Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, will be released in theaters on December 20, 2019, marking the final addition to the new Star Wars trilogy that began in 2015. The Force Awakens high-quality CGI and special effects starkly contrasts that of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, which came out in 1977 and marked the beginning of this iconic and absurdly financially successful franchise. Unlike its other releases, the very first Star Wars was not a highly anticipated film – in fact it was famously regarded as a huge career risk for creator George Lucas in his filmmaking career. 42 years later, let’s look back on the initial reception to the movie that began it all.
The creation of A New Hope, or simply Star Wars, was famously riddled with problems and doubt towards its success. The 2004 documentary Empire of Dreams provides a great dissection of many of these issues, and the reservations people felt about the movie. George Lucas initially came up with the idea for a space-fantasy film soon after releasing his directorial debut THX 1138 (1971), a social science-fiction movie that was a financial flop – which Lucas believed was the result of its bleak story being unable to reach an audience. As a result, he wanted to make an adventurous, optimistic space odyssey that would be accessible to the masses.
He wouldn’t start writing the script for what would eventually become Star Wars until January 1973. Lucas pulled from inspirations like Flash Gordon, the Vietnam War, Camelot lore, and Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure film The Hidden Fortress . However, many of the major studios refused to budget his movie, including United Artists, Universal Pictures, and (ironically) Disney. In June 1973, Lucas managed to convince 20th Century Fox to fund his idea. Star Wars was also cursed with a long and difficult production that went way over budget. Despite Lucas’s passion for the movie, many of his crew members didn’t take it seriously and doubted that it would do well financially or critically. In 1977, Lucas showed an early version of the film. The audience was comprised of Fox executives and several other directors, including Lucas’ fellow “Movie Brats” Brian De Palma, John Milius, and Steven Spielberg – the last of whom was the only filmmaker to actually enjoy Star Wars.
Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977 to fewer than 32 theaters. Despite the many detractors, doubters, and critics, the film was an instantaneous and record-breaking success. Lucas has stated how he spent most of the release day in a sound studio, only to leave for his lunch break and find floods of people waiting outside Mann’s Chinese Theater so that they could see his movie. With all of its earnings adjusted to inflation, the movie is the second highest-grossing film in the United States – with estimated ticket sales being $178,119,600. The film was extremely well-received by critics and audiences. Famed movie reviewer Roger Ebert described it as an “out-of-the-body experience” and commented that “the magic of ‘Star Wars’ is only dramatized by the special effects; the movie’s heart is in its endearingly human (and non-human) people.” After its release, everyone involved with Star Wars found that their careers sky-rocketed. Even members of the film’s technical staff like model makers were being asked for autographs. The films also cemented the careers of its main cast: Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill.
An important aspect of Hollywood that Star Wars revolutionized was merchandising. Displaying true innovation and hindsight, George Lucas recognized the importance of promoting not just a movie, but the objects and products made in connection with it. He formed a partnership with Kenner Toy Company, who agreed to produce a line of action figures for the film. Due to the franchise’s fantastic and creative world building, fans eagerly wanted to immerse themselves in the universe Star Wars set up. Merchandise – especially action figures – allowed them to do this.
Kenner was unprepared for the incomparable popularity Star Wars attracted, and wasn’t properly stocked with enough action figures. Instead, they sold an “Early Bird Certificate Package” – which was basically an “IOU” that could eventually be exchanged for four action figures. Lucas created a movie so popular that he managed to make a profit not even on actual merchandise, but solely on the promise of it. He earned so much from the toy sales alone that he was able to use that wealth to independently finance Star Wars’s next two sequels: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. By 1978, Kenner managed to sell 40 million units of toys. The film’s incredible success would inspire future big-budget franchises to invest in toys based on their film’s characters, in turn creating an industry based on movie-inspired items. Even to this day, Star Wars commodities like t-shirts and decorations are a common staple in every modern nerd’s house.
Though recent Star Wars additions haven’t generated responses quite as ecstatic as the original movies, as exemplified with the divisive prequel films or The Last Jedi, it’s a franchise that still remains as profitable and popular as ever. Regardless of what you think about its newer additions, the powerful impact and legacy Star Wars left will always be an undeniable game-changer for the history of cinema. Truly the Force was strong with this film.