Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on Friday (well, Thursday really, but the official opening date is December 18th), and around the country, fans are already lining up to see the movie. Most of those fans bought their tickets weeks ago, leading some youngsters to question their sanity.
Some will say that you still need to line up, because having a ticket doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a center seat or an aisle seat or that you’ll get to sit with your friends. The first people in line are the first in the theater. That is one valid excuse for lining up, but here’s the real, deep-seated reason.
It’s part of the Star Wars mythos.
You see, boys and girls, back in the dark ages of 1977, you actually had to stand in line to buy a ticket. Some theaters only sold tickets for the next show — meaning if you wanted to see the 8:20 p.m. showing, you had to buy it after the 6:00 p.m. screening started. When the first Star Wars (now known as Episode IV: A New Hope) opened, no one knew just how big a phenomenon it was going to be. There weren’t a lot of multiplexes, and the ones that had multiple screens probably had just two or three. And this was a time when you had to have a physical 35mm print to run through your projector, so there was no programming a blockbuster to show on three or four screens from one digital copy on a hard drive in the projection booth. One print=one showing. Star Wars is just about two hours long, so one print=about nine showings a day, if you ran it around the clock and allowed just 19 minutes to get one audience out, clean up their trash, and hustle the next audience in.
Just about everyone wanted to see Star Wars and a lot of people saw it two or three or a hundred times. So you begin to understand why film goers back then found themselves standing in line.
Even when we got to 1980 and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in 1983, you still had issues of maybe one theatre in your average-sized town had the right to show the movie, and they only had it on one or two screens. If you wanted to see the movie, you got in line, and if you wanted to see the first screening, you got in line really early.
I didn’t see the first movie until August of 1978 (thank you, Uncle Howitt), and even though the movie had been out for a year, people still stood in line for at least a little while to buy tickets. I don’t remember a long wait for The Empire Strikes Back; I went with a group of nerds who were taking PE in summer school so we didn’t have to deal with it during the school year. I do remember the movie opened in Pensacola a week or two late, while the theater got upgraded for 70mm. By Return of the Jedi, I made up my mind, I was seeing the first showing, and I got to the theater around three or four o’clock in the morning; I was the third person in line, and I made two really good friends that day.
By the time the prequels rolled around, the lines for the first screenings (at midnight on opening day) were like a party. A lot of people come in costume, bring their toys, and just hang out. We all have a shared love of that galaxy far, far away; we’re all excited; and it’s a lot of fun; but I don’t think that’s the primary reason we’re there.
The primary reason, I think, that people wait in line for Star Wars is because it’s tradition. It’s what we had to do for so many years, that we still feel in our hearts that it’s what we should do when we’re seeing a Star Wars movie.
What am I doing this year? I don’t have a costume, and I’m a little confused by the fact the movie is actually opening a day before opening day. Plus, I’m put off by Disney deciding to open it in December instead of the traditional Memorial Day Weekend. So, I got my tickets for Friday afternoon, and I’ll head to the theatre as soon as I get off work. I bought my ticket a few days after they went on sale, and I don’t know what kind of line there’ll be, or if I’ll be able to walk right in and find a seat. Part of me will miss the line experience, and if I love this movie as much as I do A New Hope, then I’ll re-think my options for Episode 8.