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History in Objects: Raiders of the Lost Ark Preview Card

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How a preview screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark determined the outcome of one of the film’s most memorable scenes

“History in Objects” is a continuing series exploring Lucasfilm’s legacy stretching from our founding in 1971 to today. Through objects both rare and commonplace, the company’s past, present, and future are brought to life.

For years San Francisco’s Northpoint Theatre served as Lucasfilm’s preferred venue for test audience preview screenings, from the original Star Wars: A New Hope several weeks before its release in May, 1977 to Radioland Murders in the fall of 1994. A favorite venue for Lucasfilm employee screenings as well, the theater sadly closed its doors in 1997, ending a celebrated 30-year run and cementing its place in Lucasfilm history.

Tucked into the Lucasfilm marketing files for Raiders of the Lost Ark, a single audience review card survives from a sneak preview screened at the Northpoint on May 9, 1981. The reviewer, likely a Bay Area resident, indicated he was a 16 to 20-year-old male and a weekly movie-goer whose favorite film to date had been Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic, The Shining. The reviewer wrote that he found nothing to dislike about Raiders, noting its “great action” and that it was “very well balanced,” and rated several prescribed scenes from one (“opening of the ark”) to seven (“flying wing fight”), omitting or missing the submarine scene.

One scene not listed on the card — one that would be famously locked during this very preview screening – was the skirmish between Indy and the hulking swordsman in the streets of Cairo.

As recounted in J.W. Rinzler’s The Complete Making of Indiana Jones, this scene had been shot two ways – one where Indy battles the scimitar-wielding bad guy with his whip, and one where an exhausted and battered Indy simply shoots the villain before their fight begins. Executive producer George Lucas reportedly preferred the version with the drawn-out fight, while director Steven Spielberg liked the shorter version. They decided they’d include the shorter scene in a preview screening at the Northpoint and gauge the audience response. According to executive producer Howard Kazanjian, the reaction was decisive. “The audience went crazy,” he says. “It was the biggest laugh in the movie.” Lucas concurred, “Well, I guess that works.”

With the shorter scene now finalized for the looming June 12th release, promotion for the film went uncharacteristically quiet until a week from that date, when TV ads started airing and special sneak previews began screening. It was a risky move, since most major productions would have had weeks if not months of prior advertising. The marketers’ bet was that the film would be carried by strong word of mouth once it started playing in theaters. The bet paid off, according to then-Lucasfilm senior vice president Sid Ganis. “It was the film that became everyone’s discovery,” he told the trade publication Advertising Age in 1981.

Any pre-release anxiety was likely tempered, at least a little bit, by test audience members like the one who filled out the “great action” and “very well balanced” review card, even if he had no idea he had helped decide the fate of one of Raiders’ most memorable scenes.

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