By now, the star-studded theatrical spectacle known as “Independence Day” has firmly rooted itself in the collective psyche of Americans every year around July.
After its release in 1996, the Hollywood blockbuster — you know, the one where a rag-tag team of humans led by Will Smith courageously repel an extraterrestrial threat? — has become as synonymous with Fourth of July festivities as hot dogs and fireworks.
In 1776, it was the escape from the grip of the British monarchy we Americans found cause to celebrate. Another 220 years later, the film imagined that we — ok, and the rest of humanity, too — moved on to fighting off a threat a little more … out of this world.
Thanks in part to a title that would resonate with American audiences from coast to coast, the film has cemented itself as a cultural icon — its annual televised re-runs around July 4 ensuring its continued relevance.
This year, though, you’ll only find the movie on STARZ, which has exclusive streaming rights through May 2024, a spokeswoman said.
“Come the Fourth of July, there aren’t that many choices (for festive films,) and here you’ve got this one sitting right in the catalogue and its labeled ‘Independence Day,’” said Robert Thompson, professor of television, radio, and film at Syracuse University. “The title invited itself into the annual resurrection of this film; even the older it gets, it gets to keep coming back.”
But it almost wasn’t to be, according to Dean Devlin, who co-wrote the script with the film’s director Roland Emmerich. Had 20th Century Fox (the studio that distributed the film) gotten its way, Devlin said a movie titled “Doomsday” or even “Invasion Earth” could have graced the big screen, potentially falling into obscurity.
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The story goes something like this: Production was already underway in the 1990s for Devlin and Emmerich’s gargantuan alien invasion film when the co-writing duo learned that their preferred title for the blockbuster had come under threat from the studio.
What’s more, Devlin and Emmerich received word that studio heads no longer favored a July 4 premier date. In an email interview with USA TODAY, Devlin said he and Emmerich worried that the studio’s earlier release date and suggested titles would diminish the film’s power to attract audiences.
So, Devlin set out on a stealth mission of sorts to thwart the will of the studio and ensure his title’s survival. David Levinson (played by Jeff Goldblum) — the mastermind whose idea to covertly infect the aliens’ mothership with a virus saves the day — would be proud.
We all remember when Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore delivers his rousing speech ahead of the movie’s climax. As the crew was preparing to film the classic scene, Devlin slyly inserted what has since become perhaps the most iconic line in the film.
“Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!”
But Devlin didn’t stop there.
On the advice from a man who headed distribution, Devlin said he created a poster of the movie emblazoned with the title “Independence Day” and displayed it in a hallway outside of where Rupert Murdoch, the head of the studio, would be sure to see it.
“It worked like a charm, and we got to keep the title,” Devlin said in the email.
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A title alone does not a classic film make.
Fortunately for “Independence Day,” it packs plenty of action, humor and schmaltz into its 145-minute runtime. The film — featuring an ensemble cast that also includes Vivica A. Fox and Randy Quaid — was released on July 2, 1996, which not coincidentally happened to be the day of the month that its story begins.
Upon its release, Thompson said that “Independence Day” lead a revival of the disaster film genre of the mid-to-late ’90s, when advances in technology paved the way for more realistic special effects for it and contemporaries like “Twister” (1996.) And even 27 years later, the film doesn’t quite show its age, Thompson said, adding that its high-octane action is grounded by moving relationships among its characters.
“I think that title is the first and foremost thing that secured it in a place of annual resurrection year after year after year in American culture,” Thompson said. “Yet in many ways, the movie is the cinematic equivalent of of a Fourth of July barbecue: it’s a really high-fat, high-sodium movie.”
That’s why all these years later, television networks still clamor over the rights to the film whenever July rolls around.
“We continue to expand our movie offering with favorite films like ‘Independence Day’that have enduring popularity and built-in awareness,” Alison Hoffman, STARZ president of domestic networks, said in an email to USA TODAY. “Popular library movies can drive engagement, subscriber acquisition and improve retention, especially when scheduled in a way that’s seasonally or culturally relevant.”
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That “Independence Day” has managed to enshrine itself as a cinematic staple every July is not something Devlin said he nor Emmerich ever anticipated. But now, even as he’s long since moved on to other projects — including a 2016 sequel — he delights in seeing its “resurgence” (pun intended) every year as fans recite scenes in costume on YouTube and host themed barbecues.
Hey, I hear Will Smith’s Capt. Hiller really wants to go to one of those.
“When we were making this film, we had no idea it would be anywhere near this kind of a success,” Devlin said. “But once the film came out, Roland Emmerich and I traveled the world for four months, promoting it as it opened in every country. And the incredible response everywhere gave us the feeling that we had created something very special that could last a long time.”
Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @EricLagatta.