As the high-definition format of Blu-ray looks forward to the franchise of Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) hitting its catalogue, it’s time for fans to look back at the historical saga of Star Wars. With the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, the dawn of the 21st century and now the teens of it, Star Wars has existed in five decades and counting, but how pure was that first one. How glorious was that second, how rejuvenating was that third, how sweet that fourth and the fifth has just started. Before Star Wars is in high-definition, this is Star Wars in retrospect. You’ll need a home theater seat by September 16, but you don’t need a theater seat to experience this now. No, this is your seat on the Millennium Falcon and hyperspeed is after the jump.
It is a period six years after Revenge Of The Sith. Animated spaceships on television, striking along with a plethora of merchandising and video games, have dominated out of George Lucas’ vast production empire.
During these years marked by Clone Wars, Convention V spies managed to spread the announcement of the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the BLU-RAY, a high-definition format with enough power to destroy an entire Star Wars club.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister marketing, fans eagerly wait to race to store shelves, and become custodians of the space opera that can relieve their anticipations and restore freedom to the HD galaxy….
When originally released in 1977, the first Star Wars film was simply titled: Star Wars. It was forbidden for Lucas to use a subtitle to avoid confusion as there had been no prior films in the franchise and there was no certainty that there’d be anymore. But indeed, there was another by 1980, one of many to come, that allowed George Lucas to further his command over Star Wars and further the success of his business interests. Lucas’ role became bigger than the writing hat or director’s chair he occupied with the first film. To allow Lucas to devote himself to his company, he offered the role of director to Irvin Kershner, one of his former professors. When The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, the subtitle “Episode V” appeared above the title card. To match its sequel’s crawl, the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” was added for the 1981 re-release of the first film where it continued to appear throughout the film’s releases and re-releases. The original version, without the subtitle, was not made available again until the 2006 limited edition DVD. The original was also without the various enhancements that were added back in the 1990’s after being revamped with a makeover worth millions in production additions for its theatrical re-release, modernizing it for a new generation.
So how did Star Wars come to be? George Lucas got his start going to school, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to stay in it. He is an educated man in the discipline of film. His student film in the 1960’s, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, was the seed for the development of 1971’s THX 1138 starring Robert Duvall. The film was made under the umbrella of a new production company known as American Zoetrope, which had been established in 1969 by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. While his student film originally inspired Warner Bros. to award him a student scholarship to observe and work on the making of a film with Francis Ford Coppola, THX 1138 failed to inspire major audiences in 1971.
That changed with American Graffiti when George Lucas brought his love of cars and his California background to the screen. American Graffiti introduced George Lucas to major movie profitability and debuted Lucasfilm to the world. In 1973, George Lucas took full advantage of the success he had with American Graffiti, knowing it might be hard to get a second chance at a little space opera that could. It wasn’t easy, though. Knowing what a concept will end up as is a tricky game. After all, hindsight is always 20/20 and foresight is legally blind. Studios did pass on Star Wars. It may have been the scale and it may have all been just too much like Star Trek for executives. 20th Century Fox thought slightly differently. They were willing to take a chance, especially when they agreed to cut George Lucas’ fee for writing and directing Star Wars in exchange for giving the director control over merchandising rights. For 20th Century Fox, the rights were useless. At least, they were at the time.
So after drafts upon drafts, production went underway on Star Wars, the positive and wholesome adventure for all in the family. Aside from Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the main cast was made of relative unknowns lacking any distinguished careers. Because of a recommendation from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas got John Williams to create what would become one of the most recognizable soundtracks in history, but more was needed than a theme song. The film under the guidance of George Lucas needed unprecedented visual effects. If you can’t find it, make it yourself. Lucas brought in a youthful team to found Industrial Light & Magic. If production was a harsh nightmare in the studios and then out of them in locations like Tunisia, post-production was hell. Editing of both visual shots and audio clips pushed the limits of filmmaking. R2-D2 needed a new language. Lightsabers needed their own unique swoosh and clash. Darth Vader needed a vocal breathing of villainy. Editing of both visual and audio elements was vital to Star Wars’ success on the screen, possibly like for no other film before. The entire movie had to be manufactured. There was hardly anything that looked or sounded like the real world. Editing gives you many options, but limitless options are chaotic to grapple.
