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Building an Empire: How "Star Wars" Changed the Movies

Star Wars is everywhere. You cannot turn on the television without seeing an episode of an animated show or The Mandalorian, The Rise of Skywalker just completed its theatrical run,  and the books, toys, games, and other movie tie-ins are available in virtually every store in America (with items ranging from action figures to soundtrack albums to robot vacuums that look like R2-D2). How was Star Wars able to become so ubiquitous in our society? What did George Lucas do that had such an impact on the movie industry? In essence, it was his groundbreaking deal-making and the brilliant film design of this little science fiction movie, starring three unknown actors and directed by a relative novice, that enabled the film to shake Hollywood to its core. The success of this film and its franchise has benefited the lovers of blockbuster entertainment ever since, and this franchise isn’t just an experience you have for two hours in a theater, but instead is something that influences trends and commerce the world over. Today, you can decorate your house with movie one-sheet posters, read hundreds of movie news web sites, and even invest in fashion collections based on hit movies. Much of blockbuster film culture is possible because of decisions George Lucas made when creating his touchstone film. Simply put, Star Wars changed the way films are made, marketed, and merchandised.

 

Before the release of Star Wars changed the landscape forever, the 1970s were a playground for young, visionary filmmakers. Artists such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Miloš Forman were making personal, intimate films like The Conversation, Nashville, Taxi Driver, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. According to Matt Jabs from That Hashtag Show, “[The 1970s are] looked upon as the time when the movies rose out of the torpor of jingoistic WWII films, beach movies, and musicals, and began to plumb the depths of the individual psyches of the viewers.” With the release and huge success of Jaws in 1975, however, the time of the auteur filmmaker started to wane, as studios realized there was a lot of money to be made with popular blockbusters that appealed to everyone. The world started to see satires of Jaws on Saturday Night Live, the original novel became a best-seller, and novelty shark songs became popular. Movies were entering the pop culture lexicon in a big way.

 

Around the same time, George Lucas, a young California filmmaker who had hit it big with his second film, 1973’s American Graffiti, made a deal that no one had ever made before. Lucas was shopping the script for Star Wars to various film studios, and he eventually signed with 20th Century Fox, but took a creative approach to that contract. In an interview with the American Film Institute, Lucas explained that he negotiated a smaller salary, so the studio put in less up-front money (resulting in less risk for them), but he also asked for the rights to sequels and licensing: “I did what nobody had done before, which was to negotiate all the other points… [at the time] licensing wasn’t worth anything, nobody’s been able to license anything.” When the film became the top-grossing movie of all time to that point, the move paid big dividends. Not only did George Lucas and his company, Lucasfilm, now own the rights to any and all sequels, the first of which became 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, but he owned all the merchandising rights to the films. As Lucas himself said, no one was licensing film properties, and this opened up a whole new revenue stream for filmmakers that had barely been tapped before.      

 

Stephen J. Sansweet, a former Director of Content Management and Head of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm (and now the owner of the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world), in his book Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible, talks about the difficulty Lucasfilm had in finding a partner to create toys. Mostly, they were offered cheap plastic toys with printed logos affixed, made with very little forethought or care, and Lucasfilm was looking for a higher quality product. The company eventually signed with Kenner, and the toys and merchandise proved so popular that there was not enough to go around.

 

In fact, Germain Lussier, in his article “How Star Wars’ Insane Toy Frenzy Changed Movies Forever” from io9 , writes that sometimes there was not any product at all: “As an attempt to curb demand, for the 1977 holiday season Kenner famously sold an empty box called the ‘Early Bird Certificate Page.’ The box had no toys in it, just a few stickers and stuff along with a certificate kids could fill out and send in to be among the first to get Star Wars toys when they were released. It was a huge success.” Star Wars was so popular, empty boxes were big sellers.

