When George Lucas and 20th Century Fox chairman Tom Sherak met in 1992 to talk about reissuing an old but improved "Star Wars" on the big screen, neither had any idea that the force would be with them as much as it was this weekend.
"Star Wars," first released in 1977, was brought back to theaters Friday and drew record-setting numbers across the country. It is estimated to have made $36.2 million by Sunday night, having played more than 2,100 screens in theaters packed with die-hard fans from ages 6 to 60. The blockbuster figures bring its cumulative box-office take to $358 million, the second-highest film gross of all time, behind "E.T."
A spokeswoman for Lucas said he had no expectation that the movie--which has been out on videotape for years and has been shown often on television--would come back in such a big way.
What Lucas had hoped above all, according to Sherak, was for his film to serve as a bridge between generations.
"When I met with George, his first comments were, 'I want families to be able to see it on the big screen,' " Sherak said. "Friday and Saturday we got the zealots and also the families." He said that according to exit polls, a third of the audience on opening weekend was made up of families.
"You take your child to the movies and you relive the experience that had some impact on your life, and you're also trying to transfer that to your child," said Sherak, who went to screenings Friday and Saturday in Westwood, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. "I watched kids come out with their parents. I watched some fathers come out and smile and ask, 'Well?' and the kids said, 'I loved it.' "
Wendy Romero, 23, from Encino, said she wanted to introduce the movie to her 3-year-old son, Kevin, who already is enamored of the video game version.
Some of the families were headed by nostalgic middle-aged parents, such as Rachael and David Bergen of Sherman Oaks, who showed up with their 23-year-old daughter. Rachel, 48, remembered seeing the movie on opening night in 1977, at Mann's Chinese theater. She spoke of the film's universal appeal and spiritual aspects. "It's a fairy tale. . . . It's good against evil. The force is the energy that's all around us. It's the thing that binds us."
"I saw it first at 4 years old and I've seen it more than 20 times since," said Joe Gjonola, 24, of Van Nuys. "It was one of the first movies I heavily connected with. Now it's sort of deeply embedded in my mind and emotions. For about 10 years, every birthday and Christmas revolved around the acquisition of 'Star Wars' toys for me and my brothers. . . . So, I came to this on opening night out of respect. It's that important."
Vach Simien, a 23-year-old Los Angeles resident who brandished a toy light saber while standing in line, was with friends who called themselves "religious, obsessive 'Star Wars' fanatics."
"We're going to get up and act it out like 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' " Simien said, adding that one in their group was "a 'Star Wars' virgin" they hoped to indoctrinate.
Many expressed a nostalgia for the '70s. "It's like a time warp. It's sort of just a kinder, gentler place to be," Sherak said. And some spoke of finding more in the movie's message now. "The force--as a kid, you don't really see how much that pertains to real life," said Amy Erhardt, 21, of Sherman Oaks. "I see it on a deeper level now. As a kid I just thought Princess Leia was really pretty."
"Now I get the subtleties of characters like C-3PO, his depth and humility," added her friend Brian Walsh, 24, of Sherman Oaks. "He's the ultimate quiet hero."
Others simply were curious about revisiting an old favorite and seeing the much-touted, improved effects and new scenes.
"We're not dorks, we're not fanatics, we just wanted to see the movie," said Greg Fields, 26, of Burbank. "It's the best science-fiction movie of all time."
Added Eddie Lopez, 28, standing nearby: "I wanted to be part of the hype."
The hype having reached fever pitch this weekend, competing movies didn't stand much of a chance at the box office. According to the estimates, "Star Wars" drew a startling $17,205 average per screen. It was the ninth-highest opening weekend estimate ever and an easy record for any weekend in January or February.
Coming in second was "Jerry Maguire" with an estimated $5.6 million (and a total, after 8 weeks, of $117 million.) In third place was "Scream" at $4.8 million, followed by "Metro" with $4.4 million. "Evita" and "Beverly Hills Ninja" tied for fifth with $4.3 million.
In seventh place was "In Love and War" with $3.9 million. "The Relic" was in eighth place with $2.9 million. "Gridlock'd" was in ninth with $2.8 million. "Mother" and "Michael" tied for 10th with $2.6 million each. Final figures are scheduled to be announced today.