Set Up to Fail: A History of Movies That Debuted Against Blockbusters

THE DATE: May 21, 1980
THE BLOCKBUSTER: The Empire Strikes Back
THE COUNTER-PROGRAMMING: The Shining, The Gong Show Movie
THE RESULTS: By the time the sequel to Star Wars was ready three years later, the smash success of the first film made its follow-up the summer’s 800-pound gorilla. George Lucas again staked out Memorial Day weekend, with a release on Wednesday, May 21st. But two competitors appeared that Friday (May 23rd) to challenge it, and they couldn’t have been more different: Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, and Chuck Barris’ film adaptation of his trashy TV effort The Gong Show. Empire handily won the weekend, of course, racking up nearly $9 million on only 126 screens. If that number still seems tiny, keep in mind that big movies were still prone to the “platform” release strategy, opening on a few screens in major markets and slowly expanding. The main movies that “opened wide” were those that were presumed to be stinkers, films that critics and audiences wouldn’t like, and that therefore wouldn’t benefit from the positive word-of-mouth accompanying a slow roll-out—films, for example, like The Gong Show Movie, which came in second for the weekend with $1.5 million, but on 775 screens. The Shining, on the other hand, only debuted in ten theaters, grossing about $600,000, though it went on to do about $44 million. Empire, needless to say, remained the winner, bringing in over $200 million domestic in that initial run.