire, but Empire was THE BIG ONE, the canon-level, big-budget, big deal that not only furthered the story and built up the Galaxy Far, Far Away, but also hinted on a cliff-hanger and opened up a bag of worms about the backstory—the first hint that there was more than just another sequel in story, or even a “continuing series.” Lucas was publically talking about twelve films, then nine, three trilogies connected together, and who knows where that would lead beyond that. A true cinematic universe—a franchise. Really, it had never been done before, on that scale. It has taken Hollywood three decades to wise up to the business savvy Lucas had (as he also knew it would continue to fund Lucasfilm for the more-or-less indefinite future). But I think beyond that, and a bunch of other factors I could go on about (“I am your father,” Yoda, etc.). Empire Strikes Back is worth celebrating just because it is a brilliant and beautiful film. Star Wars was fun because a big part of it was its function as a sort of post-modern pastiche piece, where the more you knew about the history of movies the more you would understand how it paid tribute and parody to them—a lot like how a film like Shrek works for kids who don’t know the history of fairy tales and fantasy films, but also for the adults who gets the references and commentary on clichés and the like. But Empire wasn’t like that. It took its world at face value; it took it seriously as a means unto itself. The next time I think a film of the same caliber did such a thing was when Peter Jackson made his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and while the final film was lavished in Oscars for its brilliance and maturity, Empire got only a fraction of such pedigree (despite getting pretty good reviews, mind you). It’s beautifully written, photographed, directed and acted, with technical credentials surpassing the first film. It took me about ten years to understand what the heck was happening in the surreal Dagobah dream sequence where Luke cuts off Darth Vader’s head—as a kid, I didn’t understand the metaphor, but it still spoke to me on an instinctive, mythological metaphor. A scene like that was only possible in a film like Empire—it was like Ingmar Bergman for children. Today, including a scene like that would still be impressive. In 1980? Incredible. That’s part of the reason the film still holds up; it feels modern, not dated, and that’s a testament to how far ahead of its time it was and why it still has impact to us today.

Mike Matessino: Any movie that is still loved and having sequels released thirty-five years later is worth celebrating. Everything Star Wars is being celebrated this year, of course, because of the new movie opening in December.

Coate: When did you first see Empire and what was your reaction?

Bouzereau: I saw it in Montreal, where I was studying English, the day it came out. I saw it in English, without French subtitles, at a time when I wasn’t fluent. So when Darth Vader told Luke he was his father, I thought I had misunderstood. But I quickly realized that it was the case. I was blown away.

Hearn: I saw it in England on its original release. I thought it was incredible. Spectacular and rather unsettling for a ten year-old.

Johnson: I saw it opening day in Hollywood, having just finished a cross-country road trip in my Ford Pinto. I didn’t even stop to unpack before heading down to the Egyptian Theater parking in a space that was sure to get me ticketed, and running up the four-block line to get the only ticket I gave a damn about.

Kaminski: Most people are surprised to learn I was born after all three films were released. I was the generation that grew up with them on home video. Star Wars has just kind of always “been there.” As much as I would have liked to have experience the films there is a certain comfort that they have been this constant in my life since as long as I’ve had memories.

Matessino: I cut school on opening day and was first in line at 8 a.m. at the General Cinema Central Plaza in Yonkers, New York. The show as at 12:15 p.m. and I sat through it twice. I absolutely loved it, although I already knew all of the spoilers beforehand.

Coate: Back in 1979/80 there was no Internet or Social Media or 24-hour news, and home-video and cable TV were in their infancy. Describe what it was like enduring the time from the moment you learned there was to be a sequel to Star Wars and the period leading up to Empire’s release.

Bouzereau: It was really fun to try and collect everything ESB. I remember getting the novelization, the making of book, the official movie magazine, the posters, and, of course, the soundtrack. I still have all that stuff!

Hearn: It was exciting. I’m sure there was a lot of advance publicity, but the only element of that I remember was a serialization of the story in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror. As far as I remember, Darth Vader’s confession to Luke came as a genuine surprise.

Johnson: Interestingly enough, it wasn’t all that hard because neither I, nor anyone else, really EXPECTED to know much about what was coming a year or two down the line. We didn’t know anything about “spoilers,” because, by and large, they didn’t materialize in those days. In fact, I sort of forgot about Empire until one day in April of 1980, when I walked into a record store and saw and immediately purchased the Empire Soundtrack album. And, of course, the instant I put it on the turntable, I was suddenly desperate to know EVERYTHING I could about the film John Williams’ new leitmotifs were describing!

