It’s February, and before you know it, Oscar night will be here. Yes, March 4th is rapidly approaching. As some of us take the time to catch up on this year’s nominees, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some Oscar history. It’s no secret that some winners over the years have left us scratching our heads. All month I’ll be covering what I think were times when the Oscar voters got it wrong. This week I’ll be kicking things off by going all the way back to 1977. That year, the now classic romantic comedy Annie Hall was released. But that same year, a little movie called Star Wars came out and changed movies forever.
At the 1978 Oscars, the following films were up for Best Picture: Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, and The Turning Point. It was certainly a strong crop of nominees. Annie Hall walked off with the award. Now, is it a great movie? Yes. But, for my money, it wasn’t the best out of that group of movies. If the winner had been The Turning Point, I could agree to disagree. If you haven’t seen that movie, stop everything and go find a copy. It’s amazing! But I digress.
Annie Hall winning Best Picture that year was at least a case of the Academy recognizing a comedy. The fact that that is such a rarity is downright shameful. Just because a movie isn’t a drama doesn’t mean it isn’t a great piece of art worthy of recognition. What Annie Hall does, it does very well. The writing is sharp, the performances are solid, it has some great insights about relationships between men and women.But while it is a great example of a well-done romantic comedy, it didn’t revolutionize the industry. Star Wars did.
Star Wars changed so much and I think we take it for granted today. For starters, it completely changed the special effects game. 20th Century Fox, the studio that released Star Wars, had no special effects department to speak of. This lead to the creation of Industrial Light & Magic, the effects studio that paved the way for the creation of great effects, but also birthed PIXAR. As noted in an article in Wired,
Eventually 20th Century Fox gave Lucas $25,000 to finish his screenplay—and then, after he garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination for American Graffiti, green-lit the production of Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. However, the studio no longer had a special effects department, so Lucas was on his own. He would adapt, and handily: He not only helped invent a new generation of special effects but launched a legendary company that would change the course of the movie business.
Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away.
As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes.–The Untold Story of ILM, a Titan That Forever Changed Film
No doubt you’ve seen the imprint of ILM in movies today. They did the groundbreaking liquid metal effects in Terminator 2, they brought dinosaurs back to life for Jurassic Park…the list goes on.
But Star Wars didn’t just deserve Best Picture because of its special effects. It brought back a sense of joy and wonder to cinema that was needed at the time. Look, a lot of great and gritty dramas came out in the 70s: Taxi Driver, Network, The Godfather, and The French Connection, just to name a few. But, occasionally, we all need escapism and a bucket of popcorn. Movies can take us to far off places (a galaxy far, far away in the case of Star Wars) and be a magical experience. Star Wars delivered that experience. Boy, did it ever! Yes, the characters were based on classic archetypes. You had the wise old man (Alec Guinness), a romantic rogue (Harrison Ford), a hero going on a quest (Mark Hamill), the comedic sidekicks (C-350 and R2D2)… We’d seen parts of this story before. But never before had it come together in such exhilarating way. Star Wars changed the lives of not just those who worked on it, but it sparked the imagination of those who saw it. This was a watershed moment in cinema.
Star Wars also changed how movies way movies were marketed. When the film became an overnight success, toy manufacturer Kenner couldn’t keep up with the demand.
After attempting to shop the license around to other toy makers, in 1976 it fell to Kenner, then a subsidiary of General Mills. Kenner President Bernie Loomis saw an opportunity to make good toys with the license (especially in the then relatively new space of 3.75” scaled action figures, cheaper to produce than the larger toys), but expected Star Wars to be a fleeting venture for the company.
Little did anyone involved know how wrong they would be.
Star Wars released in May 1977 to rapturous approval, becoming an overnight sensation — and kids didn’t just want to see the movie; they wanted toys. Kenner were caught flat-footed at the demand, finding that they wouldn’t even have figures out for the lucrative Christmas period of that year. To do nothing would have meant losing out on millions of dollars.
So they made a decision that was, by all accounts at the time, completely ludicrous: They sold people an empty box. The Early Bird Certificate was a box containing a cardboard display stand featuring the characters from the film, stickers, and a certificate for kids to mail away to Kenner to receive four figures in 1978: Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Princess Leia and Chewbacca. The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public’s mind, ready for their 1978 release.–The Groundbreaking History of Star Wars Toys
Nowadays you see movie merchandise everywhere before a film’s release. Star Wars started that trend.
Decades later, I count myself among those unable to wrap my head over how Star Wars lost out to Annie Hall for Best Picture. It was an amazing film that brought escapism to an art level. But sadly, I’m not surprised it didn’t win. Science fiction films are usually relegated to awards for their effects rather than being recognized for their unique stories. If Stat Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey can’t win Best Picture, what science fiction movies can? Science fiction is a genre that deserves more respect. But The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did sweep the Oscars a few years ago, bringing recognition to the fantasy genre. Perhaps there is reason to hope that science fiction will finally be recognized in that category. If you want an entertaining romantic comedy, then Annie Hall is your movie. If you want to see a movie that will spark your imagination like nothing before it, then Star Wars is your movie. The Academy got it wrong.