National Post

SIX MORE SLEEPS TILL STAR WARS

HOW A ’70S SCI-FI FLICK BECAME A POP-CULTURE JUGGERNAUT,

- by David Berry Weekend Post dberry@nationalpo­st.com twitter.com/pleasuremo­tors

The release of The Force Awakens next week marks the start of a whole new era for Star Wars. The franchise -continues without Georgee Lu cas, but will carry its creator’s legacy to the far corners of the commercial galaxy.

Episode 7 will be followed b- y 8 and 9, completing the ser ies, but it will also awaken an expanded cinematic universe, a Marvel- esque enterprise that will keep us in Star Wars- related movies — everything from the main story to the origins of Han Solo and just how those Death Star plans originally got hatched — until our own galaxy is wiped off the map.

The plan for proliferat­ion just goes to show that when it comes to holding our attention, Star Wars has had it right all along. That it’s taken 40 years to release seven films means little when you consider its cultural output. From hit TV shows and licensed novels that have traced the history of that universe back hundreds of thousands of years, t- o enough branded merchan dise to cover a desert planet t- hree feet deep between spin offs, Star Wars has never been very far away.

And as the endless hype and a-ll-weekend sell-outs have prov en, it will take far more than a few mediocre prequels and a lightsaber pizza cutter to shake our interest.

B- ut as inevitable as its suc cess seems now, it was far from a sure thing when it was all just b-umping around in George Lu cas’s head in the mid-’ 70s. More than the tale of a young farm boy and a mystical energy and a lot of things in space going boom, Star Wars is about how a story comes to define its own genre, becomes a star that a whole constellat­ion of myths, ideas and legends can orbit around.

A- nd the film’s actual narra t- ive is only one small ( if essen tial) part of that.

It was also an unlikely one. The idea that a world- hopping space opera might have mass appeal was close to ridiculous at the time, akin to imaging that an adaptation of a Keats poem might b-e 2016’s summer tentpole block buster, with Lucas’s most famous i-nspiration being the Flash Gor don serials of the late-’30s.

Filmed science fiction in the mid-’ 70s was largely the domain of rubber- suited or tin- man Bmovies; the few that did crack through, like Planet of the Apes or The Day The Earth Stood Still, were usually some kind of dark allegory about the future of mankind, modest in scope if grand in idea. The other great space series, Star Trek, was still just a short-lived syndicated TV show with a cult following.

In reviewing the original Star Wars, more than one critic referenced 2001: A Space Odyssey — the fact they compared a whizzing galactic swords- and-shootery picture to Kubrick’s c- reation- spanning philosoph ical space drama says as much about their equally impressive production designs as it does a-bout the dearth of other refer ence points in the decade between them.

But Lucas knew what he was d- oing. The Joseph Campbel l- ian hero’s journey is kinder garten stuff now — thanks in no small part to Lucas’s emphatic embrace/promulgati­on — but t- he idea of a regular kid get ting sucked into an epic battle between good and evil doesn’t h- ave too many cinematic antecedent­s, and the way it allows for both simple identifica­tion and an easy- to- understand w- orld explains some of the ori g- inal enthusiasm and the end less repetition of the archetype. Lucas was also an expert at f- leshing the world out: his no tion of a “used future,” where l- ight- speed spaceships, talk ing robots and laser swords were worn- in, battered tools, not gleaming, perfect objects, helped make them seem more tangible and prosaic.

The special effects, too, were a novelty. Good enough to lead directly to the creation of companies that have come to define technical advances in cinema — most famously Industrial Light and Magic, but even down the road: THX and Pixar — they made both a full cast of furry, be- snouted and sandblaste­d aliens and epic, whizzing battles around moon bases that pass the smell test, and seem indistingu­ishable from the world outside the theatre.

If all this careful constructi­on is enough to make Star Wars a movie worth seeing, maybe even a couple times, it takes something else to make it a record-setting hit — and something else again to make it a cultural force.

H-ere, we look first to the mar keting team. The idea of a film having such a thing was new when Lucas made Star Wars. There wasn’t much more to a studio’s marketing division than posters and trailers and hoping for good reviews; ideally the right names on all those things would also lead to a good word of mouth.

Convinced that 20 th Century Fox’s approach would not sufficient­ly prepare audiences, Lucas hired an outside consultant named Charles Lippincott to drum up interest. Lippincott was a self- admitted sci- fi nerd who thought that the nascent but growing network of sci- fi obsessives at convention­s would be a natural audience for the movie — and that this audience should be stoked as early and repeatedly as possible.

B- efore the Star Wars screen p-lay was officially greenlit, Lip pincott sold the rights to its novelizati­on. Ballantine, then the largest sci- fi publisher in the world, sold half a million c-opies before the movie hit the -atres. Lippincott also convinced Marvel to put out a comic book s- eries, which was less success ful but did put it on the radar of a slightly different audience. Both the publishing efforts and t- he movie were aided by an ag gressive presence at comic cons, which featured full booths with a-ppearances from stars and cos tumes and sets from the film, before its release.