Kaminski: I wanted to capture the experience of seeing them for the first time for my book though, but it wasn’t hard; a lot of the adults I grew up with had lots of stories of their own experience, as did fellow fans, and I had read and absorbed a lot of the now-vintage behind-the-scenes material since I was a kid. I also bought a lot of old magazines, newspapers, talk show videos, even stuff like letters-to-the-editor in everything from Time to Starlog to get a better sense of the on-the-ground reaction to it all. Being a historian by nature and even working in the film industry, I also had a pretty firm sense of the films context in movie history. So I pretty well understand what it was like at the time, and tried to capture that in my book, but I wasn’t actually there. I was born in 1984.

Matessino: I believe that in a book called The Star Wars Album it mentioned that there would be a sequel in the fall of 1978! It turns out all we got was The Star Wars Holiday Special. News at that time mostly came from the science fiction magazines Starlog, Fantastic Films and Cinefantastique. There were several articles that parsed out information and pictures for Empire beginning in 1978. I didn’t find it hard to endure the wait because there were other great genre movies to see such as Close Encounters, Superman, Alien, Star Trek and The Black Hole, plus we had Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers on TV. Star Wars played all through the summer of 1978 and the toys and other tie-in merchandise kept coming. One interesting thing was the early release of the Boba Fett action figure, which was promoted, as I recall, as “an important new character from the continuing Star Wars saga.” And, of course, he was first introduced on the aforementioned Holiday Special. The first footage from Empire came with a teaser trailer shown during the August 1979 reissue of Star Wars and that was very cool to see. However, I can recall audiences having snarky responses to the fact that it was coming “next summer.” One interesting promotion that Lucasfilm did in early 1980 was that you would call 1-800-521-1980 in the weeks leading up to the release of Empire. Each week you’d hear a different character telling you something about the movie. Finally seeing it when it was new was great. We had a 70mm print and it wasn’t until several viewings later that I saw it in 35mm at a different theater and discovered that there were some differences. To this day the little bits of the 70mm version that were different have not been released.

Coate: In what way was it beneficial (or detrimental) for Lucas to hire a director for Empire instead of directing it himself as he had done on the original movie?

Bouzereau: I think George chose “wisely” when he selected Irvin Kershner to direct ESB. I think it allowed George to embrace the film in a different way. The thing that’s extraordinary is that ESB has the same tone and sensibility as Star Wars.

Hearn: It’s impossible to know exactly what George Lucas would have done with the film if he had directed it himself, but Kershner did a superb job with the excellent screenplay. The middle film of the trilogy was always going to have the most challenging narrative structure.

Johnson: Though he surely didn’t intend it to happen, once he let go of the reigns, George freed Star Wars to run wild.  And once it was let loose like that, and allowed to mature and evolve and reach for greater heights, it could never really be put back in the stable.  And while we know he was unhappy with the result—which is natural and understandable for the creator of a Universe who has suddenly lost control of it—Empire undoubtedly changed the DNA of so many of the young writers, directors, and VFX people who are now laboring to bring Star Wars under control again. And I’m betting George, when he finally sees what J.J. and Kathy Kennedy have wrought, is going to be immensely proud. As he should be.

