Does the “Star Wars” Saga Deserve an Honorary Oscar for Revolutionizing Mass Media?
On the eve of “The Rise of Skywalker,” following years of an increasingly polarized fanbase, we’re reminded what a valid question this is when you recall what brought us here.
I was a wide-eyed 13-year-old kid when I met Luke Skywalker and crew for the first time in 1977, and my life forever changed. I’ve written this more than once: “Star Wars” inspired me like nothing before or since, and I certainly was not the only future creative so afflicted.
For you younglings, there was no “A New Hope” back then, nor any Chapter IV. There was only “Star Wars,” and it was glorious.
Most of us were convinced within two minutes.
Today, I am a novelist, and writer-producer for TV and film. Numerous others in the arts have credited “Star Wars” for helping launch their careers as well, including Kevin Smith, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Jordan Peele, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright, Anna Kendrick, Seth Green, Emma Stone, Olivia Munn and more.
In terms of numbers, as of June, 2019, per corporate data as compiled by Wikipedia and illustrated below by Reddit user takeasecond, the “Star Wars” franchise is presently the 5th highest-grossing media franchise in history.
Despite ongoing rancor within its fandom, most recently spurred by the controversial “The Last Jedi” (which I loved) and the prequels before that, many “Star Wars” fans still hold out hope despite inclusionary public statements to the contrary.
The boxoffice disappointment of “Solo” and the lower-than-anticipated Disney theme park returns aside, “The Mandalorian” has been credited for driving Disney+ to over 10 million subscribers by opening day, and “baby Yoda” has become our latest pop-culture superstar.
The franchise is not only expected by industy insiders to continue to climb on the above list, but also to blow past any potential Skywalker Saga fatigue by exploring new universes within its ongoing canon.
It is difficult to explain the impact of “Star Wars” when it was released. 1977 saw Jimmy Carter as President, the resignation of Gandhi, and the death of Elvis.
Globally-covered events one and all, and yet on any such list is a film that in its earliest days looked to be a disaster.
Fresh off “American Graffiti,” one of the largest-grossing films ever to that point, George Lucas wrote a barely comprehensible script outline that made 20th Century Fox nervous, yet they were obligated to the young filmmaker.
Journal of the Whills, Part I
The Journal of the Whills, Part I (1973) was a handwritten two-page partial outline for the story that would, after many…
Following numerous drafts and a subsequent shooting script, the film was made.
One none-too-successful test screening with Fox executives and professional friends later, the film went back into post-production.
Then came Marcia Lucas’ (George’s ex) editing expertise, the John Williams’ score, the release … and the crowds.
Oh, those crowds. I stood on them. At last count 67 times, not counting the days I stayed in the theater for more than one — or two — screenings.
I was on the mid-range, there, but damn I wanted more.
“Star Wars” opened on May 25, 1977, and was an immediate critical and commercial smash. Even the respectable “Time” called it “The Year’s Best Movie.” By the end of its pre-“Special Edition” theatrical runs, the film earned $322 million domestically, becoming the highest-grossing film ever made to that point.
The year following its initial release, “Star Wars” won six Oscars plus a Special Achievement award to Ben Burtt for Sound.
It was nominated for Best Picture. When “Annie Hall” won, I was ready to throw my television out the window.
Scribes had a field day with “Star Wars.” The film adorned the covers of magazines globally; the demand for toys and related paraphernalia was at levels never before seen.
In the winter of 1977, children received an empty box for the holidays.
The box promised upcoming action figures. Kenner, which made a deal with Lucasfilm, could not possibly meet the explosive demand on time as they were caught wholly unaware.
The action figures finally came shortly thereafter.
In short order, T-shirts, games, Topps cards, bedsheets, mugs and other “Star Wars” merchandise sold like gold. The licensing industry for feature films would never be the same.
Refer to the above franchise chart. To date, merchandising is the largest financial piece of “Star Wars,” despite how many billions were grossed by the films themselves.
“The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
Lightning hit in threes.
If “Star Wars,” in 1981 rechristened as Episode IV: “A New Hope,” caught the world off-course, it was prepared for “The Empire Strikes Back.”
The toys were on time. Ditto for “Jedi,” which became the second-highest grossing film in the series to that point.
We still couldn’t get enough.
Apparently, neither could Ronald Reagan.
March 23, 1983 | Reagan Proposes 'Star Wars' Missile Defense System
On March 23, 1983, in a nationally televised address on national security, President Ronald Reagan proposed the…
The “Thrawn” Trilogy
The franchise remained dormant following “Jedi’s” release, until 1991. With no new films on the horizon (and years after two Ewok made-for-television movies), author Timothy Zahn rebooted the saga with 1991’s “Heir to the Empire,” and it’s followups, “Dark Force Rising,” and “The Last Command.”
Each of the books hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. The hunger for “Star Wars,” it appeared, had not satiated at all.
In fact, the books’ sales convinced Lucasfilm to revisit the well. The theatrical prequels were next, followed by an all-new movie trilogy beginning with J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” in 2015.
Hitting the cultural zeitgeist is one thing and yes, Jedi temples have formed around the world as something slightly more than fringe.
But the ongoing mass media licenses are something to behold, over 40 years since the opening of the original film.
We have or have had animated television series, live-action television series, feature films of course, canonical “Star Wars” (anything approved by Disney) and non-canonical “Star Wars” (such as the EU — Expanded Universe, now known simply as “Legends” — not approved by Disney and created prior to its purchase of Lucasfilm), LucasArts, THX Sound and Industrial Light and Magic — both of which have had credits in innumerable studio films — the ongoing merchandising and more.
It all sprang from a film released to an unsuspecting public way back in 1977. (We won’t count 1978’s “Star Wars Holiday Special.” Let’s pretend it didn’t exist.) Also, as an aside, the myth that “Star Wars” was single-handedly responsible for the “blockbuster” or “Hollywood tentpole” mentality is exactly that:
An Old Myth Exposed: “Star Wars” Nearly Destroyed the Movie Industry.
It’s an old accusation with new relevance as the first gen of “Star Wars” kids now have children and grandchildren of…
The fact it is mentioned in those terms, though, bears note as to that first film’s prominence.
The “Star Wars” franchise has received its honors over the years, and yes, the Academy presented George Lucas with the Irving Thalberg Award in 1991 to honor his career as a whole. The award was well-deserved, to say the least.
But today I’m talking something more.
To the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are you listening? Honor the original film, or honor the film franchise as a whole.
If the point of the Oscars is to reward — among the best — the most impactful and enduring of all motion picture product, a one-time-only special award that reflects “Star Wars’” unique place in the industry’s history should not be so easily discounted.
Thank you for reading.
P.S. For an excellent book on the early days of “Star Wars,” check out my friend Craig Miller’s excellent work, “Star Wars Memories: My Time in the (Death Star) Trenches.” Craig was the original Director of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm, and he was there from the beginning. The book is available now:
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