40 years ago in a galaxy not far away…

On a Wednesday in 1977 a phenomenon began. That phenomenon was Star Wars.

Released in only 32 cinemas in the US on 25 May of that year the sci-fi space opera broke all box-office records and changed the movie making business. Star Wars was one of the first films to generate "round the block queues" for screenings (the literal definition of a "blockbuster").

George Lucas famously popped out for lunch with his wife on opening day, saw lines of people queuing outside Mann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and only then realised he had a hit on his hands. He'd expected a flop. So much so that he had a bet with friend Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would beat Star Wars at the box office. And that's why Spielberg still receives 2.5% of profits on the film.

Star Wars

At least some of Star Wars' initial success was as a result of the canny work of marketing director Charles Lippincoat who, ahead of the film's release, shopped the novelisation (ghost written by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster) and Marvel tie-in comics at events like San Diego Comic-Con. This generated a buzz amongst sci-fi fans who were already primed by release date. This is now standard practice with genre films and franchises who put a lot of effort into creating hype ahead of release, but back in 1977 it was a "thinking outside the box" strategy.

Star Wars also invented movie merchandising. As you walk the aisles of your local toy store, the proliferation of movie tie-in toys and action figures is down to the phenomenal success of Star Wars in this area.

Merchandising was such a small part of the movie industry prior to Star Wars that, in 1973, before the film was made George Lucas exchanged $350,000 worth of directing salary for the merchandising rights and the rights to the sequels. Conventional wisdom at the time was that this was a good deal for 20th Century Fox. It eventually cost them billions.

Star Wars display - X-wing fighter
Just some of the sweet merchandising $$$ that Fox never got. Star Wars display at South Library, 15 May 2017. File reference: 2017-05-15-IMG_5174

And of the movie itself? Well, I'm a fan and have been for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall the first time I saw the film. In the late 70s and early 80s you simply absorbed Star Wars from the atmosphere. You fenced with lightsabers of rolled up Christmas gift wrap, you hummed the theme music, you played with your cousin's X-wing fighter toy.

I love the film, even despite its many flaws - a not exactly diverse cast, sometimes creaky acting, the occasional alien proboscis that looked like it was made out of cardboard, plot holes that you could fly a Corellian freighter through - but to me it's still a vastly enjoyable tale.

George Lucas was inspired by the Flash Gordon type serials of his youth, the films of Akira Kurosawa, the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the "heroes journey" mythology of Frazer's The golden bough. Star Wars is a cinematic melting pot of references and homages that distills them down to a classic "good vs evil" story. The kind that's timeless in its appeal. Or at least I hope it is... because I'm planning on watching it for another 40 years.

Further information

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