How Ashley Boone, Jr. Made Star Wars a Hit
As the Star Wars franchise has become a cultural juggernaut, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always this way. Before it even became a franchise, it was just a little movie that could. Even though George Lucas had had success before, it wasn’t a guarantee that his space opera could repeat the success of his previous film, American Graffiti. In fact, Star Wars might not have become the iconic property it is if it weren’t for Ashley Boone, Jr.
Who Was Ashley Boone, Jr?
A native of Massachusetts, Ashley Boone, Jr., graduated from Brandeis with a degree in economics. Although he considered going into finance, he met Brandeis trustee—and United Artists co-chair—Robert Benjamin, who altered his career path. Boone went into the trainee program at UA and learned how to promote movies. However, as his career moved him through CBS films, and then through Sidney Poitier’s production company, as well as a stint working for Motown CEO Berry Gordy, Boone built a reputation as an innovator. That soon transformed into his being a hitmaker.
For example, he pioneered the practice of “saturation booking,” or what we’d call “wide release” today. While working at 20th Century Fox, he wanted the 1974 Peter Fonda-starrer Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to make its money back quickly. So under his direction, the studio dropped the film in many, many theaters at once. The film went on to become Fox’s highest-grossing movie that year. But perhaps in an echo of how Boone’s been largely erased from the Star Wars story, the film many associate with saturation booking is Jaws, which came out a year after Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.
That movie wasn’t Boone’s only marketing success, though. Today, for example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is inextricably linked with late-night screenings. It was Boone who built that, marketing the film through midnight showings. He also used sneak previews to build buzz around other movies that went on to become iconic, like The Omen. So he was an old hand by the time George Lucas finished his space movie.
Ashley Boone, Jr. Sells Star Wars
image via Disney
That doesn’t mean, however, that he felt ready. Although Boone loved the movie, which he saw in a screening in San Francisco, he knew he faced an uphill battle. At that point, theaters nationwide had promised only $1.5 million in guarantees. The movie had to make $32 million just to earn back its budget. For Ashley Boone, Jr., to make Star Wars a hit, he had to sell it in a way that hadn’t been done before. So he started thinking.
Back in the olden times, the summer movie season didn’t actually start until summer was already well underway. However, Boone figured out that since young people were going to be a large chunk of the target market, why not let them market it? If they released the movie while kids were still in school, then they could see it, return to school, and tell their friends about it. Then they would see it, return to school, and tell other friends about it. (Releasing it early also freed it from direct competition with movies like The Spy Who Loved Me and Smokey and the Bandit.)
So they released Star Wars on May 25, 1977, a Wednesday. It hit only 32 theaters at first, spreading to a whopping 43 by Friday. In addition, many of them had to be essentially forced into ordering Star Wars if they wanted 1977’s sure-fire hit, The Other Side of Midnight. (You know, your favorite movie.)
Why Isn’t Ashley Boone, Jr. Remembered with Star Wars?
The rest, of course, is well-known. Star Wars became a hit nearly instantly. Not only did it make back its budget, but it became one of the highest-grossing films of all-time. It spawned 2 immediate-ish sequels, and of course, the cavalcade of movies and merchandising that followed.
Return of the Jedi audience reactions from 1983 pic.twitter.com/ObJ3h5KMHC
— Eyes On Cinema (@RealEOC) December 21, 2019
Boone’s contribution did not go unnoticed, as The Hollywood Reporter wrote. They quote an Associated Press article that noted, “Time-worn methods of selling movies are getting a shake-up by a new generation of marketers, and one of those leading the revolution is Ashley Boone.”
But today, Star Wars discussions rarely, if ever, mention Ashley Boone, Jr’s contribution to the franchise’s history. Until last week, Boone, a trailblazer in so many ways, didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. He’s not remembered by the same fans who so painstakingly catalog every other detail. In its article, The Hollywood Reporter asks why. And although it would be nice to attribute the omission to something else, the answer seems obvious.
Ashley Boone, Jr., was a black man doing a job that few, if any, black men had done before him. The only thing sadder than his being mostly forgotten in Star Wars lore is that so few black people have been able to follow in his footsteps. The ones who did, like the ones whom Boone mentored, remember him fondly. But like one of those mentees, Reginald Hudlin told The Hollywood Reporter, “The tragic part is you can’t point to a black executive today in an equivalent position to where he was all those years ago. And I think that is an industry embarrassment.”
The End of an Era
Ashley Boone, Jr., died in 1993, shortly after doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. Alan Ladd, Jr., with whom Boone worked for many years, including on Star Wars, remembered him as “the most decent man I’ve ever met.”
Boone didn’t live to see the prequels or the sequels or the spin-offs. He never saw Disney subsume Star Wars or visit the experiences at the theme parks. However, Lucas told The Hollywood Reporter that he believes that Boone would have been “like the rest of us–he’d be amazed. Like, what happened?!” If only he’d gotten to see it all. If only he were better remembered.
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featured image via Disney
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.