Kaminski: I think it’s rather obvious, but in most respects George Lucas is not a particularly good director and that is something he has freely admitted to. Yet, he has directed at least two incredible classics of cinema—how? At the time, he was well aware of his limitations, and he understood the ways in which they could be circumvented. Help on the screenplays; good actors with good chemistry that could overcome his directorial flaws; getting constant feedback on what wasn’t working; and, probably more than is given credit, the fresh eyes of a young man full of good ideas in an industry that had never made the types of films he was interested in. George Lucas is a genius, but he’s a conceptual genius—he can come up with Star Wars and Raiders and Graffiti, he can guide them to how they can be made, but he needs someone else to write the words and make the films come to life. How did he seemingly do this himself with Star Wars? In short, he didn’t. He had constant feedback and criticism on the screenplay; Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck even did a rough polish to make the characters more compelling, and the characters were very relatable and given freedom by the actors to make them their own. Add that to the totally unlikely coincidence of having Ralph McQuarrie, John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Ben Burtt and John Williams, plus the best editing team I can think of ALL ON THE SAME FILM. And it’s all being done without the traditional restraints of a studio picture but instead to the whims of a millionaire comic book nerd in an age where that wasn’t seen as cool. Of course it’s going to be awesome!.... But Lucas knew he could get away with directing that kind of film in that kind of way. The sequel needed to be bigger and better, but also held to standards he was incapable of providing as a director. As a conceptualist; as a hand-on producer; yeah. That’s his strength. Star Wars works as a conceptual film, as a nostalgic pastiche piece that overcomes any shallowness by engaging our knowledge of its references. It steals from the best. You get a saloon brawl with a samurai cutting off a fugitive’s arm, a cowboy blowing away a hitman collecting a debt, and a freaking band of space aliens playing 1930s swing music while The Wolfman drinks a beer—just re-read that sentence. That’s a scene in Star Wars. It happens. And it’s awesome…. The sequel could have some of that, but it couldn’t really rely on it. It needed to go deeper. Rather than being a fun romp through a history of pop culture, it needed to take the world it had created at face value and confront it seriously. The characters needed to be more three-dimensional; the writing needed to be more natural; and it needed to have a more emotionally adult core. Lucas, frankly, didn’t have the talent to do that; and he didn’t want to—he was burned out. So everything fell into place where he would take his best characteristics—ideas—and have that be realized by a talented writing and directing team that also “got” the Star Wars universe. And a big part of it was that Lucas was excited by the fact that it would be different and other people could take what he created and run with it—he once compared it to a “film school competition,” with there being limitless sequels. The reality of what he was embarking on set in once filming began and that’s why that mentality went away. It was a lot of work and money. To us it was worth it, but the film didn’t turn out the way he had envisioned; it was too mature, too slow, and the time and expense were too much stress when you only have one life to live. One would think that would be part of the fun of a “film school competition” series where it’s “let’s see what THIS GUY does with Star Wars!” But that’s sort of a producer’s nightmare, and I think that’s what Lucas failed to grasp…. And that’s why Return of the Jedi is no Empire Strikes Back. He realized his mistake and made sure it didn’t repeat. He controlled things more closely, was involved every step of the way and sort of directed the whole thing over Richard Marquand’s shoulder. That guy doesn’t get enough credit, but I think it would be inaccurate to say that George Lucas’ conspicuous presence is the reason the third film doesn’t have the same feeling as the second one.

Matessino: I think it would have been fine either way, but in the end I think that because George wanted to focus on building up Lucasfilm it was good that Empire had a different tone and that the original Star Wars was able to keep its completely unique feel. Irvin Kershner did a brilliant job with Empire and it showed that the universe George created could be expanded and have other creative ideas brought into it.

Coate: Where do you think Empire ranks among sequels? Is Empire the best sequel ever made? And where do you think Empire ranks among the Star Wars franchise?

Bouzereau: It’s one of the best sequels. Or one of the best second films that’s part of a series. Is From Russia with Love considered a sequel to Dr. No? If so, that’s a pretty awesome film. As is The Godfather Part II…. I just watched all of [the Star Wars movies] again recently and it belongs exactly where it is: the second best. Star Wars is number one.

Hearn: Star Wars remains my favorite film in the series—nothing could surpass the initial impact of its innovation and effervescence. Empire is a very different film, with its own, unique merits. I think it ranks alongside From Russia with Love and The Godfather Part II as one of the greatest movie sequels ever made.

Johnson: No. That would be The Godfather II.  But it’s right up there…. You know, as a piece of that freed-up, evolved, dramatically mature Star Wars universe everyone came to crave, after Episode V created it, Empire is certainly the “best” of the Star Wars films. But, it’s still not Star Wars. No matter what comes after, nothing—I repeat—NOTHING can top the feeling of watching the original cut of Star Wars, in a crowded theater, in the summer of 1977.