By 1976, Lucasfilm needed seats to be filled in a year, so personnel visited Comic-Con in San Diego in hopes of arousing support for their future movie release. Confidence may not have been at a high, but pressure was at the boiling point. Then on May 25, 1977, it may as well have been Judgment Day. This was the day that was to decide everything that would follow for a project that had ended millions of dollars over its initial budget. Was all to be nirvana or was all to be Armageddon? The great risk ended with great rewards. The movie earned back its $11 million cost and then much, much more with hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office receipts. It sparked a string of recognitions that the franchise would accumulate over the years, including Academy Awards and Hugo Awards. 20th Century Fox ended up with an international extravaganza to add to its bottom-line, but George Lucas ended up with a phenomenon in the form of rights. The licensing business was a disappointing surprise to 20th Century Fox. The studio had given the licensing rights and therefore heavenly profits to George Lucas, but it wasn’t immediate. Sadly, the full extent of merchandising potential wasn’t capitalized on early, but Star Wars merchandising wasn’t going to be dominated by little puzzles and a top-selling soundtrack for too long. Toys were needed, but to make toys, a company was needed from the Midwest that had gotten permission to manufacture them long ago and was just as far away by May 1977. Kenner didn’t have anything worthwhile available for the movie’s release, so they pondered and they thought. They had to think fast. Time was of the essence and they knew exactly how much of it was left. Christmas morning was seven months away.
For George Lucas’ immediate pocketbook, Star Wars gave him the independent power to champion his causes of investing in the development of technology for Hollywood. Industrial Light & Magic is Hollywood’s mega player in digital wizardry for movies across the spectrum today. Skywalker Sound provides the audio equivalent of what Industrial Light & Magic does visually. Ever wondered about that THX image and elongated deep note that come up in front of many movies? It’s a trade name of a high-fidelity audio reproduction standard for things like movie theaters, screening rooms, home theaters and audio systems. For the most part, it’s mainly a quality assurance system. THX-certified theaters provide a high-quality, predictable playback environment to ensure that any film soundtrack mixed in THX will sound just as the original engineers intended. It debuted in 1983 with Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi. Even Pixar Animation Studios can trace its roots to Lucasfilm. John Lasseter left Disney in the 1980’s to work with George Lucas’ computer graphics division at Lucasfilm. It was bought in 1986 for $10 million by Steve Jobs. That former division, and now a company, would be named Pixar and eventually debut the short film Luxo Jr., which would thus lead to classics years later like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Wall-E and inspire the desk lamp that serves on the Pixar logo in front of its movies even today.
The truth is that no one saw the full extent of Star Wars coming, but that didn’t stop it from coming. In 1977, it was the new mainstream addiction so powerful that some parents were pressured by their children to buy a promise. While generations before had yearned for a jack-in-the-box, a promise-in-the-box was now socially acceptable. Yes, a promise was now monetarily valuable in 1977. Allow me to elaborate. After Star Wars came out, the team at Kenner, which had acquired the license for Star Wars toys a year earlier, officially came face to face with what was now a lucrative property and an inability on their part to quench the public thirst for anything Star Wars. Though there were lines at theaters for Star Wars, there was no toy line to match the intensity. Kenner got creative and marketing genius was born. I’m assuming the genius was bolstered with the threat of the Kenner team being put on the Naughty List, as Santa Claus does have an organization to run efficiently. Commonly dubbed the Empty Box campaign, Kenner, rather than let opportunity slip away, decided to ship empty packages with vouchers inside, redeemable for four Star Wars toys at a later date.
In time for Christmas 1977, Kenner produced the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package, which basically consisted of IOUs for the first four action figures to be shipped in early 1978: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2. Many children in 1977 woke up on Christmas morning to find a cardboard envelope in which was packed a display stand for figures that didn’t yet exist in their possession, a Star Wars Club Card and a few stickers. The idea was simple: kids could fill out their certificates with their names and addresses, put them in the mail and wait. Months later, their set would arrive along with the pegs to attach them to those display stands Santa had brought. Kenner had now officially popularized the 3.75” action figure to an industry standard. In 1977, a sequel to Star Wars was no longer a question. It was a responsibility to get it done and this time around, adding “Episode V” was fine by all.
