A Long Time Ago…
On May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened in limited release. It changed everything.
The original Star Wars was a B-movie made on a modest $11 million budget by 33 year-old George Lucas. It was expected to flop.
Fast forward to the present day: When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens on December 16, it will mark the eighth feature film in a 40-year franchise. With a projected opening of nearly $130 million, it’s hard to imagine a world where the Star Wars phenomenon never happened, or fizzled out. But that’s exactly what might have occurred, were it not for the power of books.
20th Century Fox, the original film's studio and distributor, put little money into promoting the film. There was only a budget for T-shirts and posters, but director George Lucas had other ideas, so he hired Charles Lippincott to help market the film. Lucas also waived his $500,000 director's fee in exchange for ownership of the merchandising rights. These two decisions altered the way we consume movies and pop culture today.
Lippincott helped birth the Star Wars phenomenon. A crucial part of his strategy was converting readers into moviegoers. About a year before the film’s release, attempting to drum up pre-release excitement, he negotiated deals with Del Rey Books and Marvel Comics for a novelization and a comic book adaptation based on Lucas’s script. Movie adaptations were an old game, and a traditional way for fans to experience or relive a release, especially after it had ended its run, or if they lived in a town where it wasn’t playing. It was a rare event that the adaptation was released before most people had even heard of the movie.
The novelization based on Lucas’ script was ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, who’d also penned a number of Star Trek tie-ins. It was published December of 1976. By February 1977—a full three months before Star Wars’ release—the novel had sold out its initial 125,000 copy run, and helped generate word of mouth. (The book has gone on to sell more than 5-million copies.)
During the production of Star Wars, Lucas had also asked Foster to write a second Star Wars novel, under the author’s own name. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was a back-up plan of sorts. Uncertain of the commercial viability of Star Wars, Lucas commissioned it as the basis of a low-budget sequel, in case the first movie failed. Although the director had little input in the story, he did specify that Foster should reuse as many props as possible from the first film. He also requested that the Han Solo character should not appear, as Harrison Ford had not signed on for any future sequels.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s Star Wars comic book series debuted on April 12, 1977. The first six issues adapted the film. The series saw massive sales after the movie opened, and ran for nearly ten years, concluding with issue 107.
The comic books, along with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, helped launch what would one day become the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
In the lead-up to Star Wars’ release, Lippincott actively courted science-fiction fandom. He previewed the film and the comic book at San Diego Comic Con in 1976, albeit to mixed reviews. He printed up a convention-exclusive poster by Marvel’s Howard Chaykin, and brought along star Mark Hamill, a then unknown 25 year-old with a handful of television appearances to his credit.
By the time Star Wars opened the next spring, Lippincott had helped generate enough buzz to have moviegoers lining up around the block to catch the limited screenings.
A Force Awakens…
Star Wars opened on only 32 screens but quickly grew into a monster. Fans and critics raved about the film. Roger Ebert called it an “out-of-the-body experience.” He said that it “relies on the strength of pure narrative, in the most basic storytelling known to man, the Journey.” A.D. Murphy of Variety said that the film “sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor.”
Gerald Clarke of Time Magazine described Star Wars as “a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film.”
"On opening day I ... did a radio call-in show ... this caller, was really enthusiastic and talking about the movie in really deep detail. I said, 'You know a lot about the film.' He said, 'Yeah, yeah, I've seen it four times already.’" - Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz
Star Wars played for over a year in some cinemas, and ended its theatrical run on November 11th, 1978. The film saw four more theatrical releases, including a digitally remastered Special Edition in 1997. It went on to gross $775 million dollars worldwide ($2.8 billion adjusted for inflation)
An Empire Strikes Back …
Star Wars mania lasted well into the next decade. But by the late 1980s, the public interest was waning. The franchise was on life support and books helped revive it.
The Force was strong in Bantam Books editor Lou Aronica. In 1988 he approached Lucasfilm about a three-book series set after Return of the Jedi. It was the first time anyone had inquired about literary sequels, and the reclusive George Lucas took a year to agree.
As Lucas explained to Wired Magazine in 1999, he’d only written outlines for prequels. “[W]hen the licensing people came and asked, ‘Can we do novels? I said do sequels, because I’ll probably never do sequels.”
The Thrawn Trilogy was written by Timothy Zahn. It was named after its primary villain, an Imperial Grand Admiral who sets out to capture Luke Skywalker, and to destroy the emerging New Republic. Its first volume, Heir to the Empire was published in 1991, and spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. Over the next two years, it was followed by Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command. Combined sales of the three novels totaled 15 million copies.
The books rekindled the public’s interest in Star Wars. Dozens more novels were published. Dark Horse picked up the comics license abandoned by Marvel. Lucasfilm’s game division LucasArts launched X-Wing and Rebel Assault, marking the company’s first forays into Star Wars-branded games. Toys and trading cards became a hot commodity again.
On the heels of the resurgent Star Wars phenomenon, and inspired by the seamlessness of the computer graphics used in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Lucas decided get back into the game. On October of 1993, the director announced that he was working on a trilogy of Star Wars prequels. All were hugely successful.
On December 16th, an exciting new chapter opens in the Star Wars franchise. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story diverges from the main storyline of the Skywalker clan. It tells the story of the band of rebels who stole the plans for the original Death Star. It takes place a few years before the first Star Wars, in a period of civil war in the Galactic Empire.
What will happen next? Impossible to know in this storied franchise.
May the Force be with you.