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How Star Wars redefined the notion of what a movie could be

The franchise changed not only how movies are made, but which movies are made.


In just a few days, the world will finally get to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh entry in the movie franchise and the start of a new trilogy and new chapter for the series. Disney, which bought the rights to Star Wars from creator George Lucas for $4 billion in 2012, has said that it plans to release a new Star Wars film every year essentially forever. Given the incredible enthusiasm for the new installment and widespread expectations of an enormous box office (its first-day ticket presales easily broke records; they were eight times higher than first-day presales for any previous film), it’s a good bet that the Star Wars franchise will reign over Hollywood for years to come.

So this is a new era for the series. However, it’s really nothing new for Tinseltown. The Star Wars franchise — and what you might call the Star Wars mindset — has dominated the movie industry since its debut in 1977, even during the years-long breaks between films.

The original movie and its two sequels were unprecedented hits, and in their success they established the template for the modern blockbuster, serving as the prototypes and inspirations for just about every big-budget, effects-driven action film that's been released since. In the process, Star Wars and its many cultural offshoots laid the foundation for what Hollywood looks like today, reorienting the entire industry around visual spectacle and event films with mass cultural — and mass commercial — appeal. In a sense, Star Wars remade Hollywood in its own image.

Star Wars pioneered the idea of the expansive fictional universe

Hollywood today is obsessed with the idea of expanded universes — collections of characters and stories that all exist in the same fictional reality, and which collide and intersect with fan-pleasing regularity. This is due in no small part to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the many overlapping characters and storylines it contains.

But much of the cinematic lineage of the expanded universe concept can be traced back to the original Star Wars. Even before the sequels existed, franchise creator Lucas always conceived of the film as existing in the midst of a sprawling science fiction reality with a complex history and a future all its own. Before the first movie started filming, Lucas sketched a backstory and a future for the series; the first Star Wars film was but one small part of a much larger world.

Lucas built the idea of a broader universe into the original trilogy in a variety of ways. From the very beginning of the first film, the script makes constant reference to external people, places, and events that never make a dent in the plot: When droids C-3PO and R2D2 first meet Luke Skywalker’s aunt Beru and uncle Owen on the desert planet of Tatooine, Beru insists that any droid they purchase must speak Bocce, a language never directly referenced again in any of the films. Owen buys the two droids after a conversation about his need for a translator that "understands the binary language of moisture vaporators," a problem the story never explores. Soon after, Luke complains to his aunt and uncle that he had planned to go to "Toshi station to pick up some power converters." We never visit Toshi station in the films, and it’s never mentioned again.

That first movie's script is filled with these sorts of references — to a rebel base on Dantooine, to bullseyeing womp rats and the spice mines of Kessel — and all of them serve to reinforce the idea of a wider universe in motion, of history and personality, of other places and people, and, most of all, of other stories to be told.

Beyond the dialogue, Lucas built the idea into the film’s production design by insisting that the locations and objects seen in the film feel both used and worn, as if everything had existed for years and been used accordingly. This notion of a dirty world would go on to become a standard for science fiction and fantasy filmmaking (you can see it in everything from Blade Runner and District 9 to Game of Thrones), but it was relatively new at the time, and it too helped sell the idea of a rich, lived-in fictional universe that continued beyond the strict bounds of what was visible on screen.

The original film became a blueprint for merchandising and commercial tie-ins

Lucas also took steps to bring the Star Wars universe off screen and into the real world. When he signed his contract for the first film, he accepted a lower fee for his work in exchange for the merchandising rights to the franchise. By the time the second film went into production, Lucas owned the intellectual property rights to the entire series. He wasn’t just a creative gun for hire; Star Wars was his property (he largely self-financed both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). And that led to the rise of ancillary revenue streams from toys and other licensed products, which turned out to be one of the series’ most important commercial innovations.

Before Star Wars, "big" movies were generally targeted toward adults (rather than toy-obsessed kids) and were generally thought of as standalone in terms of revenue streams; they made most of their money directly from the films themselves. But Lucas cut a deal with toymaker Kenner to release a line of action figures based on the first Star Wars, and after the film became a record-shattering megahit, the toys and other branded merchandise became an economic force that rivaled the films themselves.

By Christmas of 1977 (the movie had come out in May), the craze for Star Wars toys was so strong that Kenner, which had been caught off guard by demand, actually sold a piece of printed cardboard showing the figures that kids would receive sometime the following year. By the end of 1978, according to a 2012 story in the Hollywood Reporter, Kenner would sell more than $100 million worth of figures. This is the real source of Star Wars’ riches. In the decades since the franchise first hit theaters, the $20 billion in revenues from merchandise has far outstripped the estimated $4.4 billion in box office receipts the series has generated.

These days, instead of building merchandising around movies, studios have been known to build movies around merchandising. Studios gravitate toward projects that are "presold" — known properties with existing product bases — and which boast built-in opportunities for merchandising and tie-in deals. The Transformers films, for example, aren’t just successful movies; they are essentially advertisements for an entire ecosystem of toys and related products.

As Derryl DePriest, a brand manager for Hasbro, which acquired Star Wars licensee Kenner in 1991, told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012: "That's been the lasting legacy of Star Wars. The impact it has had on really big event-style merchandising."

This sort of marketing push still drives the Star Wars franchise today: In September, marketers staged "Force Friday," which launched a series of toys and other major tie-in products associated with The Force Awakens.