“Merchandising, merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made.”
Look around you. Go ahead, look. I’ll wait. Welcome back. Now, from the sheets you awaken under to the underwear you wear or refuse to wear underneath it all, chances are a version of every object in your home and everywhere you go has existed with the label of Star Wars on it at some point in the past few decades. Some may have even spoofed it. Yes, studios can make money beyond the ticket stub. Star Wars hit gold in the 1970’s and mastered the art of movie merchandising beyond just a random fad. Star Wars didn’t invent movie merchandising, but Star Wars lucked out into showing Hollywood a volume and variety like it had never seen before with things like costumes and soundtracks. Star Wars matured movie merchandising into the model it is today. I say Lucasfilm lucked out because of its mass appeal and variety of elements within that came together to hit the right cord with so many. It was gender-neutral, age-neutral and even nation-neutral. Just think of other successful movies, though as popular as they were on the big screen, which could never reach the same scope in merchandising. Everyone was surprised, including the filmmakers. That’s a good thing for George Lucas because if 20th Century Fox had known that in the 1970’s it was relinquishing any of the merchandising rights to an empire worth billions, they may have thought twice before signing the contract they did with George Lucas. Business people tend to do that.
Kenner has produced a massive range of Star Wars figures and play sets since Episode IV: A New Hope, and has kept them updated ever since. Not only has Star Wars existed in the toy arena, it has reached the outskirts of avid collectors’ shelves. Every marketing team in the world will suggest putting “Collect Them All” on a line of products, but how many actually get people to do it? Just think of how many merchandising products come and go only to never be around for the next generation. There are a handful (Disney’s Mickey Mouse, G.I. Joe and Barbie, to name a few) that have stayed around to the same capacity as the radio has against television and the internet. Into the 1980’s, Star Wars too just didn’t seem to go away, even six years after the first movie had been released. People still wanted their share of Revenge Of The Jedi, which eventually was finalized as Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi.
But sometime after 1983, there was a long hiccup. The hiccup was that a trilogy was over. Not long after Return Of The Jedi, this one directed by Richard Marquand, was released, the marketing machine’s momentum slowed down significantly and for many years the Star Wars toys seemed to disappear out of existence. People seemed to be complete. Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, the Galactic Empire had been defeated and the Force was balanced. The merchandising industry based on Star Wars movies no longer had movies to spur its continuance. Interest waned, but this changed dramatically by the latter half of the 1990’s when the original trilogy was re-released into cinemas with additional scenes and updated special effects in 1997. With this campaign came a new range of toys, which reignited the passion for Star Wars, but was it all for nostalgia or was something bigger on the horizon? Remarkably, the resurgence in the popularity of Star Wars had yet to reach its peak. What could match the magnitude of the original trilogy and complete the Star Wars chronicle? A new trilogy: the prequel trilogy.
Sixteen years after the 1983 premiere of the previous film in the saga, Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi, Episode I: The Phantom Menace was set to revive Star Wars on May 19, 1999. The wait had culminated to a point in time when visual effects were beyond anything anyone could have imagined in 1977. This time, George Lucas was returning to the director’s chair to bring the film franchise to the finish line. Things were different now than when he started Star Wars in the 1970’s. People knew Star Wars now. He was no longer a member of the Directors Guild Of America and could do whatever he wanted with the title sequence that forced him to quit the guild originally. As an independent filmmaker, he was in his own league. Beyond the filmmaking, merchandisers were ready for an onslaught. Episode I is one of the rare films that may have actually done well even if it didn’t have a budget for marketing. Other companies were basically doing it for Lucasfilm and paying them for the permission to do it.
