Fresh from the success of American Graffiti, Lucasís second full-length feature film Ė the little-known THX-1138 was his first; in fact astute fans will notice the repetition of those letters and numbers throughout the Star Wars films Ė Lucas decided to take his love of fast cars, comic books, Flash Gordon serials, mythology, and Japanese films, and toss them into a cinematic blender. Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that financed Star Wars, didnít really understand what he was doing, but apparently they respected his track record enough to give him a shot.
In the end, their gamble paid off, although it was Lucas who ultimately made more money from the film than the studio. He had offered to take a pay cut as director in exchange for the sequel and merchandising rights, and Fox agreed, not realizing the propertyís true potential. Star Wars went on to earn US$ 513 million worldwide during its theatrical runs (it was re-released in 1979 and 1982), and Lucasís shrewd move enabled him to guide the future of the Star Wars brand.
Why was the film so popular? Perhaps because millions of people around the world were captivated by the story of Luke Skywalker, a young farmer on a faraway planet who dreams of escaping his boring life and becomes part of a rebellion against the cruel leaders who rule the galaxy. Lucas has admitted that the story borrows much of its plot from Akira Kurosawaís film The Hidden Fortress, and that many of the characters follow the archetypes laid out in Joseph Campbellís influential book Hero With a Thousand Faces.
The Jedi Knights are a cross between the Samurai of feudal Japan and the Knights of the Round Table, and the sight of starships screaming through space at top speeds is a nod to Lucasís love of fast cars. In homage to his beloved Flash Gordon serials, the film begins with scrolling text that explains what has come before.
Kids tended to love the movie more than adults did, and Lucas keyed into that fact with merchandising deals that set the standard for future science-fiction and fantasy films. Kenner Toys produced a wide variety of action figures and spaceships while Marvel Comics published a monthly comic book based on the film. Other companies made bedsheets, pajamas, posters, books, and a wide assortment of other items.
With merchandising in full swing and a piece of the revenue coming back to his company, LucasFilm, Lucas could afford to finance the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), without help from Twentieth Century Fox. He also took the money he made from the films and built LucasFilmís new headquarters, Skywalker Ranch, among the idyllic foothills in northern California.
After the release of Return of the Jedi, however, Star Wars entered a dormant period while Lucas concentrated on other film projects in addition to his duties as Chairman of LucasFilm. Even though he didnít direct the two Star Wars sequels, he still remained heavily involved in their development as executive producer.
The steady flood of Star Wars merchandise slowed to a trickle and eventually stopped as the Marvel Comics series ended publication in 1986 and Kenner Toys ceased producing Star Wars product around the same time. Many considered the brand a fad that had run its course.
Thanks to videotapes and laserdiscs, though, the film series still lived in the homes of its many fans. The increasing popularity of Internet message boards and services such as America Online allowed devotees from around the world to chat about the movies and keep interest alive. Lucas had previously revealed that the original films were actually episodes 4, 5, and 6 in a series, so discussion often revolved around the inevitable prequels (films whose stories would take place before the events in the other movies). LucasFilm, however, remained mum on the subject.
In 1991, two significant events occurred that signaled the transformation of a fad into a brand with proven longevity. First, noted science-fiction author Timothy Zahn published the book Heir to the Empire (the first in a trilogy), which shot to the top of the bestseller lists. Then, writer Tom Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy produced the first issue in the six-part comic book series Star Wars: Dark Empire, which also blasted off the shelves.
The fans wanted more Star Wars, and George Lucas took note. In 1994, he announced that he would produce a Special Edition of the original film, to be released on its twentieth anniversary in 1997. And in 1995, LucasFilm granted Kenner Toys (which was now part of Hasbro) the action figure license once more. The toys popularity soared as Lucas released Special Editions of all three original films, not just the first one.
The three Special Editions enjoyed enormous success with total worldwide gross box office sales of US$ 1.9 billion. By this time, worldwide merchandise sales had exceeded US$ 4 billion, and the LucasFilm coffers were primed for the next stage in this brandís evolution.
In May, 1999, Twentieth Century Fox released the first new Star Wars film in 16 years. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was an enormous hit, playing in theaters for months and grossing US$ 925 million worldwide. By this time, the new toys were just as successful as the original ones, and Dark Horse Comics, which had grabbed the Star Wars license when Marvel decided not to publish Dark Empire, was publishing piles of new comics.
Similarly, Bantam Books, which had published the Timothy Zahn trilogy as well as many other new Star Wars novels, lost the book license to Del Rey, which released the adaptation of the first Star Wars prequel as well as plenty of original books.
Now 2002 marks the 25th anniversary of the first Star Wars film, and George Lucas is celebrating with the release of Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones on May 16. Unlike many films, which are released first in North America and much later overseas, most of the world will get to experience the newest chapter in the space saga within days of the 16. By July 26, most everyone on the planet will have had an opportunity to see the movie.
Will this chapter set new box office records? No one knows for sure, but one fact is clear: it will propel the Star Wars brand to heights George Lucas probably never thought were possible as he stood in the barren Tunisian desert in 1976. Perhaps now his dreams are of an untapped market in another galaxy altogether.