A wild roar of “Star Wars” excitement arose from a theater packed with thousands of Hollywood’s glitterati as the familiar words “in a galaxy far, far away” scrolled across the screen for the premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on Monday night.
Down front at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood sat George Lucas, the mastermind behind the “Star Wars” universe, while beside him sat his lifelong friend Steven Spielberg, both of them surrounded by much of Hollywood’s artistic and business royalty.
“It is a true honor to be with all of you at this incredibly low-key premiere,” quipped J.J. Abrams, the co-writer and director of the film, the first revival of the beloved franchise since 2005 when “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” came out.
“George Lucas — from the bottom of my heart — thank you, sir,” Abrams said, which led to a long standing ovation for the filmmaker from the thousands in the room. He also thanked his mentor Spielberg, who Abrams said recommended him for the directing job: “Steven Spielberg, I owed you everything already,” he said. “Dude, I’m tapped out.”
Disney CEO Bob Iger welcomed the crowd, remembering when he saw “Star Wars” for the first time “one summer afternoon” in New York as a young man. “Moviegoing changed forever,” he said. “I stand humbled, incredibly grateful, excited beyond belief.”
It was a night in which Hollywood both looked forward and backward. Backward to the glory days when “Star Wars,” released in 1977, launched a new kind of movie, the blockbuster, that transformed the movie business. And forward, since Abrams – a favorite son of the entertainment industry – carries the torch with a sense of both history and renewal.
It was one of those events that no one wanted to miss. Dawn Hudson, the CEO of the motion picture academy which votes on the Academy Awards, brought her 16-year-old son, though he had two finals the next day. Elizabeth Daley, the dean at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts — where Lucas attended and graduated — was there.
Everyone hummed with excitement, from Disney board member and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — who brought her two children — to the security guards perched in the back of the theater, on guard to confiscate cell phones.
On hand too were chiefs from rival movie studios, top producers from veteran Brian Grazer to rising powerhouse Jonathan Schwartz, along with agents, screenwriters, journalists, critics and lifelong fans of the franchise.
Up on the second mezzanine, director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”) sat expectantly, excited as a couple of teenagers. “I saw ‘Star Wars’ on VHS,” said the writer-director of “Fruitvale Station,” one of moviedom’s brightest talents.
“I saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in the theater,” recalled Trevorrow, who himself became a blockbuster director last summer with “Jurassic World.”
The premiere was a blowout affair that shut down the full length of Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Dolby, but also took over the TLC Chinese Theatre and the Disney-owned El Capitan with simultaneous screenings.
It was as if Disneyland had arrived in Hollywood for the evening. The street was tented from end to end, and filled with displays of light sabers, storm troopers and sand-colored outfits from the planet of Jakku.
After nearly an hour of waiting, the lights finally dimmed in the Dolby.
The audience cheered repeatedly throughout the movie, when John Boyega removed his storm trooper helmet – a familiar sight from the first peek at the movie’s trailer – to when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) reappeared on screen with the beloved Wookiee, Chewbacca.
The sprawling cast attended the premiere, filling up the stage and leading to cheers when Peter Mayhew – the original and current Chewbacca – came out, as did R2-D2 and the new droid, BB-8. Felllow actors Ford, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, Andy Serkis and Max von Sydow brought more roars of appreciation from the crowd.
It was a night when Hollywood remembered that a movie could be a true event. One final nod at history came when Academy Award-winning composer John Williams, who composed the original “Star Wars” theme and also the music for “The Force Awakens,” came out on stage. Once again, the audience rose to its feet in joyful homage.