Merchandising was maxed out for Episode I. There must have been a surplus, since Episode II: Attack Of The Clones was visibly scaled back by comparison in hype. The overabundance of Star Wars simmered down by the time 2002 came along. Episode I’s campaign was a blitz of a force for the senses. It seemed like everything had Star Wars written across it like collectible Pepsi cans with character graphics, posters and stickers from major restaurants chains, coloring books and new aisles in big-box stores dedicated only to Star Wars for everyone devoted to Star Wars. No matter what type of product you were interested in owning, you could find a Star Wars-themed version of it in 1999. This time around, Star Wars had a primitive version of the internet to boost fanfare even more. The franchise along with lines of anticipation filled newspapers and segments on the evening news. The media and the public were overloaded on midi-chlorians. Even if you didn’t care, you still knew.
I myself was born in 1988, after the great hype of the original trilogy. For me, 1999 was my 1977. My dad had just come home from out-of-town and he took us both to the theater near us to experience Episode I: The Phantom Menace, part of a franchise new for me and him. On his part, I blame communism. We were one of the many that helped The Phantom Menace break box-office records and reestablish Star Wars in pop culture. We were both one of those that were thrilled about the podracing. We loved Jar Jar Binks. I know, I bring shame to many fan clubs of the Old Republic and I’m sure I’ve just been banned from each one of them for admitting my enjoyment of the bumbling character. My possessions associated with the movies started with the storybook of Episode I. That summer, my parents and I moved across country. In the truck, I remember the box of Pepsi cans at my feet. I collected them. I wanted all the characters and I wanted all those cans empty for my shelf. My first Star Wars action figure was Watto (how fitting: a Toydarian) with the Commtech Chip. The Christmas of 1999 was the season of things like a 3.75” Darth Maul and a 22” Jar Jar Binks that giggled and shook, and does to this day beside the pit droid time piece. Am I sentimental about it? You bet. Is it commercialization and materialistic? Go to hell. It’s damn fun.
And so, Episode II: Attack Of The Clones came and went a few years later, this time with a digitized Yoda rather than a puppet. Just as Harrison Ford had had trouble pronouncing his lines during the filming of A New Hope, critics were less than impressed by the flat dialogue of Attack Of The Clones. Many also criticized the new Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen. Many felt it lacked the freshness of previous installments. It did make more than enough money to be considered financially successful, but adjusted for inflation, Episode II is the lowest-performing live-action Star Wars film at the North American box-office. It was also not the top-grossing film of 2002 in the U.S., the first and only time that a live-action Star Wars film did not have this distinction for its year of release. Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith in 2005 officially concluded the events that came to construct the person known as Darth Vader. The movie was itself another event. Revenge Of The Sith became the first Star Wars film in which Anakin Skywalker and the suited Darth Vader were played by the same actor in the same film. While Attack Of The Clones didn’t have the same monumental grab or position as the first or last in the prequel trilogy, Episode III had the advantage of being the last and final Star Wars movie overall. I can only imagine many saw it that had skipped Episode II, if only to at least avoid being the one amongst friends that had skipped Episode III. Some things really do only come but once in time.
“Son, my place is here, my future is here. It is time for you to let go.”
- Shmi Skywalker
That was then, this is now and what does the future have in store? Now, unlike in the 80’s, the popularity of Star Wars has seemed to stick. The Force is as strong as ever with George Lucas. Lucasfilm’s franchise had its highest toy revenue ever in 2010 for a year without a movie released in it. According to market research firm NPD Group, with sales totaling more than $510 million last year, Star Wars was able to position itself as the best-selling boys toy license in the U.S. for the third consecutive year. The animated series has helped keep the saga in action, but it’s not just the toy industry that has welcomed the glowing numbers. It’s not hard to find clothing marked with Star Wars and LucasArts certainly hasn’t abandoned creating videos games for all ages with one thing on their minds: Star Wars. The literary industry has also had a steady stream of publications via galactic trade routes from Coruscant, smugglers via Tatooine and everywhere in between. The Lego Star Wars Visual Dictionary from DK Publishing spent 18 weeks upon its release in the #1 position on the New York Times Children’s Picture Book Bestseller List.
