What's the big deal about Star Wars?
Sure, there's the rabid fans, who are flooding social media with excitement over the release this week of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And there's the millions — or more accurately billions — of dollars to be generated in toys, games and movie memorabilia this holiday season in the wake of the latest film's almost guaranteed success.
But the legacy of Star Wars goes beyond the film itself, according to cinema pundits and Hollywood insiders. If film historians are to be believed, Hollywood mainstays that modern-day audiences take for granted — like world-building, sequel set-ups and even action figures — can be traced back to the release of the original Star Wars movies.
Producer and screenwriter Duncan Rouleau echoed the thoughts of many as he put it this way: "Star Wars changed everything, Everything."
But just what does "everything" mean?
Before the era of George Lucas and Star Wars, movies were often directed by filmmakers who had risen through the ranks in Hollywood. But this new generation of directors who burst onto the scene in the mid-'70s were different. Instead of having knowledge and experience with a few elements of filmmaking, they had been trained in film school to think about the entire package as a sort of unified vision.
"George Lucas was, along with Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, the best known of a generation of filmmakers who came to Hollywood after formal film school training — a so-called movie brat," said Henry Jenkins, professor of Communications, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at the USC Annenberg School. "Previous generations of directors came up through the craft guilds and so they knew one area well, but these guys had a sense of the entire process of making a movie, and thus, they could communicate a shared vision with their other collaborators. John Williams' music, the production design, the editing, the special effects, all work together to achieve a unified effect. This fundamentally changed the visual style of Hollywood films."
In the case of Star Wars, that vision included a whole universe of people and places that could be expanded far beyond the movie screen — something that's commonplace in movies and television today, but was rare at the time of the original films' debut.
"Star Wars is a film series, for sure, but — in part as a byproduct of the marketing — Star Wars became a transmedia system, one of the first to achieve this level of sophistication. Star Wars is more than the saga of the Skywalkers; it is a world which contains many interesting nooks and crannies, from pod-racers to X-Wing commanders, from Jedi Knights to bounty hunters."
Screenwriter and artist Jimmy Palmiotti believes the movie "opened the door to hundreds of films and TV shows that explore other worlds," inspiring generations of filmmakers and screenwriters to create worlds much bigger than what would be seen on screen.
"A quote I hear all the time, when referencing a particular property, is: 'It's his Star Wars' meaning the person's pocket universe of characters," Palmiotti said.
In the case of Star Wars, the universe was not only expanded in subsequent sequels, but it was explored through other media, including comic books, novels, games, animated television series, and location-based experiences.
"We misunderstand Star Wars if we focus only on what takes place on the big screen," Jenkins said. "This transmedia strategy allows the films to maintain their simple charms for a mass audience while building up an elaborate mythology that rewards fan mastery across these other platforms."
It's a model that many other film franchises have tried to follow.
"This anticipates, for example, the extended universe Marvel has been developing across media platforms," Jenkins said, "though many lessons from the Marvel films are helping to shape the relaunch of Star Wars."
Of course, one of the more obvious Hollywood trends that was greatly influenced by the success of Star Wars is the abundance of sequels. The words "epic" and "saga" had rarely been used for ongoing, sequel-driven films before the success of Star Wars, but that approach is standard practice for film franchises of today.
"I think that the success of the original Star Wars trilogy really ushered in a new era of sequel movies and sequential storytelling," said writer Meredith Finch. "The success of movies like Hunger Games and Harry Potter could in some small way be attributable to children of the '70s and '80s wanting to give their kids that same epic story experience."
According to Jenkins, the legacy of Star Wars goes even further than just the word "sequel," because it was designed as a multi-part epic. "Lucas took lessons from the Saturday Morning serials he enjoyed as a youth," the professor said. "After the first film, Star Wars was designed to spread a story across multiple installments where the whole is designed to be greater than the parts.
"This seems to me different from a series of sequels, each planned only after the previous film was a success," he explained. "This focus on seriality paves the way for the unfolding of Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings across multiple installments, or for that matter, the more elaborate rolling out of interconnected film series in the Marvel Universe. Star Wars is in turn benefiting from Disney's experience with the Marvel films by creating a structure which has a series of stand-alone titles around specific characters or settings which are sandwiched between the unfolding of the larger saga."