 

Why exactly were the toys and merchandise so popular? Many experts point to the design of the film, and its locations, vehicles, creatures, and characters, as the driving force. The film’s production designer, Ralph McQuarrie, had created things never seen before, and children could not wait to own their own versions of the delights they had seen on screen. In that same Lussier article, Stephen J. Sansweet said “There really hadn’t been a sci-fi film that had been so ‘toyetic’” and the Kenner CEO at the time Star Wars hit, Bernie Loomas, said “…[Star Wars is] so ‘toyetic,’ it should have a life of its own.” Film studios and toy companies were inspired to follow the film’s lead. Other toy lines sprung up in the wake of Star Wars, as Germain Lussier explains: “The success of the Star Wars toys inspired other toy companies… [to create] entertainment franchises based on toys too. G.I. Joe, He-Man and Transformers all started as toys and then became iconic pieces of television or film.” Not only were films inspiring toys, but toys were now inspiring films.

 

To put the numbers in perspective, per Box Office Mojo, the 12 theatrical Star Wars films have grossed approximately $10.5 billion in theaters; in merchandise and memorabilia, the number is far north of $32 billion, per Marketplace.com. Variety reported that, in 2017 alone, movie merchandise as an industry made $262 billion. That enormous amount of money has made some in Hollywood wonder if the pendulum has swung too far – Scott Meslow, in his article for The Week, talks about how “toyetic” merchandise has become a culture all its own: “Star Wars is a toy franchise, not a movie franchise. The roots of the franchise's toyetic present – and, in fact, the roots of the word ‘toyetic’ – can be traced all the way back to the release of the very first Star Wars movie in 1977.” The seal had been broken, and licensing became the new way Hollywood did business. The films that were approved for the biggest budgets, and the most competitive release dates, were the movies that would be huge at the box office, but even bigger in the toy aisles and at retail cash registers.

 

Some experts worry about the influence that merchandising and ancillary marketing now have on film. After the success of the products for the first two Star Wars movies, there were questions about the creative choices in the third film, per Meslow: “George Lucas has long defended the creative impulse behind Return of the Jedi's Ewoks, the cuddly teddy bear warriors that conveniently double as a toymaker's dream, but it's hard not to be suspicious when you look at the huge line of Ewok-related ancillary products.” Watching Return of the Jedi, there is definitely a marked increase in the number of “cute” creatures and characters from the first two films in the trilogy (especially following the decidedly dark Empire). The entire first act of the film, that of the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, is dominated by puppets and creatures that seem ready-made to be gifts under the Christmas tree. Characters are introduced only to be dispatched minutes later, but they still ended up as action figures on store shelves. Even the CEO of a industry leading collectible company, Vincent Zurzlo of Metropolis Collectibles, is quoted by Germain Lussier as saying “…after they saw how popular the toys were, I’m sure that had an influence in Lucas’ [sic] mind to make creatures and characters for follow up movies that could be made into toys.” Many films that have come after the original Star Wars trilogy have also been criticized, with fears that movie studios are now less concerned about the quality of the movies than the ancillary dollars they can make from merchandise. It’s hard not to be cynical when you see the newest LEGO set (which sometimes give away spoilers for the movie) or $500 character bust in stores three months before the film even opens.

 

One of the most famous cases of merchandise trumping art is that of Batman & Robin, the 1997 would-be blockbuster that became the poster child for this type of studio interference. Batman & Robin was the fourth film in the highly profitable series for Warner Bros, a franchise that started in 1989 with Batman (a film that is often credited with starting the comic book movie craze that is still going on), and continued with Batman Returns in 1992. Although both films were hits, Batman Returns didn’t do as well as the first film, earning only $267 million worldwide to Batman’s $411 million, according to Box Office Mojo. One of the main reasons cited for this downturn was the film’s dark and adult subject matter.

