A long time ago, in a cinema not so far away, a legacy was created. On December 27, 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope was released to the British public and became a resounding success. Since then, there has been two more original trilogy films, three prequels and one sequel, with two more announced. The franchise, however, was not always as huge as it is today. When the first film was initially created, it was made with a budget of only $11 million. To put that into perspective, the last Star Wars film, The Force Awakens had a net budget of $245 million.
The films were originally meant to be small, indie/cult films, made by an independent director with very little experience. Even the actors didn’t think the films would be a success. In fact, 20th Century Fox, who originally distributed the Star Wars films before they were sold to Disney for a mere $4.05 billion, or £2.5 billion, had such little faith in the Star Wars brand that they let George Lucas (creator) keep the merchandise and sequel rights. The story of how Star Wars rose from nothing to what it is today is a fairytale of an independent filmmaker who had an idea for a trilogy of films and made his dream become a reality.
It all started when George Lucas was hired on a two-picture deal to write a script for a film called American Graffiti,for United Artists Corporation. This film was Lucas’ first major success. Lucas then went on to write up his concept of a ‘western set in space’, called Star Wars. Thanks to American Graffiti being a large success, Lucas was recognised by an executive at 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr. His success with American Grafitti also meant that Lucas was in a strong position for negotiating and his managers encouraged him to ask for a significant pay rise for the Star Wars film.
Instead of taking the rise, however, Lucas made what can only be described as the most ingenious decision in Hollywood history. Rather than taking $500,000 for directing the film, he asked that his salary be kept at $150,000 with two conditions. He wanted to keep all the merchandising rights and he wanted the rights to the sequels. Fox granted this wish, as the producers didn’t think the film would become anything, and so they saw this deal to be a bargain. They had previously lost a large amount of money on merchandise for their 1967 Doctor Dolittle film,and they didn’t think the film would be successful enough to warrant a sequel, so they would be saving money.
This money saving deal would eventually blow up in Fox’s face in catastrophic fashion, as we all know the movie was a giant hit on release. When inflation is taken into account, A New Hope is actually the second highest grossing film of all time at $2.5 billion, beating The Avengers, Titanic and Frozen. George Lucas only found more success when he created the next two episodes of star wars ; The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Both films made hundreds of millions of dollars and cemented the Star Wars legacy.
Empire was another example of Lucas turning a small budget film into a cinematic masterpiece. The second installment of the franchise was created on a budget of only $33 million of his own money. This freed him from Hollywood and granted him the ability to make the film he wanted to make. This idea was clearly a brilliant one, as the film is widely regarded as the best Star Wars film ever made.
However, because Lucas was now in charge of everything, he felt as though he had too much to do and decided not to direct. Instead, he asked his old professor from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Irvin Kershner to do it. Despite the popularity of A New Hope, though, there were still doubters, and Kershner initially turned down the job as he didn’t think it would be a success. When he called his agent about the job he immediately demanded he take it.
After three months of the film being released Lucas had made back his $33 million investment and given $5 million worth in bonuses to his employees. The film has grossed over $530 million worldwide, following its initial release in 1980 and its re-release in cinemas in 1997. IIt has an approval rating of 94% on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience score of 97%, one of the highest on the site.
By the time Lucas had released his third installment, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars had already become a global phenomenon. It was the triology of the century, and absolutely no one saw it coming. Jedi had a bigger budget of almost $43 million and brought back nearly $573 million. Across the three films, Lucas nearly made $2 billion from a franchise that no one believed in, except Lucas himself. The meteoric rise of Star Wars continued into the 21st Century, with another three prequel films, before Disney bought the rights in 2012. Disney have now released one film, one will be coming out later this year, and another is planned for 2019. They have also released the stand-alone film Rogue One and are planning another which will be based around a young Han Solo.
Aside from the films, there have also been several series of the animated Star Wars programme Rebels, with the very successful game Battlefront, with Battlefront 2 recently being announced for later this year. Disney has also been distributing Star Wars comics to further explain and explore the new lore since they moved away from the back stories created during the LucasArts years.
The Star Wars universe is only expanding and to look at where the brand is now, its hard to believe that anyone had any doubts about how well it would do and how a young director, fresh from university managed to talk his way into owning a multibillion dollar franchise simply by taking a cut in pay. In a few years, Star Wars went from an indie cult film to a global sensation.
Written by Ben Ayres