There was a world before the cultural force that is Star Wars, and in that world 20th Century Fox had two big movies planned for the summer of 1977. The first was The Other Side of Midnight, a nearly three-hour long adult romance about a frequently nude French woman's (Marie France-Pisier) quest to track down and punish an ex-lover (John Beck) who spurned her for a nice American girl (Susan Sarandon), and the second was some silly space thing made by that American Graffiti guy. Guess which one the movie theaters actually wanted to play.
Of course, you probably already know the answer. Star Wars was a legendarily messy production starring a bunch of actors who felt immensely silly in their roles, made by a crew which routinely attempted to usurp the director and produced by a studio that didn't really want it. Unless you were someone of truly immense vision, there was little reason based on the standard operating procedures of Hollywood circa 1977 to expect much of Star Wars, even after Jaws semi-officially kicked off the era of the Hollywood blockbuster two years earlier. However, it is still startling from a modern point of view to look back and realize that The Other Side of Midnight was supposed to be Fox's big bet of the summer of '77. One was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day, and the other was, well, Star Wars. Not to belabor the point, but the film industry sure has changed a lot since then.
Just look at how different trailers used to be:
Wait a minute. Holy shit. Did that trailer just give away the ending? Does the main girl get killed at the end of this movie? Check Wikipedia if you really want to know, but maybe trailers haven't changed as much as I thought. Spoilers could be an issue back then as well.
And that's the movie theaters wanted instead of Star Wars? I get that Star Wars was a somewhat unforeseeable phenomenon, but what made The Other Side of Woman look so appealing? Was it the way the man's rather rapey kiss turns into a "just go with it" embrace (which, to be fair, was kind of the style at the time in movies)?
Actually, it's because the film distribution business used to be very different. Now there are trade shows where exhibitors get early glimpses and often times full screenings of movies well in advance of their release. That way all the film buyers can judge for themselves exactly how many theaters to assign to which films. Back then, though, you were flying blind the majority of the time, relying a whole lot on movie posters, and the studios frequently sold package deals, i.e., If you want to buy movie A, you must also buy movie B. To get The Other Side of Midnight you had to bite the bullet and also take Star Wars.
On paper, The Other Side of Midnight seemed like the safer bet. It was at least based on a best-selling Sydney Sheldon novel. On the opposite end, everyone in distribution seemed to know that many people at Fox never wanted to make Star Wars to begin with. By the time Star Wars came out, it was only carried by 42 theaters, a stark contrast to the modern norm of big movies opening in at least 3,000 theaters. However, many film buyers who bet bigger on Star Wars than The Other Side of Midnight ended up making their careers off of that decision.
Erik Lomis is now the head of distribution at The Weinstein Co. Here's what he remembered:
In the months before it opened, a lot of the older guys thought of Star Wars as a kiddie movie. The cast meant nothing, and no one knew who George Lucas was. I was working for a circuit called Sameric Theatres in Philadelphia. We thought we got hosed because the competition got the big "A track" picture, The Other Side of Midnight. Five years later, the same thing happened with two Steven Spielberg movies, Poltergeist and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The big one was supposed to be Poltergeist. E.T. was an afterthought.
The movie played at Eric's Theatre in downtown Philadelphia for a year. It was nuts. What I remember most, though, is when it broadened to the suburbs. I was calling around to get the first matinee grosses, and my kid sister, Sandy, answered the phone at one location. She said she was too busy and hung up on me. Star Wars changed how movies were released. The Empire Strikes Back opened everywhere.
Chuck Viane became the head of distribution at Disney, but back then:
I was at General Cinema Theatres in Chicago and running the Midwest. Back then, movies played in exclusive runs in select cities. I bid for Star Wars and won it exclusively for the St. Park, a struggling theater we had just bought in Minneapolis. I don't recall whether it was the first week or weekend, but the St. Park grossed $250,000, more than it had made in the prior three months.
No one could have anticipated that kind of success. You didn't have tracking that spelled out opening-weekend grosses or social media. That's how theaters earned their reputations back then. They had a big picture and played it for a long time. And as a film buyer, you shined if you were the guy who bought the right pictures.
Travis Reid is now the head of distribution at Broad Green Pictures. He actually picked the wrong movie, and it wasn't even The Other Side of Midnight:
We hadn't seen Star Wars before we had to choose. I was a rookie buyer at Theatre Management Inc., based in San Francisco, and cocky enough to think my pick of The Deep - with Jacqueline Bisset in that wet T-shirt - was going to do a lot of business.
Sidenote: It was surprisingly hard to find an image of Bisset from The Deep in which her breasts are not pretty much 100% visible through that wet T-shirt. Some of the old Deep movie posters, the ones Reid might have seen, put those girls on full display.
Bob Lenihan is now the president of programming at AMC Theatres, but back then he was a San Francisco hippie cutting his teeth in the industry. He had a friendly rivalry with Reid:
I was 23 and booking country towns in Northern California for United Artists, which also owned the Coronet Theatre in San Francisco. I tease Travis all the time that the only time I ever won was when he picked The Deep for a theater in Redding, Calif., while I picked Star Wars. On opening day at the Coronet, there were lines around the block. It played there until Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened in December, and we were still hitting our holdover numbers.
Larry Gleason is now with Arenas Entertainment:
I was president of Mann Theatres, which had the Chinese in Hollywood and theaters in Westwood [...] In those days, you had studio customers. Mann's main customers were Paramount and Warner Bros. Once in awhile, you'd play a picture from someone else. Fox's general sales manager at the time, the late Peter Myers, called and said George Lucas really wanted the Chinese. We had two weeks available before we had to play William Friedkin's Sorcerer, from Paramount. Fox has such limited expectations for the film he said that two weeks would be all they needed. After opening weekend, we went to Paramount, but they wouldn't budge. They said we had to live up to our commitment, but we wanted to keep control of Star Wars. We owned another theater in Hollywood that wasn't very nice. It stayed open 24 hours so people slept there. We did a crash renovation, put in new seats, painted it and cleaned it up. We moved Star Wars there, where it played for two weeks before coming back to the Chinese.
Ultimately, Star Wars grossed over $300 million, but what ultimately became of The Other Side of Midnight? It came out a couple weeks after Star Wars and actually did fairly well for itself, if you go by box office gross ($24 million) versus budget ($9 million). That's just not, you know, anywhere near the same financial galaxy as Star Wars. Still, The Other Side of Midnight was nominated for an Academy Award, specifically Best Costume Design. Which film did it lose to? Star Wars. Because of course it did.