It’s hard to believe, but Star Wars has been part of our world for just over 45 years.
Instead of being relegated to a generational fad, one that nostalgic members of Gen X and older millennials would occasionally go back to, Star Wars changed pop culture and American cinema forever.
Its success led to the rise of the blockbuster in Hollywood, made studios realize that there are profits to be made with merchandise, and that genre filmmaking with an emphasis on special effects can not just attract a niche of dedicated followers, but also devoted crowds of fans.
Starting with A New Hope becoming the highest grossing movie of all time when it was released, Star Wars eventually achieved a similar status, but as a franchise. To this day, Star Wars is the fifth most profitable media franchise ever, only beaten by the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, the “Mickey Mouse” universe, Hello Kitty, and Pokemon.
Considering how long Star Wars has been around, and all the pop culture phenomena that could have competed with it, such as Marvel, Toy Story, and Harry Potter, where it stands is an admittedly impressive feat.
It is unsurprising that Star Wars managed to hold such a tight grip on pop culture, of course. The stories might take place in a galaxy far, far away, but this ever-expansive universe managed to insert itself into the consciousness of people who don’t even care for the franchise. It is that ingrained within the global public consciousness.
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Everyone is familiar with lexicon like “jedi,” “lightsaber,” “the Force,” and “Death Star.” Likewise, names like “Luke Skywalker,” “Princess Leia,” “Han Solo,” “Darth Vader,” and “Yoda” are instantly recognizable. Even with a tumultuous history and controversial subsequent trilogies, Star Wars lives on as a pop culture institution.
It might be hard to believe, since Star Wars is now so huge and its ubiquity so baked into the cultural zeitgeist, but in the franchise’s early days, it was anything but a guaranteed hit. George Lucas’ own personal grievances regarding film production, the lack of faith in such a seemingly tacky project, the smaller budget than needed for Lucas’ vision of the special effects, and a looming science fiction stigma all contributed to the initial lack of interest in Star Wars. He is no underdog now, but George Lucas pulled off the ultimate gamble, and we can all learn a lot from it.
How Star Wars’ Almost Failed
It might be hard to believe, considering how tied to consumption Star Wars is as a franchise, but George Lucas is much more of an auteur than his pop credentials suggest. The man’s cinematic knowledge and skills were the result of his admiration for samurai flicks and the French New Wave. When he was growing up, the Golden Age of Hollywood was still underway, and American cinema was still figuring itself out. The aggressive commercial side of the entertainment industry depended on the marketability of the leads rather than combining it with brand loyalty.
Star Wars was born of Lucas’ genuine love for science fiction and the wave of filmmaking he got to experience, especially samurai movies. It is an amalgamation of his artistic interests and passions. Despite being the epitome of merchandising filmmaking, Star Wars was the product of Lucas’ genuine creative vision. The man bragged about becoming a millionaire before his 20s end, and he did so, but not with Star Wars. That simply ended up being the biggest payoff after a plethora of challenges.
The biggest burden for Star Wars’ production, at least in regards to optics, was the American public’s perception of science fiction as a genre, particularly within “serious” artistic circles. Relegated to the same stigma other niche genres, such as horror and fantasy, had to face, science fiction was often dismissed as too pulpy to show any artistic potential. That is, despite several science fiction stories, such as Frankenstein and Brave New World, becoming canonized as classic analyses of the human condition.
Science fiction was so derided, even Harlan Ellison, one of the genre’s most prolific writers, refused to be associated with the term. Star Wars, as a movie belonging to this stigmatized genre that relies heavily on special effects, was predictably met with condescension and derision.
Science fiction movies and television shows, even serious ones, are commonplace nowadays. There is even an entire channel dedicated to the genre. Alien, a celebrated hybridization of two stigmatized genres — science fiction and the aforementioned horror — was released a year after Star Wars and is one of the most celebrated films of its decade and genres.
While science fiction’s place in society is far from perfect, people have no trouble taking it seriously. The stark difference in attitude is why Star Wars was so risky, and why its success was a miracle like no other for George Lucas.
How Star Wars Reinvented Hollywood Success
The blockbuster is now the kind of work expected out of filmmakers in Hollywood. While there were still comments from the executives behind commercial filmmaking, especially with how marketable movie stars became, all films were expected to be singular stories, and not make money beyond the box office.
Star Wars might not have completely revamped how blockbusters and the commercial aspects of filmmaking are dealt with in Hollywood, but it was certainly a major player. Steven Spielberg and his unexpected hit, Jaws, truly started the blockbuster movement, and that was only a couple of years before Star Wars’ release. George Lucas’ faith in his own work likely depended on how beloved and impactful Jaws was.
