An unusual bout of cold weather greeted attendees of last night’s Hollywood premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, going hand in hand with the crisp, efficient precision of Disney’s setup that blocked off a four-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard and corralled fans like visitors to Disneyland without incident, for what certainly was one of the biggest movie premieres of all time. From the visitor check-in at 5 PM to the end of the post-film party sometime after midnight, proceedings were short on spontaneity, long on security, but meticulously planned, and full of reverence for the Star Wars franchise that gave the affair a fun, ritualistic feeling. It was almost like going to church — if communion happened at the end of services that started an hour-and-a-half late and lasted for several hours.
If anything defined the evening’s proceedings, thought, it was reverence — for the franchise, for the universe in which it takes place, and especially for the man who created it. George Lucas was of course in attendance, flanked by his family and by best friend Stephen Spielberg, and prior to the start of the show, audiences in all three theaters — premiere-goers were sent to the main Dolby Theatre where the pre-game festivities were held, as well as the Chinese Theatre and Disney’s El Capitan across the street — were treated to an introduction (piped in from the Dolby) from Disney CEO Bob Iger that was as solemn and celebratory as an Oscar acceptance speech. Iger discussed Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and thanked Lucas personally for his vision and creativity. Lucas stood and waved, and a standing ovation greeted him, giving the event the feel of a live theatrical performance where the playwright himself was in the audience.
Iger then brought out Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn, followed by Lucasfilm honcho Kathleen Kennedy and The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams. Kennedy told a story about her experience with the company, how long she’s known Lucas, and how she met JJ Abrams when he was a 16-year old kid restoring old Super-8 films Steven Spielberg shot when he was a kid. She praised his work on the film we were all there to see, saying that Abrams “exceeded our loftiest dreams and expectations.”
Then it was JJ’s turn to gush. He expressed his love of George Lucas’ work, then praised his idol and mentor Spielberg. Insisting his career already owed so much to the man that, he joked, “I’m tapped out… I have nothing more of value to give you.” Abrams then brought out original The Force Awakens screenwriter Michael Arndt and his re-write co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, followed by the cast of the film, all of whom — especially the original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill — received rapturous applause. And then, the film finally, almost an hour later than scheduled, began.
We can’t talk about the film until midnight tonight, but I can tell you the audience reaction was mostly very positive, but definitely mixed. (See our own review when it goes live at midnight tonight for why that is.) Wild cheers and applause greeted the familiar opening crawl and fanfare, as it did the introduction of the main characters, one by one, right up to the end of the film. Again, embargo, so mum’s the word. But I can tell you I had a blast watching it and I’m glad I was there. As I did, after standing in line for nearly 30 minutes waiting to get my cell phone back, at the reception immediately following the movie. What did you think that tent was for?
At the reception, the hoi polloi was largely separated from the VIPs who occupied their own section at one end of the tent. But the drinks flowed freely, food was delicious, and the talk was as nerdy as it gets as we all tried to figure out exactly how we felt after seeing the first new installment of a franchise most people assumed was over in 2005. That conversation, I can assure you, will be ongoing for months.
If you weren’t part of making the film, Disney played no favorites for the massive premiere — not even for media. As the sun went down over Hollywood, temperatures dropped into the 40s, positively freezing by Los Angeles standards, the result a long snaking line of chilly moviegoers who waited, at least in my case, for nearly 40 minutes to get past the security checkpoint and through the metal detectors set up at various entry points along Hollywood Boulevard and various cross streets.
Star Wars fans costumed and not who had been camped out — some for several days — for Thursday night’s first official screenings of the film got a pair of happy surprises yesterday. First, they were told 100 of them would be able to get into the red carpet area, and later some scored prized ducats to the premiere screenings.
Good for them that their dedication paid off (and avoiding the frustration of not seeing the premiere but watching thousands who did.). The area was on serious lockdown, with Hollywood Boulevard closed from Highland Avenue clear down to Sycamore, a good half-mile. Everyone passed through metal detectors just to get into the blocked off sidewalks next to the massive reception tent, and another one to get into the tent itself. The LAPD was out in full force as well, with bomb-sniffing dogs, extra patrols and about 70 officers assigned to foot patrol. Other local law-enforcement agencies also helped out. Even Abrams apologized to the local residents — once during his red carpet interview on StarWars.com that was piped into theaters before the festivities began, and again during his opening remarks.
That level of security was a must because there wasn’t just one screening of the latest film in the Star Wars canon. With 932 seats at the Chinese (where I saw the film, along with a couple of other members of the Deadline team), 1300 at the El Capitan and 3400 at the Dolby, a lot of people — civilians, media and celebrities alike — had to be seated in time for the 6:30 PM movie start time.
Once past the security checkpoints, the tent itself was as immersive as a Disneyland ride. A long, blue-tinted corridor full of Star Wars artifacts, booths and the like greeted attendees as they walked to their respective theaters, putting everyone in the mood for a very Star Wars Christmas. Which was smart, because as it turned out, that 6:30 start time was but a suggestion. Perhaps it was the slow process by which people were shuffled into the event. Maybe it was the line caused by the confiscation of cell phones prior to the theater entry (no devices were allowed in). Clearly, the logistics of herding so many cats at once meant that the first casualty of (marketing) warfare was the planning. The film itself finally got underway at close to 8 PM.
All in all it was a staggering accomplishment pulled off so Disney told us by Lylle Breier and her special events team. Thousands of people, plenty of food and drinks and a peek at Star Wars all went off without any hitches. Unless you’re sensitive to the cold like me.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.