A Mighty Force In The History Of Moviedom

Posted: May 16, 1999

Swifter than the Millennium Falcon, Star Wars rocketed Hollywood into hyperspace.

Earlier deals - such as Jimmy Stewart's 1950 demand to share in his movie's profits - redefined movie business practices. But George Lucas' brainstorm to accept a lower salary in return for Star Wars' merchandising and sequel rights redrew the Hollywood contract.

Other movies spawned technological change. Think of The Jazz Singer (1927), the talkie that made silent pictures history. But not only did Star Wars make monaural sound obsolete, thanks to Lucas' request that theaters install Dolby systems to show his film, it initiated an advancement in motion-control technology that paved the way for the digital revolution that will soon make celluloid obsolete.

And there were blockbusters before Lucas' space opera opened, unheralded, in 32 theaters on May 25, 1977. But nothing came within light-years of this: Within six months of its premiere, Star Wars was Hollywood's biggest moneymaker to date. Adjusted for inflation, it's the second-most-successful film of all time, earning $835 million to Gone With the Wind's $940 million.

The difference is that, unlike GWTW - in fact, unlike virtually any blockbuster before Star Wars - the movie was based on original material and had no recognizable stars.

So seismically did Star Wars reconfigure the Hollywood landscape that it altered every level of the moviemaking process, from the deal to the special-effects design to the editing process to the way movies are marketed to the contractual demands placed on exhibitors.

Although experts are divided between those who believe Lucas' film was just one title in the '70s tsunami that also brought The Godfather and Jaws and those who believe it changed the world, there is consensus on this: "Since Star Wars," says industry analyst Martin Grove, "it's a different marketing business and a different movie business."

Star Wars gets credit, and blame, for everything. Some say its stunning success with preteen and adolescent boys turned Hollywood away from cerebral films in favor of lowest-common-denominator action flicks. All agree that it shifted Hollywood's biggest payday from Christmas to summer.

And while it didn't start the merchandising craze - that began with Shirley Temple dolls in the '30s and Roy Rogers cap pistols in the '50s - "Star Wars is, to the best of my knowledge, the first movie to generate as much money from the merchandise as from the box office," says Len Klady, a veteran reporter for Variety. Since 1977, Star Wars merchandise has earned $4.5 billion in sales, and that's not counting the new stuff. (Hasbro, which is manufacturing nearly all of the Star Wars: Episode I - Phantom Menace toys, has promised Lucas a minimum of $500 million in royalties.)

All of this from a movie for which nobody, least of all filmmaker Lucas and his then-wife Marcia (who is responsible for the film's distinctive blitzkrieg editing), had any hope.

* In 1977, Star Wars was considered a liability. "It was the picture you were encouraged to book if you wanted to get Fox's big movie, The Other Side of Midnight," remembers longtime exhibitor Ralph Donnelly, now a Manhattan consultant.

"The strange thing was," Donnelly says, "you were advised to install a Dolby stereo system for this picture that no one at Fox had any faith in." (For Phantom, Lucas' exhibitor requirements have escalated to include a minimum three-month run, a prohibition on on-screen advertising for the first two weeks, and no more than eight minutes of trailers.)

"Fox definitely thought Star Wars was a second-tier picture," echoes George Mansour, a film buyer and booker in Boston.

Like Lucas' American Graffiti, the 1973 hit that Universal Studios abhorred and audiences adored, Star Wars revealed not just a generation gap, but a chasm.

"I didn't myself like it," Donnelly remembers. "To this day I can't tell R2-D2 from C-3PO. I was confused. But when I saw my son's reaction - he was 21 - I saw it had some commercial potential. Would I have thought it would play a year and become a phenom? No way."

Even Mansour, who was excited by the movie ("it was a sugar-coated cereal that was OK for adults to eat"), was cautious. "It's difficult to follow your gut when you're booking 110 theaters and the distributor has doubts."

Lucas had doubts, too. That he won his groundbreaking deal with Fox in the first place was something of a fluke. Only because Graffiti cleaned up at the box office was the director, who agreed to make Star Wars before Graffiti was released, given the opportunity to renegotiate his contract.

"It was a crash course in lawyering," remembers Lucas' attorney, Tom Pollock, later the chief of Universal Pictures and now an independent producer. While Fox expected the writer-director to ask for a salary increase from $100,000 to $500,000, he asked for concessions instead. No studio has been so foolish since.

