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On May 25, 1977, 33-year-old writer-director George Lucas premiered his third film—a sci-fi flick called Star Wars that didn’t inspire much faith from 20th Century Fox. (Indeed, they were convinced their big summer release was going to be the adaptation of the Sidney Sheldon novel The Other Side of Midnight.)
Star Wars was only produced because the second film from Lucas, 1973’s American Graffiti, had been a massively profitable hit (made for roughly $750,000, it earned over $100 million). Thus he had the clout to return to the science fiction of his far less successful debut, 1971’s THX 1138.
Then something funny happened: Star Wars became a hit. Not just a hit, but a blockbuster. Indeed, it literally busted blocks. Initially released in just 32 theaters, the studio quickly noticed lines down the street and beyond. By the end of its initial 18-month run, the film broke all box office records with a $307.3 million haul. Adjusted for inflation, this would be well over a billion today.
By 1983, the film had become such a phenomenon that “Star Wars” was used to describe President Ronald Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program. (It was originally intended as mockery, but Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation speculated the sarcasm was lost because of how deeply the film impressed most people.)
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Star Wars — now officially known as Episode IV: A New Hope — here are some of the ways it immediately altered our world.
Movies suddenly had to open big. It used to be that films opened in a few theaters and then added a few more. “It was called a roadshow,” says Paul Dergarabedian, the Senior Media Analyst from ComScore.
If a movie did well, they kept building, slowly and steadily. In 1972, The Godfather suggested there might be a more direct approach. Instead of expanding over a period of months —yes, the movie biz was a very gradual creature at this point — one week The Godfather was in five theaters and the next it was in 316. In 1975, Jaws added another element to the blockbuster formula by announcing its arrival with a huge amount of television advertising. With Star Wars, the summer-smash playbook was perfected: In 1977 alone, it earned about $200 million in the U.S. (equivalent to over $800 million today) on a budget of roughly $11 million and came to play in over 1,000 theaters simultaneously.
Suddenly, big movies were events — everyone knew about them in advance and had to see them ASAP. Four decades later, this method for creating a summer sensation still is the preferred model for Hollywood studios, to the point Dergarabedian notes Star Wars: Episode IX will open on May 24, 2019, nearly 42 years to the day after the original’s debut.
Of course, there are two downsides to the blockbuster approach:
—More screens for Star Wars-type films meant less screens for everything else, in particular movies perceived as adult and not appealing to child viewers.
—Today, big movies no longer have time to find an audience, to the point we can proclaim a film a financial disaster during its first weekend. (Thou art slain, King Arthur.) This has led to Hollywood embracing projects perceived to have a “built-in” following, such as remakes or TV adaptations, and avoiding chances on riskier unknowns.
Taken together, it all adds up to the much debated theory that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg killed the serious film with their 70s blockbusters.
Respect for an entire genre. Science fiction fans may complain the genre still doesn’t receive enough acclaim, but pre-Star Wars Hollywood treated it with downright contempt. After all, sci-fi flicks were deemed “B movies,” unworthy of big budgets, major stars, and general studio support. And come awards season, forget it. Even Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 failed to earn a Best Picture nod. Star Wars, however, refused to be denied, with 10 nominations including Best Picture. While it didn’t take the top prize, it did collect six other Oscars plus a Special Achievement Award. Science fiction hardly dominates the Academy Awards today, but since Star Wars it’s a regular part of the mix, with Best Picture nominees including E.T., Avatar, and The Martian. Related to this…
Classy casting. Sir Alec Guinness came to regret picking up the lightsaber for a script he deemed “fairy-tale rubbish,” but his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi paved the way for other esteemed thespians to dabble in the genre. It also emboldened filmmakers to go for such performers, resulting in the balding Shakespearean Patrick Stewart taking the USS Enterprise for a spin on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Today, we live in an era when it makes perfect sense for Doctor Strange to turn to Brits Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, who between them have been nominated for every acting prize known to mankind, and earn over $650 million worldwide in the process.
A toy takeover. Star Wars opened in May of 1977. Half a year later, parents rushed to stores to purchase action figures of C3PO and other characters as Christmas gifts and found empty boxes. Not because everything had sold out, but because the stores were selling actual empty boxes from the toy company Kenner. “They had to give the people something and figures could take time to produce, so they came up with the Early Bird Certificate,” says Travis Stein, the Operations Manager for leading Star Wars collectibles site Brian’s Toys.
Demand was so great that customers eagerly snatched up those containers guaranteeing their children would be shipped action figures in just a few short months or so. (This was a more patient era.) There had been movie merchandise before, but Star Wars demonstrated the tie-ins could be as valuable as the actual picture. In fact, more so: In 2016, movie merchandise sales were reported to have reached $251.7 billion… while the total North American box office was only $11.14 billion. Incidentally, those early Star Wars figures weren’t just a great gift, but a fantastic investment: Stein notes if you’re lucky enough to have a “Double Telescoping Darth Vader” still in its original package, it could go for upwards of $60,000.
The director as mogul. George Lucas certainly wasn’t the first filmmaker to become rich and famous. However, no one before him had the clout to eventually keep multiple cities on edge, waiting to see if they would get the honor of being home to his billion-dollar museum. (George ultimately decided to put the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.) As Star Wars generated frightening amounts of money, Lucas had the Yoda-like vision to make sure a lot of it wound up in his own pocket. He is the richest man in Hollywood, with a fortune worth over $5 billion. Quite simply, Lucas proved that the artist who truly understood it’s show business could make films and build a financial empire at the same time.
Of course, it helped that Fox had underestimated the movie it owned. For Lucas, the key to his fortune was retaining the sequel rights to Star Wars. As his then attorney (and future Universal Pictures chairman) Tom Pollock recounted to Deadline in 2015, this was less a cunning financial stratagem at the time, than a desire to guarantee his projects wouldn’t be stuck in development hell: “George just wanted to be able to make the movies he wanted to make.” Lucas’s longtime friend and Indiana Jones collaborator Steven Spielberg has ably followed his lead, having co-founded a studio and collected over $3 billion of his own.
It proved fans would embrace entire worlds. People have long loved James Bond, but they aren’t prepared to watch an entire film about Miss Moneypenny. With Star Wars, moviegoers connected with everyone. Even today, the names “Han Solo,” “Chewbacca,” and “Darth Vader” are instantly recognizable. More impressively, minor characters refuse to be forgotten. (Has anyone achieved greater fame off less screen time than Greedo?) Lucas was both willing to discard beloved characters — Obi-Wan Kenobi couldn’t even make it through the first movie — and continually introduce new ones. This was a lucrative realization, as the ever-expanding Marvel Universe proves today, with films setting up not only sequels, but also spin-offs.
The movie world now is very different than it was in 1977: back then there was no streaming, the VCR was just coming out, and the second biggest hit of the year was Smokey and the Bandit. Whether you love or loathe cinema today, we owe much of it to Mr. Lucas. And his legacy will only grow in the years to come. “Kids today will be seeing new Star Wars content when they’re old enough to take their kids to the movie theater,” says Dergarabedian, asserting we shouldn’t be surprised if our children celebrate the 80th anniversary come 2057.
Below, watch the original trailer for Star Wars, which promised, “The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe”—and ably delivered on that vow.