A little before midnight on a seemingly ordinary Wednesday in mid-May, the entrance to Century 16 Theaters on 36th Ave. became the cultural center of Anchorage.
The extra-large parking lot became so jam-packed with vehicles that the front of the theater served as a drop-off point for those hoping to be part of the action. News vans with antennas reaching skyward beamed images of the burgeoning crowd heading through the multiple double–doors into the auditorium.
Photographers snapped photos of moviegoers dressed to the nines. But it wasn’t some Hollywood premiere that drew attention to the local theater: It was the highly anticipated opening of “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.”
“It’s the social event of the season,” said Bryant Mainord, a local filmmaker and former UAA student.
The opening of “Sith,” which held the promise of being darker than the previous movies due to the rise of Darth Vader and the death of most of the Jedi, had fans from all demographics out in droves. No one batted an eye if Boba Fett strolled by with a ticket in hand or did a double take if Obi-Wan held the door for them.
Even reporters lined up for the “Episode III” debut.
KTVA reporter Christine Nangle wanted to cover the opening but had to compete with some of her colleagues at the station to get the gig.
“There was some fighting over the assignment. Angela (Hutti) really wanted to do it too,” Nangle said, while packing up equipment following her last stand-up during the 10 o’clock broadcast.
Nangle wanted to cover the opening because it was upbeat and would include colorful characters, some of which would be in costume.
Mainord arrived at Century 16 before noon on Wednesday, about 12 hours before the opening credits of the new Star Wars flick were set to roll, with no tickets and a plan.
Bearing some “unreleased” Burger King Episode III promotional posters and a Star Wars comic book, his hope was to bribe his way to the front of the line of the 12 fans that had camped for around 15 hours at that point to be the first ones in line.
He went directly to the front and approached the first fan with an offer to let him cut in exchange for the goodies. The super-fan initially seemed disinterested, but after looking over the collectibles he let Mainord in at the front of the line.
“You gotta know how to work these geeks,” said Mainord, who admitted his favorite Star Wars film is “Return of the Jedi.”
Star Wars creator George Lucas and distributor 20th Century Fox know how to work not only geeks, but the American public as well. In its first 24 hours in North American theaters, “Revenge of the Sith” grossed a record $50 million, the highest box office tally for a single day, according to studio estimates issued Friday.
It sold an estimated $108.5 million worth of tickets for the Friday-to-Sunday period, taking its total to $158.5 million since it opened after midnight on Thursday. The four-day haul sets another new record.
“Sith” debuted on about 9,400 screens in nearly 3,700 theaters in the United States and Canada and the movie also opened internationally. The $50 million total eclipsed the previous opening-day box office record set last summer by “Spider-Man 2” — $40.4 million — and the $44.8 million single-day benchmark “Shrek 2” grossed in its fourth day of release, according to Exhibitor Relations Inc.
The appeal of Star Wars to fans of all ages was apparent outside the theater.
Mark Behnen, an 18-year-old journalism major, and friend Eric Dunham, a 20-year-old welder, took pulls from their cigarettes while occasionally tapping their lightsabers together, but not too hard.
“These are $120 at Best Buy,” Dunham said.
For Dunham, the fancy lightsaber came as a gift from his girlfriend Samantha Lewis, who goes to the movies only because Dunham does. Lewis said that Dunham was reluctant to go out with her at first. But he came around after she bought him Episodes IV-VI on DVD.
“It was awesome,” he said.
“Oh, he cried,” she said.
“I did not,” Dunham shot back with lightsaber in hand.
While there were plenty of costumes to take note of outside, some of the best action took place inside the theater. But not on the screen.
After getting into the theater, Mainord and his buddies decided that, with an hour to go before the show, they needed entertainment. So Mainord walked to the front of the auditorium clad in a ketchup-stained Punisher t-shirt and, after some initial heckling from the crowd, convinced the costumed, lightsaber-wielding fans in attendance to participate in an audience-judged tournament.
Century management halted the tourney after seven applause-fueled saber battles but that didn’t dampen the spirits of Mainord.
“It was electric,” he said while searching the crowd outside for someone to bum a cigarette from. “You could feel it in the air.”