Lucas allowed others to share in his world, which in turn allowed lots of different Star Wars stories to flourish — and planted the seeds of today's geek culture

All those toys made money, of course, but they also helped bring fans into the larger Star Wars universe, allowing them to participate, through creative play and their own imaginations, in the world that Lucas had created. Indeed, one of the biggest reasons Star Wars became such a vibrant cultural force is that Lucas, even as sole owner of the franchise’s creative rights, consistently allowed others, both amateurs and professionals, to play in his sci-fi sandbox.

One way he did that was through the Expanded Universe, which encompasses all the licensed products — not only the toys but also a series of novels, games, comics, and more. The novels, in particular, helped flesh out the world that Lucas had created, adding new characters and new lore to the intergalactic conflict he imagined in the movies. The quality of the storytelling in the Expanded Universe could sometimes be uneven, and without much central direction there were problems with continuity and consistency. But it kept the franchise alive between films, giving fans something to cling to while bringing new creative energy to the series. (Most of the Expanded Universe has been scrapped in recent years, to make way for the Disney-era storylines.)

Lucas also took a somewhat relaxed approach to enforcing his intellectual property, allowing fans to make their own unauthorized works set in the Star Wars universe so long as they weren’t doing so for profit. Much of what resulted was of predictably amateurish quality, but there were a few gems — including "Troops," an early web video parodying the popular reality-TV show Cops but substituting Imperial Stormtroopers for police.

The message from all of this was clear: Star Wars wasn’t just one story, told by one person. It was a universe full of stories, and just about anyone could take part in telling them.

And this sort of direct engagement with fan creators helped lay the groundwork for the sort of participatory geek culture we see all over today, from lovingly elaborate cosplay at conventions to DIY movie trailers and franchise-based online fan fiction.

The special effects helped set the pace for modern action movies

Lucas, of course, egged on the public’s imagination through his innovative use of special effects. The first Star Wars not only pioneered the use of computers in special effects filmmaking, it essentially invented the modern Hollywood special effects house.

When Lucas set out to make Star Wars, the studios had closed down their in-house effects shops, so he set up his own, called Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Today, ILM is arguably the premier effects shop in Hollywood, and the model on which its many competitors are based. However, when it was formed, it was just a bunch of creative oddballs working out of a warehouse in Van Nuys, California.

ILM (which was also sold to Disney in 2012) drew most of its talent from the world of commercial advertising, and its work on the first Star Wars was groundbreaking. Although computers weren’t yet capable of creating images from scratch, as with modern CGI, the techs at ILM built computer-controlled camera systems using custom processors that allowed them to perfectly replicate camera motions over and over — and thus to craft elaborate composite shots using elements from multiple camera passes, even when the camera was moving.

This helped give the early films an unprecedented sense of speed and velocity, born partly of the ILM crew’s background in quick-cut commercials, and partly of Lucas’s personal love of fast cars. Although the original Star Wars seems relatively slow to modern viewers, it felt rapid-fire to viewers of the time. Indeed, in the 1983 PBS documentary From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, Lucas describes experimenting with the editing of the films to see "how fast I can get things before they’re incomprehensible." The first Star Wars trilogy may feel stately today, but it helped pave the way for the speed and frenetic sensibility of many contemporary action movies.

An emphasis on visual spectacle changed movies' fundamental relationship with special effects

The ability to move the camera during complex special effects shots didn’t just change the way special effects sequences were filmed. It changed the stories that could be told. As Lucas said in the PBS documentary, the "cinematic freedom" granted by the new effects technology — in particular the computer-controlled cameras — had "a very powerful impact on the storytelling" choices he made.

As advances in effects technology, many pioneered by ILM, progressed in the years after Star Wars, this became even truer all throughout Hollywood. No longer were effects just designed to serve the story. Stories were designed to serve the effects.

For Lucas, of course, there was little difference between the two. The dialogue he wrote could at times be stilted and difficult for actors to deliver, as several of the film’s stars suggested in the 2004 documentary Empire of Dreams, but the dialogue wasn't the point.

Lucas wanted the visuals to tell the story and create the world, with as little explicit exposition as possible. The reason, as he explained in the 1983 PBS documentary, was that he believed this was inherently more cinematic. The Star Wars movies were delivery devices for imaginative visuals, prioritizing special effects–driven spectacle above all else.

This approach turned Star Wars into a massive financial success: By the end of its first theatrical run, the movie grossed more than $230 million in domestic box office. Led by that success, 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the first film, booked a $79 million profit in 1977, the year of its release — more than double its previous annual record of $37 million. Studios have been chasing that sort of success ever since, aiming to generate it multiple times every year.

Star Wars became the model for blockbuster filmmaking, and as studios became increasingly reliant on blockbusters, Lucas’s ideas about movies became the industry’s ideas about movies. Now everywhere you look, you see movies and franchises built around expanded universes, that engage directly and aggressively with fan culture, that are designed as much to sell toys as tickets, that are edited to the point of rapid-fire incomprehension, that prize visual spectacle above nearly all else.

It is difficult to overstate the influence Star Wars has had not only on how movies are made, but on what movies are made. In a sense, Star Wars didn’t just expand the definition of what a movie could be — it redefined the notion of what a movie should be. And that, of course, is why Disney paid a fortune for the brand and plans to mine it for box office gold for decades to come: If Star Wars is the ideal, there’s nothing better than the real thing.