 

In an article in Forbes, Mark Hughes remembers that Batman Returns rubbed parents wrong, that they “felt tricked into taking their children to a film with too much disturbing content.” The film had multiple scenes of Batman killing villains on screen, a sexualized Catwoman character (basically wearing an S&M outfit, complete with a whip), and the Penguin’s plan to murder all the first-born children of Gotham, among other decidedly adult-skewing themes. It was a dour, gothic German expressionist-type film wrapped in the mythology of the superhero genre. This didn’t sit well with the film’s marketing partners. Even McDonald’s, that bastion of movie Happy Meal tie-ins, had seen a dip in its business. Warner Bros reacted by removing Tim Burton, the visionary director behind the two films (demoting him to an executive producer), and bringing in Joel Schumacher, a more mainstream filmmaker, to set the series back on course. McDonald’s felt burned, and Chapman explains that “Burton was out, and McDonald’s learned from their mistakes. By the time it came to [Steven] Spielberg’s masterpiece Jurassic Park in 1993, McDonald’s demanded that he tone down some of the more graphic scenes before they would sign up.” Yes, McDonald’s even had notes for Steven Spielberg, of all people. It seems the integration of filmmaking and merchandising that starting in earnest with Star Wars had started to put pressure on the creative choices of even the most powerful people in Hollywood.

 

Nevertheless, Batman Forever became a successful third picture in the Batman franchise, and, seizing on this new aesthetic, Warner Bros quickly ordered a fourth, even more family friendly film, Batman & Robin, that was released two years later. This film, however, was a failure at the box office, grossing only $238 million worldwide (after Batman Forever had made $337 million) (Box Office Mojo) and being a complete critical dud as well (with a rating of only 10% on Rotten Tomatoes). The movie is filled with silly jokes, garish costumes, and nearly no plot. Director Schumacher discusses the studio’s influence in his DVD commentary, saying  “Because Batman Forever had been so successful, there was enormous pressure on us to create more inventions in the film that could be turned into toys. I learned a new phrase in my life called 'toyetic,' [which means] whether a movie is 'toyetic' or not and how many toys people can get out of it. Hence, a lot of toys in this movie.” Warner Bros had seemingly decided that the film should be a toy commercial first and a successful film second. The Batman series of the 1990s ended with the film’s disappointing showing, as the planned fifth film, Batman Triumphant, was canceled.

 

The blockbuster mentality had taken over and destroyed Hollywood’s reigning movie franchise, and many blamed higher and higher budgets for tentpole films and ancillary merchandising opportunities for leading to that conclusion. “With so much money at stake,” Harris says, “the marketer's voice at the studio table is now pivotal from the day a studio decides whether to make a movie—and usually what that voice expresses is trepidation. Their first question is not ‘Will the movie be good?’ but ‘Can it be sold?’” Artistic integrity has been lost, some argue, and the studios only worry about selling the movie and everything that ties into it, and not the film itself.

 

This is obviously a problem. As budgets go higher and higher, film companies have to protect themselves against flops by monetizing everything they can with the successful pictures. Disney needs to make billions from the newest Avengers movie because they lose hundreds of millions when The Nutcracker crashes and burns. Fox needed the X-Men pictures to sell lots of toys so they could make small, low-return art house films under their Fox Searchlight banner. While ancillary income is important, and isn’t going anywhere, movie studios do not have to choose the art or the merchandise. The key is to make films that are well-made AND marketable. Disney, in particular, has done that with its animated films, the current Star Wars films, and the Marvel films. In fact, just recently, Black Panther was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award in the same year it was the biggest box office hit in the world. Disney-Pixar films, such as WALL-E and Coco, routinely do extremely well at the ticket counter, in stores, and with critics. Acclaim and merchandising can go hand in hand if films are made with care and the craft is respected.Star Wars was a watershed moment in film, and changed the way movies are films are made, marketed, and merchandised. Through clever deal-making and even more clever “toyetic” film design, it became the standard-bearer for how films make ancillary money, beyond just the box office of the film itself. While some fret about the influence this business consideration has on the films themselves, Hollywood has shown it can make money and make good movies at the same time. Blockbusters rule the earth, and it is doubtful that will end any time soon. It is a wonderful time to be a fan of popular culture, film, and especially of that “Galaxy Far, Far Away.”

 

 

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