Lucas wanted the movie produced by his own company, so Fox couldn't charge studio expenses against it. He wanted the music rights and sales from the soundtrack album. And he wanted the merchandising and sequel rights.

"It wasn't that George thought, 'I can make a lot of money with merchandising and sequels.' It was about control," Pollock recalls. "Which led to money, of course."

From Lucas' perspective, the rights ensured a future in which he would never again work for someone else. They also allowed him to self-finance the next two titles in the trilogy, for which he had already written scripts.

Fox considered Lucas' demands a joke, according to Peter Biskind, author of the inside-Hollywood book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Everyone knew that merchandise took so long to design and manufacture that, by the time toys were distributed, the movie would be history.

And, says Biskind, "it was axiomatic that you couldn't make money on sequels" - the big exception being the James Bond series - so sequel rights didn't amount to much "unless the movie was a big hit, which nobody expected."

* Nobody expected it because making the movie had been an ordeal. It's hard to achieve your vision, Lucas found, when the technology does not yet exist.

"When Lucas made the movie, there was no special-effects industry," observes Leonard Maltin, film critic for Entertainment Tonight. "He built the special-effects industry. Many of the people he hired weren't from the movies. They were city planners and the like." And they helped Lucas create his own universe.

Although there had been eye-popping, jaw-dropping effects in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi movies before Star Wars followed the Star Trek model.

The TV series took a sheet of black construction paper, punctured it with a straight pin, and ran it in front of a lightbulb to produce the effect of a spaceship hurtling past stars at warp speed. When Lucas vaulted viewers into galaxy-hopping hyperspace, itself an homage to the celestial lights in Kubrick's film, it was pure cinematic adrenaline.

"It was clear that a new era had dawned," says Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who shot the background for the speed-bike race through the redwoods in Return of the Jedi. "George founded Industrial Light & Magic [ILM], which became a prototype for the effects houses" used in movies as varied as Cocoon, Star Trek II, and Titanic.

"He advanced the art of motion control, where you can build one image from as many as 36 pieces of film," Brown reflects. In refining motion control technology, ILM has pioneered digital manipulation, which enables actors to travel to virtual universes. Lucas estimates that 95 percent of Phantom Menace has been digitized in some way.

While he invented new technologies, Lucas also found ways to ramp up old technology.

"Star Wars was the can opener that made people realize not only the effect of sound, but the effect that good sound had on the box office," said Walter Murch, film and sound editor. "Theaters that never played stereo were forced to do it if they wanted Star Wars."

"And its lightning editing, those really quick cuts, were immediately understood and embraced by kids," reflects Richard Schickel, film critic for Time.

* While Star Wars galvanized audiences, its effect on Hollywood was more than just electric: It was thermonuclear. Some would say the film succeeded too well.

"With Star Wars, Hollywood discovers that teen and preteen boys are a force," Biskind says. "It discovers the power of a repeat audience." And so a cycle of films - Raiders of the Lost Ark, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder - get conceived and made, tailored specifically for that demographic.

While the appetite for movies with special effects was fed, it came at the expense of more substantial fare. As B-movies got exalted into prestige pictures, more challenging pictures, such as Chariots of Fire and Gandhi, increasingly were made offshore.

Critics from Pauline Kael to David Thomson blame the Jaws/Star Wars express for targeting an audience of young males, and titillating them with spectacle and effects instead of giving them narratives. Kael has accused Lucas and Spielberg of infantilizing movies and audiences. But did Lucas and Spielberg do that, or did cynical studio decision-makers? There's a difference between Star Wars, that benign little popcorn picture, and Star Wars-ism.

Star Wars-ism means opening movies in 3,000 theaters, monopolizing the nation's screens, and making it impossible for smaller pictures to get noticed. It means supplying a fast-food rush rather than a carefully planned meal.

As Pollock says, "George made a movie for the kid in all of us, not a movie for kids. That's a big difference."

* There are many ways to measure the impact of Star Wars, none of them comprehensive.

"It brought kids out of the residue of the counterculture and interested them in American technology again," director John Milius told Biskind.

"It made the juvenile adventure an acceptable adult adventure," says Maltin.

"Along with Jaws, it made the major studios say, let's develop summer into a big season," says Klady.

"It changed the definition of what a home run is," says Tom Sherak, chair of 20th Century Fox.

"It defined the teen audience as a truly potent force at the box office," says Grove.

"Because of George, the film crew that walks around with real props and real lights in real time has become antediluvian," says Brown.

Most of all, says Pollock, "it changed what was possible to do in movies."

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