On May 25th 1977, Luke Skywalker, hailing from A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, made his first appearance on a wide screen to the American public, and ultimately to people around the world.
The creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, had spent 4 years shopping his script around the major Hollywood studios – all of whom, except ultimately 20th Century Fox – had passed on the idea. Science fiction films had become dour, and nihilistic – hearkening back to the very first science fiction blockbuster – Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Studios considered science fiction a ‘genre’ – and not very profitable at that.
Lucas’ vision for Star Wars was rather different. Different than Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), different than the Forbin Project (1969), the Andromedat Strain (1971), Rollerball (1975), and even different than the harsh doom of mainstream cinema – Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), the Godfather (1972), and Taxi Driver (1976).
Lucas’ first film – THX 1138 (1978) had presented a similar bleak colorless vision of the future (and horrified the studio by not even sticking to a conventional narrative), but Star Wars came from a different source of inspiration. It hearkened back to the Flash Gordon serials Lucas had watched during his youth – even the famous Star Wars opening crawl would be familiar to anyone who had watched the Flash Gordon serials. In fact, Princess Leia with her two buns of hair would be quite familiar to anyone familiar with the Flash Gordon comic book character Princess Freia.
Although Lucas’ quest to have Star Wars was a Herculean geek challenge, the film itself appealed to everyone’s Inner Geek. Made for 11 million dollars, the original episode of Star Wars alone is still earning money – and approaching 800 million dollars in box office receipts. But Star Wars was more than a film – it was a phenomenon. And to the sometime chagrin of theater owners (but not to the studio, and certainly not to Lucas), the centroid of this phenomenon transcends the walls of the cinema.
When George Lucas signed on for Star Wars he was a little known film-maker – but red hot, having just come off the filming of American Grafitti. Made for a little more than 1 million dollars, after it opened on August 1, 1973, American Grafitti racked up over 100 million dollars in box office in the United States alone. On Star Wars, Lucas did not ask the studio for a high salary (which surprised them), but for control, a percentage of profits – and merchandise rights. From the studio’s point of view, a percentage of gross was no problem since science fiction films had historically not made money (and the accounting seldom resulted in profits in any event). And merchandising rights were historically worthless. Star Wars changed all that. And Lucas became a multi-billionaire.