As for the future, well, that starts this year and many aren’t ready to let go anytime soon. Star Tours is set to re-launch its ride at Walt Disney theme parks that debuted back in 1987, Hasbro and Lego aren’t ditching the bandwagon quite yet, and it’s pretty safe to say video games aren’t a fad. So as long as those elements keep pumping along with a variety of other categories and television productions, Star Wars so far seems safe from a great depression. Even theaters haven’t said goodbye to the franchise entirely. The countdown is on for Episode I: The Phantom Menace to kick-start the 3D releases of the space opera in theaters next year. Just as no one knew what would happen in 1977 after the premiere of Star Wars, no one knows what will happen with Star Wars’ popularity in years long off without a supply of new movies. Perhaps that’s more of a question for the Jedi High Council to ponder. But there’s one thing you don’t need their help for and that this: the sci-fi genre on home video will undoubtedly be seeing the heavenly green glow of greenbacks once Star Wars: The Complete Saga is unveiled in high-definition.
“Clouded, this boy’s future is.”
Clouded? Let’s clear the skies, shall we? Get ready for light-speed internationally beginning September 12. For North America, mark your calendars: September 16, 2011. That’s the day people’s problems may just go away. There have been plenty of DVD releases in the past decade, but now Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will be blessing the world with a Blu-ray release of mammoth proportions and biblical significance for diehards. Expectations are high, but will the Blu-ray collection disappoint many and be the antichrist? I argue no. I argue that it will bring balance to the Force. The format has been around for a while now, so I can only expect George Lucas’ team has put in quite a bit of effort into this release without just winging it early on when HD-DVD was still around. Plenty of releases have now proved some things that work and some things that don’t. But if you want a more poetic argument for this release not being the antichrist, here it is: Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader) and Jesus Christ share quite a few similarities. Anakin was conceived of the Force without a father. Anakin spent many years of his life doing good for others and was betrayed by one of his best friends, although his name wasn’t Judas. When he came back, he did so as Darth Vader, which could also be similar to the antichrist returning. Therefore, if you fear the antichrist, he already came a while ago.
If you’re thinking this new home video release will just be an entire repeat, think again, at least partially. Get ready to add another version of the saga to what has up to now consisted of original theatrical versions, versions updated with modern CGI and those edited further for home video. Some visual mistakes left in the movies before have been removed for the Blu-ray, like a puppeteer’s arms at the edge of a shot and the inconsistency of a lightsaber’s color across frames. Some entirely new additions, including a Yoda of CGI, are also on the way. The digitized Yoda will be inserted into Episode I: The Phantom Menace to match the rest of the prequel trilogy. Star Wars will be released in three distinct sets of 6.1 DTS Surround Sound with three unique cover arts to meet the needs of every fan. Episodes I-III and IV-VI will be available as separate collections with three discs in each. But if you want the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy in one box, it’s an unheard of thing on home video. At least, it has been until now. Star Wars: The Complete Saga, a 9-disc set with all six movies in one package for the first time, will serve as the bible for those of the Jedi Order around the world.
“I see you have constructed a new lightsaber. Your skills are complete. Indeed, you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen.”
Rumor is that there are those that have not seen the trilogies, but I doubt those exist that aren’t aware of them. Star Wars has been a massive engagement, a timeless and collective discussion amongst masses. It isn’t bogged down by current events, but that may not be why people flock to it. No, it may just be because it itself is a current event. It brings characters from everywhere and anywhere, location or generation, together on-screen and in front of it. We all love it when we find the same joy for something we have in ourselves in someone else. It’s rare for a lot of things, but Star Wars has been a common euphoric moment at some point for most that are older than fifteen. You don’t have to be a sci-fi geek to love Star Wars. Hotties can romanticize the heroes and mythology of it. It’s possible! A foreigner to toy-lovers may appreciate Star Wars by just being enamored by the fairy tale of it all. Ruling at reaching a video game’s highest score isn’t a requirement to master the concept of Star Wars. The Force doesn’t discriminate. From date night to boys’ night, the Star Wars universe is kind of just cool. Maybe that’s why: it’s constantly expanding and yet it’s the simple, grandiose memory we all have. It’s the good ol’ days we don’t have to outgrow because it never seems to get old no matter how old it gets. The Star Wars universe didn’t actually happen in a galaxy far, far away. The phenomenon happened right around us. And that’s no fiction. May the Force be with you.