Blockbusters and Special Effects
Star Wars is also often credited with starting the trend toward blockbuster movie-making. Although Spielberg's Jaws, which was released the year before, is sometimes cited as the true beginning of the trend, the huge box office and tie-in success of Star Wars served as a model for blockbusters to come.
"Star Wars is part of the larger emergence of the blockbuster as the staple of Hollywood production," Jenkins said. "There had been a backlash against big Hollywood epics in the late 1960s as a result of some famous box office chumps — and as a result of Easy Rider and the growth of the American independent cinema. Star Wars, along with Spielberg's Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, reversed the tide, so today, we come to associate particular periods of the year with the release of a series of major special effects spectaculars and for this revenue to support a broader range of titles produced by the studios each year.
Jenkins said Star Wars — and Lucas's involvement with the special effects company Industrial Light & Magic — transformed the state of special effects in Hollywood — and with it, enabled a broad array of different kinds of entertainment experiences.
"Each film in the series pushed boundaries in visual effects and propelled generations of creators to think bigger and explore technology as a storytelling tool," said writer Joe Kelly, co-founder of Man of Action.
Of course, the emergence of blockbusters isn't perceived as a positive by all movie fans — the small, independent films of the 1970's are missed by many cinema fans — but that's probably more the fault of more financially-minded studios than Star Wars itself.
"While I love Star Wars for what it did for me creatively," said writer/artist Duncan Rouleau, Man of Action co-founder. "I am sad that all the subsequent business models it produced in its wake seemed to create an environment that is the exact opposite. Most of the industry is chasing the Star Wars model, attempting to capture that lightning once again, but they are forgetting its greatest contribution — be creatively daring, be bold in it presentation and above all be new."
With the way Star Wars merchandise is dominating the holiday gift-giving landscape, it's difficult to imagine a time when movies didn't inspire licensed toys and other merchandise. But the first Star Wars movie — and the audience's enthusiastic demand for the film's tie-in toys and games — had a dramatic effect on the world of licensing.
Paul Levitz, the former president and publisher of DC Comics, saw the impact first hand, as media became more and more connected to merchandising during the decades since the original Star Wars.
"The demand for the Star Wars toys that first Christmas was so amazing," Levitz said. "They actually sold empty boxes that Christmas. There had been no faith that Star Wars toys would be a really important category, so they hadn't made any yet. They'd just begun the early stages of production and weren't really pushing ahead on it when the movie hit and became a phenomenon. So one of the bright young marketing men at Kenner came up with the idea of selling boxes with basically a promissory note that they could pick up the toy two months later, I think it was."
"That was a phenomenal shock to the licensing world, in terms of what action figures could do and what that category could deliver," Levitz said. "There had been significant successes previously, but this really took it up to a whole new level of demand."
As Kelly put it, "Star Wars definitely taught the world the definition of 'merchandising rights.'"
Igniting the Fandom Flame
Jenkins said Star Wars can also be credited with fanning the flame of fandom, something that today drives media franchises worldwide.
Just as important, they were among the first to innovatively express their fandom in other media.
"Star Wars fans have been early adapters/adopters of many new media platforms and practices as they have found ways to share their commitment to this fictional universe," he explained. "Perhaps the most spectacular example would be the huge number of well-crafted fan-made movies which sprung up in the wake of The Phantom Menace, just as video-sharing platforms really started to capture the public's imagination."
Because of this, Jenkins said, Star Wars and its rabidly creative fandom can be crediting with helping to build the public interest in amateur-made movies. So if you like that fan-made parody you just watched? Jenkins claims that you can credit Star Wars. "They paved the way," he said, "for the broad range of grassroots films on YouTube."
Star Wars and its active fandom have also inspired and generated a massive amount of fan fiction through the decades.
"In the process, it was able to build up a female-centered market for a series that Lucas had intended to appeal mostly to young boys," Jenkins said. "It's striking how much more central the female characters have become to the new Star Wars franchise now that it is no longer under George's control."
Of course, one of the greatest impacts of the fans of Star Wars has been on Hollywood itself, as new generations of filmmakers and storytellers have been inspired to build their own worlds. As best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer told Newsarama, "They came out just knowing that the world now looked different. That creativity was alive. You wanted to go right from there and create."
Or as writer Tim Seeley put it: "In some ways, [the original Star Wars] films probably helped create really awful stuff like the Transformers films, but they also ignited the imagination of every kid, and most adults on the planet — and inspired all variety of creators."