Two modern day classics, Sorcerer (1977) and Blade Runner (1982), may today be seen as cinematic triumphs but at the time they first released, both films were devoured by the ones that released alongside.
While it wouldn’t be completely fair to blame the initial failure of Sorcerer and Blade Runner on the runaway success of Star Wars(1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) respectively, but when compared to the latter summer blockbusters, the former appeared to be a tad too pessimistic. Looking back today — 39 years after the first Star Wars movie hit the screens on 25 May 1977, and 34 years after the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (11 June 1982) — there doesn’t seem to be any other reason than the timing of their release that could be attributed to the initial failure of Sorcerer and Blade Runner.
The alacrity with the audiences warmed up to Star Wars, which was unlike any summer release ever before considering that even the people involved with the making expected the new-age sci-fi to fail. Just a couple of years ago, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) had redefined the high-profile summer release but in the interim, when no other film came close to those parameters, many in the trade had thought that the old-fashioned ‘high-budget-star-studded’ extravaganzas would continue to be the norm.
Perhaps that’s the reason the grandiosity of William Friedkin, director of Sorcerer; and Francis Ford Coppola, who was in the throes of making Apocalypse Now (1979); were entertained across budget and production. Friedkin was the golden boy of the so-called New Hollywood and with The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) behind him, there wasn’t anything that he couldn’t get away with.
Friedkin’s audacity of remaking one of the most beloved films in the world, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear (1953) was just the beginning of the misadventure called Sorcerer and the morbid tale of men working hard to gain nothing.
Friedkin had originally wanted Steve McQueen to lead the cast but had to settle for Roy Schneider. He saw the production get delayed and the budget skyrocket, thanks to him building then tearing down and then rebuilding a rickety bridge over a wild river for the film’s climax. The film’s brilliant centerpiece features heavy trucks going over a wood and rope bridge in a torrential downpour. This jaw-dropping sequence was done without computer generated imagery and is called a masterpiece rightly so.
While it's the washout of Heaven's Gates (1980), a film that lost over $ 40 million, that ended the age of New Hollywood, it wouldn't be incorrect to say that Sorcerer's failure might have sowed the seeds for it. Sorcerer had gone way over budget, but being the follow-up to The Exorcist, Friedkin was allowed do anything that he saw fit.
Released a few weeks after Star Wars, Sorcerer was overswept by the tidal wave the George Lucas film turned out to be and with it somewhere the definition of a blockbuster and ‘high profile’ director also changed. Unlike Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich or Friedkin, both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were considered the ‘good’ boys.
While Lucas would never work for anyone else, Spielberg was reasonable, and even malleable, for studios to deal with but most importantly attuned to the kind sure-shot summer hits that the bosses wanted. By the time Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner released the field had changed and the writing on the wall was clear that the crowd-pleaser films would get more attention.
Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Blade Runner is a bleak tale set in the dystopian future where genetically engineered replicants, or robots that resemble humans, that are banned from being on Earth and relegated to do dangerous work on far off colonies. If replicants returned to Earth, they are hunted and killed by special police known as Blade Runners.
BladeRunner had split the critics – some praised its thematic complexity while some like the late Roger Ebert called it a waste of time. Like many Ebert, too, later changed their views on the film and now it’s called one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Blade Runner released alongside Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), John Carpenter’sThe Thing (1982) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and made just $ 6.5 million in it’s opening weekend.
Like in the case of Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye (2008), one of the most acclaimed films in recent times, but it sank at the box office as it released on the very day the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks commenced. The film lost on the opening weekend and later the mood of the nation wasn’t one where films were a priority.
In India, stars have their favorite release dates and often fight to retain that - Eid means a Salman Khan film, Christmas and New Year’s is usually for Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar prefers the first week of January and then the early part of the summer vacations, and Shah Rukh Khan prefers Diwali.
In late 2015, Sanjay Leela Bhansali refused to give up a Diwali release for Bajirao Mastani (2015) for Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwale (2015). Perhaps the timing of a film’s release does play a very vital role.