It was twenty years ago today that Lucasfilm agreed to allow advance ticket sales for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I clearly remember asking my boss if I could leave early after hearing the lines were getting long on the radio. I finally got to the cinema and stood in that line, under the hot sun, in a parking lot for six hours before it was finally my turn to buy tickets. That six hours went by fast and was so special because of the energy and excitement in the air. Everyone was talking rumors and speculation to various degrees. Soon there was some guy in a pick up truck who pulled up to put out his speakers then started blasting the Star Wars soundtrack, and everyone went nuts cheering! Several local television news stations came through the line interviewing people for the evening news. The pizza guy showed up with some special $5 pies, while another young entrepreneur dragged his wagon loaded with a cooler of ice cold bottled water. The line itself was an event that day. We weren't even seeing the film yet, just buying tickets! There will never be another time like that. Technology has changed so much in the past twenty years that an event like this simply wouldn't happen again. Some of you younger readers are probably thinking "you had to line up to buy tickets"? The answer is yes, and we loved every minute of it!
Here's some more release history from Wikipedia:
The release on May 19, 1999 of the first new Star Wars film in 16 years was accompanied by a considerable amount of attention. Few film studios released films during the same week: DreamWorks and Universal Studios released The Love Letter on May 21 and Notting Hill on May 28, respectively. The Love Letter was a commercial failure but Notting Hill fared better and followed The Phantom Menace closely in second place. Employment consultant firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimated that 2.2 million full-time employees missed work to attend the film, resulting in a US$293 million loss of productivity. According to The Wall Street Journal, so many workers announced plans to view the premiere that many companies closed on the opening day. Queue areas formed outside cinema theaters over a month before ticket sales began.
More theater lines appeared when it was announced that cinemas were not allowed to sell tickets in advance until two weeks into the release. This was because of a fear that family theater-goers would be either unable to receive tickets or would be forced to pay higher prices for them. Instead, tickets were to be sold on a first-come-first-served basis. However, after meetings with the National Association of Theatre Owners, Lucasfilm agreed to allow advance ticket sales on May 12, 1999, provided there was a limit of 12 tickets per customer. As a result, some advance tickets were sold by scalpers at prices as high as US$100 apiece, which a distribution chief called "horrible" and said was exactly what they wanted to avoid. Daily Variety reported that theater owners received strict instructions from Lucasfilm that the film could only play in the cinema's largest auditorium for the first 8–12 weeks, no honor passes were allowed for the first eight weeks, and they were obliged to send their payments to distributor 20th Century Fox within seven days.
Despite worries about the film being finished on time, two weeks before its theatrical release Lucasfilm moved the release date from May 21 to 19, 1999. At the ShoWest Convention, Lucas said the change was intended to give the fans a "head start" by allowing them to view it during the week and allowing families to view it during weekends. Foreshadowing his future conversion to digital cinematography, Lucas said the film would be released on four digital projectors on June 18, 1999. Eleven charity premieres were staged across the United States on May 16, 1999; receipts from the Los Angeles event, where corporate packages were available for between US$5,000 and US$25,000; proceeds were donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Other charity premieres included the Dallas premiere for the Children's Medical Center, the Aubrey Fund for Pediatric Cancer Research at the Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, the Big Brother/Sister Association of the Philadelphia premiere, and the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A statement said that tickets were sold at US$500 apiece and that certain sections of the theaters were set aside for disadvantaged children.
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