May 4 is known as “Star Wars Day” among fans of the Star Wars universe — or, at least among those who are also fans of puns. (“May the fourth be with you.”) Lauren Steimer, director of Film and Media Studies, and English professor Mark Minett shared these insights on Star Wars and its place in film and literature. Enjoy!
— Bryan Gentry, Director of Communications
Fox expected a dud
Science fiction films had not been successful box office earners since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. 20th Century Fox expected Star Wars to fail, and this is a large part of their rationale for giving George Lucas such a high percentage of the merchandising rights for the series — Fox never expected the merchandise to sell and did not expect sequels. From the studio’s mindset, Lucas’s request for merchandising rights was a real bargain.
Lucas even cut his directing fee to $100,000 when he was shopping the script around. He was desperate to get the film made and assumed that it would be a major earner at the local toy store. To the studio’s surprise, Lucas’s bet paid off.
Worries about ‘Wars’
Considering the broad appeal of Star Wars today, it’s difficult to imagine that Fox saw Star Wars: A New Hope as a marketing liability. But after the success of Jaws, studios were looking for a film that hit all four demographic quadrants or “quads” — men, women, under 25 years old, and over 25 years old.
Early audience tests showed that the word “Wars” trended poorly with women and people over 25. Because of this, the very early trailers, radio ads, and posters for A New Hope deemphasized the “war” aspect of the film.
This created a conundrum for the studio because the firefight in the stars was a big selling point for younger male audiences. In the end, they found a way to market the technological advancements of the film’s special effects and to tone down coverage of the Galactic Civil War.
Star Wars was largely unadvertised
Unlike Jaws, which opened in an unprecedented number of theaters in the U.S. and had national advertising, Star Wars was a limited release and the studio only sprung for local advertising in areas where the film was scheduled to be released. (Remember, they thought it would bomb at the box office).
Fox focused on radio ads to college audiences because the concept for the film had tested well with this market. Star Wars became a word-of-mouth success and audiences were soon clamoring to have the film screened in their area.
When the studio tested the “unaided awareness level” (the degree to which people were conscious of Star Wars without aid or description) the film had reached 40 percent of the U.S. mindshare after one month of release and 85 percent mindshare by the middle of the summer. It would be a rare event these days for 85 percent of Americans to recognize the title of the top box office earner.
Inspired by film serials
Star Wars is inspired by U.S. film serials of the 1930s. These films were cheaply made, episodic action-adventure narratives. Each film in a series followed the exploits of a hero (or collective) and would build upon stories from previous films. Universal’s Flash Gordon is a successful example.
Growing up in the 1950s, George Lucas watched these film serials on a local TV station in his hometown of Modesto. Small, local TV stations often padded their airtime with old films such as film serials were perfect for this purpose. Lucas was transfixed by these films. His Lucas's Indiana Jones series is based on the same 1930s film serial model.
When A New Hope was re-released a year after its initial release, Fox used the style and structure of the 1930s film serial to draw older audiences. Here is an example.
Samurai story inspiration
Akira Kurosawa’s samurai saga The Hidden Fortress was the primary influence on Lucas’s decision to structure the plot around the two figures with the least amount of power in this narrative universe — R2D2 and C3PO.
Like Episode IV: A New Hope, The Hidden Fortress is organized from the point-of-view of two characters of seemingly little importance who quarrel and blunder their way through the narrative. These two characters, much like the droids, find themselves in the middle of a civil war and are engaged to help rescue and return the princess, albeit with less altruistic intentions than their robot counterparts in Star Wars.
The Star Wars series is also inspired by the Japanese samurai dramas known as jidaigeki, which Lucas would have studied in film school. In fact, jidaigeki is very likely the origin of Lucas’s “jedi.”
Luke Skywalker rescued Spider-Man
“Mighty Marvel,” as Stan Lee liked to describe the publisher, was struggling mightily in the mid-1970s. Fortunately for Marvel, George Lucas was a comics fan who managed to retain the intellectual property rights for Star Wars.
Looking to create a cross-promotional opportunity for the film, Lucas recruited Marvel writer and former editor-in-chief Roy Thomas to persuade Marvel to produce a Star Wars comic. Marvel would, incredibly, get the license for free; they would, according to Jason Sacks’ American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, just have to use Lucas’s preferred creators – Roy Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin — and make sure two issues of the Star Wars series were on store shelves when the film was released.
The comic was so successful the first issue went back to the presses for repeat printings, eventually selling over a million copies. Both Marvel Comics President James Galton and Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter have acknowledged that without the revenue from its Star Wars comics, the company would have collapsed. While Dark Horse Comics would acquire the Star Wars comics license in 1994, Disney’s subsequent acquisition of both Lucasfilm and Marvel would lead to the return of Star Wars comics to the “House of Ideas” in 2015.
That two-second kiss in The Rise of Skywalker did not introduce the first gay characters to the Star Wars universe. The fleeting celebratory kiss between two women was roundly criticized as under-delivering on its publicized LGBTQ representation. For instance, K. Austin Collins wrote in Vanity Fair that the kiss presented “pandering, not progress.”
There is, though, a somewhat more substantial history of “canonical” gay characters in the transmedia Star Wars universe. This includes, most prominently, Doctor Aphra, a “rogue archeologist” introduced in the in-canon Darth Vader comic published by Marvel. She received her own series in 2016, which would eventually win a GLAAD award in 2020 for Outstanding Comic Book.
This follows a pattern common to cross-media franchises where the franchise-leading films offer only fleeting representation, “playing it safe” by the conservative logic of Hollywood, while adaptations and extensions aimed at smaller markets are allowed to do more to expand representation within the fictional story worlds.