Back then, aside from maybe animated movies, especially the ones made by Disney, there was not a lot of merchandise tied to the release of new films. As a result, when George Lucas decided to cut part of his salary to get all the profits gained from Star Wars products, executives thought the deal was a steal. The contract ended up being a steal, but to Lucas’ benefit.
How Star Wars Led the Rise of Film Merchandise
Merchandise tied to Star Wars was inevitable, even for a Hollywood fan of the time. While the world’s unique inhabitants, landmarks, and objects are the product of George Lucas’ own imagination, some of them, like the lightsabers and non-human characters like Chewbacca and R2-D2, are ideal for merchandising. In hindsight, Star Wars was a perfect movie to promote through merchandise, especially the likes of posters, toys and clothing.
Even still, George Lucas was unsure of the film’s success, and so was the cast and crew. Only Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness, who played Grand Moff Tarkin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively, thought the movie would have any lasting appeal, let alone financial success; this, despite Guinness’ infamous disdain for the film’s plot and dialogue.
The gloom felt during production quickly turned to bliss as soon as Star Wars came out. Instantly successful, it became a dominant force in the box office and most critics enjoyed the seemingly cheesy space adventure. The film got what it wanted for Hollywood standards, and kickstarted a “revolution.” The stigma surrounding science fiction, and Star Wars’ success led numerous people to associate the movie with children, but the success integrated people of all ages.
Lucas’ decision to get all the merchandising rights may not have been done with the intention of getting rich, but he sure did. This gamble is arguably the most successful in the history of pop culture, or even cinema as a whole.
Hollywood in the 1980s: Star Wars’ Influence Keeps Getting Stronger
Star Wars was quick to get a sequel for a movie of its time. Hollywood seldom entertained the idea of producing sequels, even for financial reasons. Even if the executives wanted to fund these projects, sequels have, rather rightfully, earned the reputation of generally being inferior to their predecessors.
The new decade started, and Star Wars thwarted expectations. It delivered one of the most famous plot twists in fiction through The Empire Strikes Back, which in itself surprised people by not just being a good movie, but a potentially better work than the original, now retitled A New Hope.
By the time The Empire Strikes Back swooped in, Star Wars’ place in pop culture was firmly set in stone. It wasn’t just a fad, nor was it a product of 1970s pop culture. With two successful movies and plenty of supplementary media to keep fans engrossed, Star Wars entered the 1980s as a canonized franchise.
Of course, while Star Wars was embraced by a significant portion of the population, the rise of the blockbuster did not sit well with numerous critics. More serious filmmakers lamented the transition of the American movie experience from a grounded exploration of the human condition to a glorified spectacle, despite these new movies’ plots being as responsible for their success as the fancy visuals. George Lucas was even labeled a sellout by some of his New Hollywood brethren — but was that just further sign of his success?
Star Wars and the Modern Age
Although the original trilogy’s success is definitely worthy of admiration and sympathetic relief on Lucas’ behalf, Star Wars in some ways became a victim of its own success.
George Lucas’ decision to quit directing altogether worked in favor of his own mental health, and the quality of the storytelling in A New Hope’s sequels, particularly The Empire Strikes Back. His return to directing, starting with the Phantom Menace, frustrated the fandom like nothing in Star Wars has before, except maybe the infamous holiday special. This would only hint at what the franchise would become in the 21st century.
Despite being one of the biggest representatives of late ‘70s and early ‘80s pop culture, Star Wars never faded in popularity. The original trilogy was just as beloved decades later, but the turn of the millennium saw a new addition to the franchise, the prequels, which would change it forever. Despite Lucas’ financial security allowing him to have full creative control, the prequels were lambasted, and the polarization of the Star Wars fandom only intensified as the years went on.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, the new sequel trilogy began strongly from both a critical and financial perspective, but subsequent films attracted controversy that made the prequel discourse look like a celebration of the original trilogy. The Internet changed human society, and more toxicity was a result. This new divisive nature of fandom even made some people involved with Star Wars, such as Kelly Marie Tan, leave social media.
Ironically, Star Wars is probably as popular as it has ever been. It is a member of the ever-growing Disney monopoly, and the Walt Disney Company does not hesitate to aggressively promote the franchise at the expense of almost everything else it owns. However, the original movies had genuine artistic intentions behind them, and Lucas played the cards perfectly. This is a part of Star Wars history that should be emulated, and an important reminder that sometimes, artistic vision is paramount.