Editorial: How the Original 'Star Wars' Redefined the Blockbuster
by Dan Marcus
May 25, 2015
As Star Wars – the original film, A New Hope – turns 38 this year (it opened May 25th, 1977), it's hard to imagine a time when Star Wars wasn't an ingrained part of our pop culture. For a second, just imagine a world where lightsabers aren't a thing and the Millennium Falcon is just a figment of George Lucas's imagination. There's no denying Star Wars has infiltrated almost every aspect of our culture and as we prepare to embrace a whole new chapter of the Star Wars legacy with this December's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, let's take a look and see how Star Wars has changed movies – and pop culture – permanently.
Back in the summer of 1977, going to the movies was a much different experience than it is today. For example, there are the obvious differences – back in 1977 there was no internet and we weren't inundated with set photos galore, teasers for trailers and behind-the-scenes videos at every chance we could get. The state of the movie industry itself was so remarkably different in the way we anticipated movies. When George Lucas was making Star Wars, there was no great anticipation. No movie blogging journalists writing pieces just like this one – it was an entirely different landscape. You could say that Lucas had the benefit of making a movie without expectations – even though he had to deal with the weight of delivering a movie to a bunch of studio executives that had zero confidence in Lucas or the film he was making.
The fact that 20th Century Fox had zero expectations for Star Wars undoubtedly benefited Lucas in the long run – he was able to sell the sequel rights so he could hold onto the merchandising rights, which ended up working out very well for the then young, fledgling filmmaker (as seen here). Even though he was running behind schedule, going over budget and working on something that everyone thought was going to burn out like a space ship crash landing on a planet – Lucas didn't have to deal with the internet. He didn't have to deal with a hundred different opinion articles determining if he was going to do a good job or a slew of paparazzi and onlookers taking set pictures and videos, spoiling the film's most significant moments.
Even though Lucas had a lot stacked against him when he was directing Star Wars in 1976, he didn't have to deal with an entirely different stack of cards. It reminds me of the current situation with Josh Trank and Fox's own Fantastic Four reboot. Trank already had a lot he had to contend with - Fantastic Four being his first major production, taking on a huge comic-book property and essentially rebooting a stale franchise – but it seems with reports suggesting behind-the-scenes drama he had an even more difficult time than one might expect. I almost feel bad for Trank, having to juggle the responsibilities of his first major production with pleasing a rabid fanbase, executives and having the weight of the internet on his shoulders, poking and prodding at his every decision. Who knows what really happened behind-the-scenes on Fantastic Four – but something tells me hundreds if not thousands of fans weren't nitpicking or dissecting Lucas and the behind-the-scenes drama he dealt with while he was making Star Wars (and he was dealing with a lot of problems).
When Star Wars came out, it came out during a time in which movies were like concerts, with people lining up sometimes miles from the theater entrance. While that still happens now, when Star Wars came out it was a relatively unknown occurrence. There were some fairly ground-breaking films that came out in the 70's and 80's – Steven Spielberg' Jaws being one of them – but Star Wars almost came out of nowhere and ignited a firestorm of feverish devotion and awe from moviegoers that has lasted nearly four decades.
When people were waiting in line for Star Wars, there's a good bet many people probably didn't know what they were about to see. They probably saw some footage or a poster and thought it looked like a good time. However, when a big event movie opens in today's movie climate, by the time it debuts in theaters almost everyone knows something about it. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, of course people know somewhat to expect because it's a sequel. However, with our internet age of non-stop blogging, set photos, trailers, magazine covers and more – we'll probably know a decent amount going into the theater on December 18th. Thanks to J.J. Abrams and his "Mystery Box", we hopefully won't know too much – but we'll likely know more than those audience members did when they sat in that theater for the very first time on May 25th, 1977 – having little idea just what they were going to experience.
Big, summer event movies like Jaws and Star Wars altered the moviegoing experience from going with your friends or family to a movie maybe every Friday night to the thing to do that summer. People lined up in droves, watched it multiple times and dissected every detail as if they were starved for more. It was a time where these kinds of movies weren't exactly that commonplace and the notion of franchises and sequels weren't quite crystallized yet. When we go see a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road, we expect there will probably be a sequel. Even with The Force Awakens, we know there will be more films to follow (unless The Force Awakens bombs – which, let's face it, is not going to happen in this galaxy or the next). When audience members got out of their chilly theaters in 1977 and walked into the hot summer air, they probably had no idea if they'd see Episode V or not. Heck, most probably had no idea it was actually the fourth film in the middle of two – and soon to be three – trilogies. To them, it was just a really good time at the movies.
A lot has changed from the summer of 1977 to the summer of 2015 and beyond. How we anticipate movies has changed – for better or worse – and "blockbuster" movies like Star Wars and countless others have changed the landscape of cinema forever. Now, when a popular movie like Suicide Squad is in production, there are literally hundreds of people posting set photos, analyzing officially released photos until the very last detail and speculating 24/7 on what the film might be about. It would be interesting if Lucas was making his Star Wars in today's atmosphere and how that might or might not have influenced him during the filmmaking process. Would people care when he released the first official photo of Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia? Of course, Lucas also benefited from the fact that Star Wars was a completely original creation at the time – how many of those do we see anymore? It doesn't happen very often.
So, with the 38th anniversary of Star Wars, let's appreciate the impact it has had not only on the movie landscape but with how we anticipate these big, summer event movies as well. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are in a somewhat unique position with the Star Wars franchise. For the first time in a very long time, we have no idea what is going to happen. With the prequel trilogy, we knew where certain things were going to go – we knew Anakin Skywalker was going to become Darth Vader, and so on. With these new movies starting this December, the slate is wiped clean all over again.
In a way – if we avoid all the set photos, abundant spoilers and rampant speculation as much as we can, as much as possible – we can almost be just like those moviegoers when they sat down in theaters back on May 25th, 1977. We know what we will be watching – but for the first time in a long time in the franchise's history we won't know exactly what we will be watching – and to me that's an incredibly exciting prospect. Right now it's a very exciting time to be a Star Wars fan, and movie fan in general. There's so much to look forward to seeing on the big screen, if only we can wait until it hits theaters. What do you think? Do you think Star Wars has helped change the way we anticipate movies today?