1975 is now a long time ago, some 40 years before millions of us teared up at the sight of an old man in the Millennium Falcon, before anyone had heard of a holiday called “May the Fourth be with you.” But that’s the year when a young director named George Lucas and his producer, Gary Kurtz, were trying to convince their sceptical studio, 20th Century Fox, to approve a modest budget for their next movie, then called “The Star Wars.”
As they ran out of time for approval, Kurtz says that he and Lucas made a desperate back-of-the-envelope calculation: Any movie with that title would make as much as $8 million in ticket sales to science-fiction fans—if the filmmakers were lucky, maybe $12 million.
That was enough to convince Fox to throw that much at the movie. But of course, the full size of the business empire built around Star Wars dwarfed Lucas’s 1975 imaginings. Eventually, it even dwarfed the profit Fox made from Lucas and Kurtz’s movie. To get an inkling of the true scope of it, remember what Rebel pilot Wedge Antilles gasped upon sighting the Death Star: “Look at the size of that thing!”
Star Wars, which practically invented modern licensing after its 1977 release, has brought retailers more than $32 billion in merchandising sales alone - and that number, according to both Lucasfilm and industry analysts at NPD Group, is increasing by at least $1.5 billion per year.
We don’t know how much of that was Lucasfilm’s cut - it was an intensely secretive private company and is now an intensely secretive Disney subsidiary. But we do know that the six main Star Wars movies made $4.5 billion, according to IMDb, plus the $6.6 billion in video games, home video, DVD and Blu-Ray sales, according to analysis by Forbes and 24/7 Wall Street.
No other entertainment franchise - not even James Bond and Harry Potter combined - reaches the estimated total of $42 billion in the Star Wars ledger. (Potter’s total revenue from books, movies and toys has been estimated at $25 billion; Bond’s estimate is a paltry $8 billion.) Look at the size of that thing, indeed.
You might think that those pesky prequels - the critically panned and, for some, childhood-memory-defiling trilogy of more recent movies by Lucas - had tarnished the brand. Quite the opposite. The first prequel, the widely loathed The Phantom Menace was the most successful single Star Wars movie of all time at the box office unadjusted for inflation, with $983 million in ticket sales – most of that coming from outside the US. (Even adjusted for inflation, it’s the second most successful single Star Wars release behind the 1977 original, according to IMdB.)
A decade later, even the worst Star Wars movie that Lucas could contrive to make had at least something of a Midas touch. The animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, released by Warner Brothers in 2008 ahead of its Cartoon Network show of the same name, featured rudimentary effects, a tedious plot and a wretched script. It made $68.2 million at the box office - revenue that was eight times its budget. A reasonable guess is that Lucasfilm made more than $10 million profit out of the venture.
Outsiders have always underestimated the longevity and appeal of Lucas’s galaxy far, far away. After the first movie became a cultural phenomenon, when toy companies were selling 24 million Star Wars action figures a year, Lucasfilm still struggled to sell merchandising rights for the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The original movie was seen as a fluke. Then in 1983, after Return of the Jedi seemed to wrap up the series, toy sellers told Lucasfilm executives that “Star Wars is dead,” preferring to stock action figures from G.I. Joe and “Masters of the Universe.
Few publishers thought their readers would buy a licensed Star Wars novel; the attempts petered out after a few lackluster efforts starring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. Then in June 1991, award-winning author Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire topped the New York Times’ list of hardcover fiction bestsellers. “I got to stick my finger in the pie crust and show how much steam was inside,” Zahn says.
As the reaction to the most recent Force Awakens shows - it’s been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube and elsewhere - there’s plenty of steam building up inside that crust even now. Disney’s stock was worth a total of $2 billion more just 24 hours later.
Investors were agog back when Disney CEO Robert A. Iger gave his longtime friend Lucas $4.06 billion for Lucasfilm - but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that Iger may well recoup his investment when this third trilogy ends in 2019.
By which time we’ll have seen a total of five new films in the franchise, including Rogue One - a war movie about Rebels stealing the plans for the Death Star - and one other yet-unnamed “Anthology” movie, which unfortunately lost its director Josh Trank recently. Still, no one doubts a big name can be lured into Lucasfilm Ltd to replace him. It’s Star Wars. (The Great British hope, whose name is spoken in awed tones among American geeks: Edgar Wright.) .
The Force Awakens, set to hit theaters in December, is deliberately setting out to lure new viewers (note that Lucasfilm doesn’t speak of it as Episode VII any more, specifically to avoid intimidating beginners). Meanwhile director J.J. Abrams has telegraphed to older fans that he’s returning to the ethos of their beloved original “holy” trilogy - shooting on film rather than digital, stuffing that film full of real costumed Stormtroopers (except now they serve something still mysterious to fans, called the First Order), and using spaceship models (welcome back, Millennium Falcon!) and puppet aliens more than computer-generated gimmickry.
And yet there is something new, and crowd-pleasing under the sun. BB-8, the real-life ball robot whose state-of-the-art magnetically levitating head made even Silicon Valley techies drop their jaws, is rightly seen as the mascot of the new Abrams order. At Star Wars Celebration, the sold-out conference at Disneyland’s next-door convention center where the trailer was unveiled, BB-8 was the undoubted star of the show.
But Abrams needn’t worry even if the fortysomething fans declare the final product to be way overhyped. There are at least three generations of Star Wars fans now. The third came on board with the Clone Wars cartoon series, and a fourth generation signed on with the launch of Star Wars Rebels, a new animated series (set before the original movie) that premiered on the Disney Channel last year to 6.5 million viewers, enough to get a repeat showing on ABC. The second season, which pitches the mighty Darth Vader against his former apprentice, got almost as much buzz at Star Wars Celebration as the vaunted trailer itself.
Whatever audiences make of Abrams’s effort, we need to update Messrs. Lucas and Kurtz’s back-of-the-envelope calculation. Add up all the ticket sales, at the box office and at the yet-to-be-built Star Wars Disney theme park, and there’s surely $1 billion to be made from any live-action movie with Star Wars in the title. That estimate is probably as laughably conservative as Lucas’ and Kurtz’s was. How many more billions will be made in merchandising and ancillary media, the Force only knows.
In the original movie, our hero, Luke Skywalker, tempts space pirate Han Solo into a daring rescue mission by promising a reward of “more wealth than you can imagine!”
“I don’t know,” Han replies. “I can imagine quite a bit.” So can we.
Originally posted in the Telegraph here 05/05/2015.