Hollywood Flashback: Neil Armstrong's Moonwalk Killed the Box Office in 1969
Ahead of Damien Chazelle's astronaut biopic 'First Man' opening Friday, The Hollywood Reporter takes a look at how the moon landing was positive for TV ratings but negative for the theaters.
The Hollywood Reporter saw the July 20, 1969, moon landing as mostly positive for the entertainment industry, but with some reservations. Neil Armstrong's first lunar steps were definitely good for TV ratings. CBS estimated 150 million total viewers tuned in across all three networks, while NBC put the number at 125 million. (The worldwide estimate was 530 million, or about 14 percent of the global population.)
On the other hand, all those TV viewers were bad for box office. Theaters were empty that Sunday night. Peter Pan and The Love Bug were in the top three, but THR cautioned that the studio-provided grosses were "in some cases, at least, optimistic" considering the mania around the Apollo 11 landing. On the bright side for film, THR quoted an expert who said that computers developed for the space program could help with special effects that would "put a dramatic brake on the trend of global locationing and bring about a sharp return to soundstage production."
Walking on the moon with Armstrong — who went on to appear on Bob Hope specials into the 1980s — was Buzz Aldrin. (Third astronaut Michael Collins flew overhead in the command module.) James Hansen, who wrote First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, upon which Universal's First Man is based, tells THR that Aldrin visited the set during production at Cape Canaveral.
The astronaut, who can become a bit testy when referred to as "the second man on the moon," suggested the film be named Tranquility after Tranquility Base, where the Apollo lunar module landed. "He doesn't like the name of my book or the movie," says Hansen. "Buzz didn't realize it wasn't really an Apollo 11 movie. It was Neil's story. But Buzz certainly deserves his own film."
First Man opens wide Oct. 12.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.