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Kaminski: Who can measure such a thing? I don’t think anyone can ever say any two films or one film is the best this or that; when people ask me my favorite film I tell them it’s Star Wars, and it probably is, I’ve spent more time watching and thinking about than anything else, but I tend to rank films in groups rather than individuals. Alien, Blade Runner, Rashomon, Chungking Express and Terminator are films I all place in the same echelon as Star Wars, but Star Wars is a lot more significant because of its impact on pop culture, technology and business, but depending on the day I’d rather watch something like Road Warrior or Spaceballs, right? But, in terms of sequels, most are not as good as the original—they made a sequel because the first one was good to begin with, right, but how can you guarantee that will repeat? You can’t. It’s exceptional, and half the time it’s partly accidental. Such is the case with Empire. Lucas didn’t want it to be as adult and mature as it—Kasdan, Kurtz and Kershner kind of did that in spite of his wishes, and that’s why he reacted with the level of control he had on Jedi. It wasn’t supposed to be THAT slow, that lyrical, they weren’t supposed to take THAT much time getting the performances and shots right—that’s why they went way over budget and schedule! From a producer’s point of view it was a total disaster. Kurtz realized that it was all for the best, but for Lucas it was irresponsible—he was the one paying the bill…. People say lightning never strikes the same place twice, and people say capturing the “magic” of something is like capturing lightning in a bottle. It can be done, because that expression is scientifically inaccurate, it’s just incredibly difficult. But there are a few films that fall into the category of “sequels that live up to or surpass the original,” and usually the films are very different from the first one, and Empire falls into that category. Wrath of Khan, Godfather II, T2, Aliens, Road Warrior, Dark Knight. It’s usually the same couple of movies you see referenced. I don’t know if Empire is a better movie than Godfather II because they are so different, and that’s the same reason why I don’t know if Empire is better than Star Wars. Instead, I simply enjoy the fact that we got the two best version of different sides of the same coin…. If you want to spend two hours at the playground, see Star Wars. If you want to see that film reach adulthood, Empire’s pretty close. Children need to grow up but adults also need to learn how to play, so it’s incredible to have both options depending on your mood.

Matessino: I hold the original Star Wars in such high regard—way above Empire—that I can’t necessarily say it’s the best sequel ever made. But it’s probably the best next Star Wars movie that could have been made following the original. It did what the best sequels do, which is add new layers to its predecessor while also establishing a foundation for an ongoing storyline and overall arc.

Coate: Was it a good idea for Lucas & Co. to decide to use an episode number and subtitle?

Hearn: The decision had already been made to change the titles of Star Wars to read Episode IV, so by 1980 we knew this was part of a series. Given Empire’s open ending I think it was important to do this.

Matessino: Something I don’t think has been discussed much is that Lucas’ original intention of putting Episode IV on the first Star Wars movie was sort of a subtle joke. The whole thing was meant to be an homage to the Flash Gordon serials and the audience was supposed to feel like they were seeing a random chapter. In the end, Fox asked Lucas to take it off so that audiences would not be confused by it. But, of course, once the movie was successful and there was going to be a sequel, George took the gamble of adding Episode V to the Empire crawl…and it was a gamble because he made the picture with his own money, so there was a lot riding on its success. There was an attempt to explain the Episode V crawl in various publications at the time, but a lot of people were still initially confused by it. The following year, they updated the original Star Wars to say Episode IV: A New Hope for its reissue, but the most ardent fans already knew that title from the published script that was in the book The Art of Star Wars, which I believe came out in 1979. So with Empire, George was at least committed to finish the trilogy. But even if he never went back to make episodes I through III I think it would have been okay. He could have simply said that the original intent was to create the sense that you were seeing a few episodes of a serial and that audiences could simply wonder about what had come before. But in the end he was able to get the prequels made and so it all worked out.

Coate: Which version of Empire do you like best: the 1980 original or the 1997 Special Edition? In what way did the Special Edition changes improve the movie?

Bouzereau: I don’t have a preference, except that I saw the Special Edition at the Mann Chinese with Irvin Kershner who I got to know when I wrote my book, Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays. That was pretty awesome.

Hearn: I seem to recall there is relatively little that is radically new in the special edition—principally the scene in the ice cave. The Special Edition is the version George Lucas wants us to see, and that’s fine by me.

Johnson: I honestly don’t care for ANY of the changes made in the Special Editions. At the same time I think it’s childish to attack George for trying the things he tried. Some worked fairly well. Some didn’t at all. But so what? If you don’t like them, don’t watch them. Stanley Kubrick used to do “special editions” of his films, often during the first WEEK of a release, by calling up the theaters and giving the projectionists a list of edits he wanted done. So, what. A director should have the right to tinker with his work. Nobody who’s watched the 23 different cuts of Blade Runner has ever claimed Ridley Scott destroyed their childhood. 