By now we recognize that as the standard playbook: fellow Disney property Marvel has started teasing movies years b-efore they even have a screen writer, much less a clip. Then it was so unpreceden­ted that it helped Star Wars to one of the biggest openings ever: the round- the- block waits to get in were unpreceden­ted and drew national news coverage. And, then as now, hype begat hype: as soon as people saw that a lot of people wanted to see this movie, even more people wanted to see this movie. The fervour lasted long enough that, in May 1978, 20th Century Fox sent certain theatres a special anniversar­y poster, to commemorat­e the fact Star Wars had been on their screens for a full year.

And it’s in that omnipresen­ce and the attendant success that Star Wars found its secret sauce: simply by staying in the minds o- f its fans, even just at the per i- phery, it could become some thing far more than a movie.

We can thank Lippincott for this, too. A fan of Star Trek, he had seen both how insatiable the demand from sci- fi fans could be, and the problems that h- ad arisen from Gene Roden berry’s somewhat lax approach to copyright. Unofficial products and stories had bloomed, but the lack of central promotion or financial incentive kept them s- cattered and quickly forgotten. Aware that Star Wars could draw similar interest, he “copyrighte­d everything I could think of,” he recently told The Drum. “If it was possible to copyright a paper clip, I would have.” This gave Lucas, who famously gave up some of his directors’ salary to retain merchandis­ing rights, both the will and the way to o- versee the creation of a uni verse of ancillary products. Star Wars all but created the movie tie-in merchandis­e game: today there is everything from replica Stormtroop­er helmets to Millennium Falcon beds, Death Star Christmas ornaments to a galaxy of Lego editions, but f- irst there was the action fig ure. Though they eventually sold more than 250 million of t- hem, they started haphazardl­y enough that they actually helped to build Star Wars buzz. Lippincott had the unpreceden­ted idea to produce action figures for Star Wars, but had trouble finding a manufactur­er that thought the effort would be worthwhile. H-e managed to convince Ken ner, then a smallish subsidiary o- f General Mills, but the com pany was unprepared to keep up with Christmas demand following Star Wars’ release, and ended up selling only an empty box — the fabled “Early Bird Certificat­e” promotion — with the promise of toys to c- ome. This proved doubly suc cessful, because not only was interest sufficient to not hurt Christmas sales, but it turned t he eventual release of the promised figure into an event

on its own — and months of continued publicity. This strategy soon spread beyond toys — and even beyond bedsheets and other branded objects.

Well before the rise of home video let you watch a movie whenever you wanted, Star Wars was re-released twice before its sequel, Empire Strikes Back, hit theatres in 1980; it was re- released twice more before Return of the Jedi arrived in 1983. Home video versions began appearing between Empire and Jedi, and w- ould be dutifully released al most immediatel­y after a new format was debuted. In 1985, just as Kenner ceased making the o-riginal action figures, produc tion began on two children’s animated shows, Droids and Ewoks. T-hough each only lasted one sea s-on, thanks to relaxed FCC regu lations about what constitute­d a commercial, they spun off related t-oy lines, both effectivel­y promot i-ng the mother series. Even a dec ade after the original Star Wars, there was not a year that passed without some form of the story to be re-marketed.

By the time the ’ 90s rolled a- round, the lack of new mov ies had made things slightly trickier, but Lucas and, by then, Lucasfilm, has never been one to back down from a marketing challenge. Though various novelizati­ons — mostly obscure one- offs — had been produced since 1977, in 1991 they refocused their efforts on the tie-in books, commission­ing renowned sci-fi author Timothy Zahn to write the Thrawn trilogy, until now the most official follow-up to the events of Return of the Jedi.

The story was about an evil admiral trying to reform the G- alactic Empire, but more importantl­y the trilogy formalized the concept of the Expanded Universe, officially sanctioned Star Wars stories that began to f- ill in both the history and fu ture of the movie trilogy.

Twelve years after Return of the Jedi, the movies came to theatres once again, given a fresh — and controvers­ial — computer- generated sheen ( naturally, this was preceded by a push to buy the VHS of the original series, too, as it would be your last chance to see them l-ike you remembered). No soon er had a new generation seen them on the big screen than Lucas announced the prequel trilogy. They might have been disappoint­ing, but they kept the series at the top of fans’ minds f-or another half-decade, and in spired a whole new spin- off of shows ( Clone Wars), toys ( the first- ever branded LEGO set) and sundry goodies ( Jar Jar bedsheets anyone? No? No?).

Even before that trilogy had ended, Star Wars had grown into a behemoth, a pop cultural artifact that surrounds us, binds us and penetrates us. Not even Tolkein has managed to get his own day of the year ( May the Fourth be … just another day — please for the love of god shut up about that). People who have never even seen the movies know its iconic artifacts, other people put “Jedi” down as their official religion, entire ancillary industries shift to accommodat­e its every twitch. It was entirely inescapabl­e even before it was announced it would get a film from here until eternity.

N- othing succeeds like suc cess, and nothing is so ubiquitous as ubiquity. Star Wars became everything because it never really stopped to let us consider anything else. And even if everyone has tried to copy it, how are they ever going to catch up to its headstart? The Force will be with us, always; it’s all the Force has ever wanted.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada