Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back has recently celebrated 40 triumphant years since its initial release at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on May 17, 1980. It’s hard to overstate just how influential Empire has been on blockbusters, franchises, science fiction, and even the ways huge plot twists can fuel addictive interest in an ongoing, cinematic story spread across multiple chapters.
Empire wasn’t really the first movie to do a lot of the great things it did. But it was a defining moment for one of Hollywood’s most financially reliable properties — just look at the merchandising numbers alone. It proved that the global success of Star Wars in 1977 was no fluke. This young filmmaker, George Lucas, had an undeniable knack for storytelling, as he was able to combine thrilling set pieces and action-packed battles, soap-operatic space drama, and a deep and rich mythology into a movie that continues to be a pop culture staple.
Crunching The Numbers
This might surprise some of you who weren’t around back then, but the box office legacy of Empire isn’t nearly as impressive as its predecessor. Star Wars (later, A New Hope) grossed roughly $225 million domestically between 1977 and 1978. Adjusted for inflation, that translates to about $887.5 million.
By contrast, Empire made less in its first 63 weeks than New Hope made in 61: $188.3 million domestically, which adjusted for inflation today is about $531.2 million (the rate was much lower in 1981 compared to 1978). To be fair, Empire did have a far bigger opening month at the box office, it just didn’t have the same legs. Like New Hope, it opened over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, but Empire did far better box office: $6.4 million ($19.9 million today). This is mainly because it opened in more theaters, as the first Star Wars only opened in about 43 theaters compared to 126 for Empire.
Those opening weekend numbers may sound a little low compared to the films coming out today, but 126 screens is considered a limited release in 2020. Before theaters closed for the pandemic, we were regularly seeing major studio tentpole films opening in over 4,000 theaters all at once. Certain current day wide-release films might only make about $20-30 million in their opening weekends, so not much more than Empire did with a fraction of the screens available today.
Additionally, Empire had a pretty low budget compared to today’s blockbusters: just $33 million, which adjusts to $102.6 million by 2020 standards. Compare that to the most recent Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, which cost an estimated $275 million before marketing and went on to make just a little over $1 billion by the end of its run.
Worldwide, the official box office totals for Empire stand at $547.9 million, but that’s not a simple number to calculate for inflation, because it includes totals from multiple years and re-releases. It’s far easier to analyze the domestic numbers, because we do have access to those yearly totals. Adjusted for inflation, Empire made about $453.9 million in 1980, $155 million in 1981, $57.9 million in 1982, and $107.8 million in its 1997 re-release.
Altogether, that means Empire has earned about $775 million domestically since 1980, which would make it the third highest-grossing film of all time in North America, between Avatar (2009) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). As you might recall, the #1 spot is still held by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Even if you don’t factor in the extra $257.6 million from international markets, Empire is still one of the most financially profitable blockbusters of all time…from a certain point of view.