Kaminski: Does anyone really like the Special Edition of ANY of the movies? Let them be what they are…. I will say this. Empire is the least affected of any of the films. It’s the only film where watching the SE is not a chore in tolerance. The new Emperor makes sense; I prefer the original, but that’s probably nostalgia talking. I also prefer the old wampa because it scared me as a kid, but honestly it’s just a lump of fur dollying past the camera and who the hell can tell what is happening? Cloud City looks great, and it’s so restrained and tasteful, it’s not gratuitous at all, it’s the sort of thing Irvin Kershner would have wanted to have done in the first place (and he’s said as much as well)…. The redone matte lines in the walker sequence and asteroid sequence are a godsend. Those sequences look deceivingly ahead-of-their-time, and that’s one thing I hate about the Special Editions—the films may look BETTER, and younger fans may say, “wow, these films were more advanced than I thought!” But it’s all a lie. The films had ugly matte lines and dupe grain from the optical composites, and the color grading would shift green and pink as a result as well. And that’s okay! They are old films! I think people should appreciate them for what they are. To me it’s like saying, “well, I always put up with my daughter’s face but after that nose job I can’t ever picture her any way!” I don’t hear people complaining about fixing the jittery stop motion in King Kong. And, wait, didn’t George Lucas testify before Congress to get people to stop colorizing black-and-white films to make them more modern?.... But now I’m going on and on like an angry old man. The Special Edition of Empire is the least-botched plastic surgery job of the original trilogy and succeeds in most places. But re-dubbing Boba Fett and the total PACE-RUINING re-edit of Vader getting to his shuttle break the deal for me. I had no problem with Empire before. I appreciate that you improved the picture, but it didn’t need improving, and you also added things that depreciate the film, so the net result is a loss, right? I’ll watch the Special Edition, but I don’t prefer it. The fact that so little was changed in comparison to the other films says so much about it: they got it right in the first place.

Matessino: I definitely prefer the original, but some of the cleaned-up effects were nice to see and unobjectionable. I was also pleased that they put back the transitions to the Imperial Starfleet that restored the music that John Williams had originally written for them. Of course, the Special Edition release of the original trilogy is also what brought me the opportunity to work on the expanded score releases. The Empire score had an interesting history. It was initially released as a two-LP set, but later that was reduced to a single LP and when the first CD came out they released only that version. Then in 1993, Nick Redman produced a box set which put out most of the material from the original LP plus some of the previously unreleased music. For the 1997 release we included everything. Relatively speaking that was dark ages compared to how we worked later on soundtrack restorations, so I hope to someday be able to go back and improve it further. But for now it’s at least great to have the entire score available and it’s interesting in that it contains a lot of material that was not used in the picture. It definitely stands on its own as a musical version of the story, very operatic and varied in style, and, in fact, quite different from the score for the original Star Wars.

Coate: What is the legacy of The Empire Strikes Back?

Bouzereau: Like everything else related to Star Wars, it transcends cinema. It’s part of our culture.

Hearn: It proved that Star Wars was bigger than its creator, and that its creator was big enough to encourage other directors’ interpretations of his remarkable ideas.

Johnson: I would say that without it having been made, exactly the way it was, there would never have been an Episode VI. And the rest, as Hamlet said, would have been silence…

Matessino: The Empire Strikes Back proved that a sequel did not have to rehash the original in any way and could still be artistically and financially successful. It’s also a great example of how a sequel can bring a different look and tone to an established storyline and still work both as a standalone piece of cinema and as one piece of a larger work.

Coate: Thank you, everyone, for participating and for sharing your thoughts about The Empire Strikes Back on the occasion of its 35th anniversary.

