STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, which opened Dec. 7, 1979, launched a franchise that’s still flying high 42 years later — although it almost didn’t get off the ground as a movie.
Gene Roddenberry, who created the classic series NBC canceled in 1969 after three seasons of unimpressive ratings, tried unsuccessfully to get Paramount to turn it into a film. The studio didn’t agree to make a film until 1975 when the series was doing surprisingly well in syndication with young viewers, who later became known as Trekkies. But after two years of failed efforts to develop a screenplay with an epic feel, Paramount decided to just reboot the TV series as STAR TREK: PHASE II. Then Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND became a mega-hit, opening Dec. 14, 1977, to $5.4M. CLOSE, which cost a then expensive $20M to make, grossed $116.4M. It was 1977’s second-biggest domestic hit after George Lucas’ first STAR WARS with $307.3M. Suddenly, Paramount saw there was a market for sci-fi movies beyond STAR WARS, so it dropped PHASE II and kick-started efforts to produce a major STAR TREK feature on a $15M budget — and to do so at warp speed!
In March 1978, Paramount announced Robert Wise would direct a STAR TREK movie based on the original series. Wise had prime directing credits like the 1951 sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and WEST SIDE STORY & THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which both won Oscars for best picture & directing. Fortunately, PHASE II was supposed to have launched with a two-hour pilot episode called “In Thy Image,” which now became the starting point for the movie. Non-stop revisions followed and continued throughout production, which began Aug. 7, 1978, and wrapped Jan. 26, 1979, on the Paramount lot and in Yellowstone National Park.
For the movie, the starship Enterprise got a better look, new sets were built and new uniforms were designed for the crew — familiar faces like William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (who almost didn’t come back), DeForest Kelley, & James Doohan.
After twists & turns during production that could — and later did — fill books, STAR TREK opened Dec. 7, 1979, to $11.9M at 857 theatres, topping SUPERMAN‘s 3-day record of $10.4M in 1978. It wound up doing $82.3M, making it 1979’s fourth-biggest domestic hit. The franchise to date includes 13 titles and is still going strong. An as-yet-untitled episode will land in theatres on Dec. 22, 2023, with Chris Pine returning as Captain Kirk & Zachary Quinto as Spock.