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PRINCIPAL CAST & CREW:

  • Luke Skywalker – Mark Hamill
  • Han Solo – Harrison Ford
  • Princess Leia – Carrie Fisher
  • Lando Calrissian – Billy Dee Williams
  • C-3PO – Anthony Daniels
  • Darth Vader – David Prowse
  • Chewbacca – Peter Mayhew
  • R2-D2 – Kenny Baker
  • Yoda – Frank Oz
  • Director – Irvin Kershner
  • Producer – Gary Kurtz
  • Screenplay – Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (Screenplay), George Lucas (Story)
  • Executive Producer – George Lucas
  • Production Designer – Norman Reynolds
  • Director of Photography – Peter Suschitzky, BSC
  • Editor – Paul Hirsch, ACE
  • Special Visual Effects – Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund
  • Music – John Williams
  • Associate Producers – Robert Watts, James Bloom
  • Design Consultant and Conceptual Artist – Ralph McQuarrie
  • Make-up and Special Creature Design – Stuart Freeborn
  • Costume Designer – John Mollo
  • Sound Design and Supervising Sound Effects Editor – Ben Burtt
  • Production Sound – Peter Sutton
  • Re-Recording – Bill Varney, Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker
  • Distributor – 20th Century-Fox
  • Production Company – Lucasfilm Ltd.
  • Release Date – May 21, 1980
  • Running Time – 124 minutes
  • Projection Format – Scope
  • Sound Format – Dolby Stereo
  • MPAA Rating – PG

 

SPECIAL THANKS:

Jerry Alexander, Laura Baas, Jim Barg, Laurent Bouzereau, Raymond Caple, Bill Duelly, Mike Durrett, Marcus Hearn, Bobby Henderson, Mike Hensley, Patrick Read Johnson, Michael Kaminski, Brian Kiss, Bill Kretzel, Ronald A. Lee, Mark Lensenmayer, Victor Liorentas, Stan Malone, Monty Marin, Mike Matessino, Deborah May, Joseph McBride, Tim O’Neill, Lee Pfeiffer, Melissa Scroggins, Desirée Sharland, Joel Weide, Vince Young, and a huge thank-you to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project.

 

SOURCES/REFERENCES:

Primary references for this project were hundreds of daily newspapers archived on microfilm. Periodicals referenced included American Cinematographer, Bantha Tracks, Boxoffice, Cinefantastique, The Hollywood Reporter, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Starlog, Time, and Variety. Film industry documents referenced included Dolby Stereo installation records, circa 1980. Books referenced included George Lucas: The Creative Impulse by Charles Champlin (1992, Abrams), George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-By-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of their Financial and Cultural Success edited by Alex Ben Block and Lucy Autrey Wilson (2010, George Lucas Books/HarperCollins), The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett (1996, Billboard), The Making of The Empire Strikes Back by Jonathan Rinzler (2010, Ballantine/Del Rey), The Movie Business Book edited by Jason E. Squire (1983, Fireside), Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back by Alan Arnold (1980, Del Rey/Ballantine), Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollack (1983, Harmony). The following films were referenced: Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy (2004, Prometheus Entertainment/Fox Television/Lucasfilm Ltd.), The Empire Strikes Back (1980, 1997, Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century-Fox/Disney) and SP FX: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Lucasfilm Ltd./CBS-Fox Video). Websites referenced include BoxOfficeMojo, CinemaTour, CinemaTreasures, FromScriptToDVD, and In70mm. This is a revised and updated version of a previously-published article.

 

SELECTED IMAGES:

Copyright 1980, 1997 Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox/Disney

All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States & Canada except where stated otherwise.

 

IN MEMORIAM:

  • Leigh Brackett (Screenwriter), 1915-1978
  • John Barry (Second Unit Director), 1935-1979
  • Jack Purvis (“Chief Ugnaught”), 1937-1997
  • Alec Guiness (“Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi”), 1914-2000
  • Terry Liebling (Casting), 1942-2001
  • Des Webb (“Snow Creature”), 1932-2002
  • Bruce Boa (“General Rieekan”), 1930-2004
  • Peter Diamond (Stunt Coordinator), 1929-2004
  • John Hollis (“Lando’s Aide”), 1931-2005
  • Michael Sheard (“Admiral Ozzel”), 1938-2005
  • David Tomblin (First Assistant Director), 1930-2005
  • Peter Sutton (Production Sound), 19??-2008
  • Irvin Kershner (Director), 1923-2010
  • Bill Varney (Re-Recording Mixer), 1934-2011
  • Ralph McQuarrie (Design Consultant and Conceptual Artist), 1929-2012
  • Stuart Freeborn (Make-up and Special Creature Design), 1914-2013
  • Christopher Malcolm (“Zev (Rogue 2)”), 1946-2014

- Michael Coate