If you want to know just how big “Star Wars” was in 1977, consider the story of the empty toy box.
That year, as the film marched into history, Kenner Products, a company that had been licensed to make “Star Wars” action figures, hit a roadblock. Production had fallen behind, and the toys wouldn’t be ready for Christmas. Much like Han Solo (“They’re not going to get me without a fight!”), Kenner rallied: It inserted gift certificates into the boxes guaranteeing delivery of the figurines between February and June 1978. And on Dec. 25, children across the country received I.O.U.’s under the tree and filled those boxes with tears of thanks. It seemed like the dawn of a new age, the commencement of the cradle-to-grave entertainment experience that is “Star Wars.”
To grasp the impact of “Star Wars” and the world it helped create — and to understand both contemporary fandom and the entertainment industry — you have to accept that when George Lucas likened himself to a toymaker in the 1970s, he wasn’t kidding. Toys were always part of the “Star Wars” world; they still are. On Sept. 4, at precisely 12:01 a.m., the Walt Disney Company, which now owns Lucasfilm, kicked off a merchandising extravaganza with retailers like Walmart called “Force Friday.” It was a pseudo-event that was dutifully and excitedly covered by news media and infotainment outfits, despite being just another stop on the rollout for Disney’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which, in case you’ve been stuck in another galaxy, opens Dec. 18.
Love or hate it — or love it and hate it, as legions of its fans do — the “Star Wars” series is a force to reckon with, less because of Mr. Lucas than the fans who elevated it to cinema’s alpha and omega. The relationship between “Star Wars” and its fans extends beyond collectibles and conventions to what can be understood only as a form of ownership. Mr. Lucas created “Star Wars,” but it’s the fans who turned the franchise into the phenomenon that has evolved into one of the most remarkable relationships between a director and the most dedicated admirers of his work, a codependency defined by feverish loyalty (from the fans) and, on occasion, loathing (from each side).
Mr. Lucas always knew his audience. In April 1977, the month before “Star Wars” opened, American Film magazine ran an interview in which he talked about who he wanted to reach. “Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film,” he said, “I realized that there was another relevance that is even more important — dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps — that you could still sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures.” His influences were a postmodern grab bag, from samurai films to “John Carter of Mars.” (Years later, Joseph Campbell was worked into the conversation, too.) Crucially, Mr. Lucas said, “I wanted to make a children’s movie, to go the Disney route.”
He specifically sought out science-fiction fans for “Star Wars,” and 20th Century Fox, its distributor, advised exhibitors to use science-fiction displays in public libraries to reach youngsters on summer break. Fox also urged exhibitors to try to rope in college students in language suggesting that this was a flick meant to be seen in an altered state: “If ever a motion picture was guaranteed to catch and send the imagination of college students soaring, it’s ‘Star Wars.’ ” Figuratively or through a cloud of smoke, the audience soared, and so did the box-office receipts. The film was a smash, conquering the public and critics — in May 1977, Time crowned it the year’s best — and remained in theaters throughout 1977, reopening in ’78 and in successive years. (Most studio movies now are in theaters for about four months.)
Amid the gush, there were doubts. In The Village Voice, Molly Haskell wrote, “what I find mildly depressing about ‘Star Wars’ is that it seems to address itself, like more and more television programming, to a ‘family market’ defined by its prepubescent age level, somewhere between 10 and 14.” She added, “Lucas bridges the generation gap simply by providing a one-way ticket back to adolescence.” The accusation that the film infantilizes its audience stuck. In 1996, the critic David Thomson lamented the immaturity of the contemporary movie scene that he traced to “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” “I fear the medium has sunk beyond anything we dreamed of, leaving us stranded, a race of dreamers,” he wrote. “This is something like the loss of feeling, and I blame Spielberg and Lucas.”
The charge that these two “wonder kids,” as Mr. Thomson called them, effectively destroyed the movies and perhaps even our love for them has been repeated so often that it became a near-article of faith in some cinephile quarters. It’s a story that begins in the mid-1960s when the big studios were gasping their last breath, having never recovered from the introduction of television or the government-forced sale of their theaters. Run by doddering old men who catastrophically banked on pricey flops like “Doctor Dolittle,” the studios were rescued by mostly young, white, male executives and auteurs who, beginning in 1967 with “Bonnie and Clyde,” shook up the industry and country with exciting images and a sense of real life that, while indebted to European art cinema, was essentially American.
The release of “Jaws” in 1975 and “Star Wars” two years later has often been blamed for bringing an end to these creative good times, paving the way for the blockbuster bloat and sequel spectacle that now defines mainstream cinema and, for some, transforming Mr. Lucas from a New Hollywood Anakin Skywalker into the Darth Vader of American cinema. Like “Star Wars,” this story is as simple as an old B-movie shootout, except one in which the good guys (the likes of Hal Ashby and Robert Towne) lose to the bad (Mr. Lucas, Steven Spielberg and the suits).
That doesn’t mean there’s not some truth in the tale, only that it’s complicated. The late 1960s and early ’70s had their screen glories, but it’s an era that was as dominated by “The Jungle Book” and “The Trial of Billy Jack” as by “The Graduate” and “Chinatown.” And even as critics and audiences embraced bold visions on screen, some of the most significant shifts took place in boardrooms between 1966 and ’69, when four of the seven Hollywood studios were bought by non-media conglomerates that, as the film historian Tom Schatz has suggested, were the antecedents to the media giants of today. These conglomerates allowed the studios to keep the machine going, and they also laid the foundation of the global entertainment industry as it now exists.
When “Jaws” opened amid a blizzard of advertising in the summer of 1975 in 400 or so theaters, a large number at the time, it set the course for the contemporary blockbuster. And then “Star Wars” hit. Fox was banking on “Star Wars” but didn’t think it would be especially big, which may be why it made one of the worst deals in industry history. Burned by his experience with Universal while making “American Graffiti,” Mr. Lucas demanded — and got — extraordinary control over “Star Wars.” By the time his negotiations with Fox were over, he owned the rights to its sequels and the merchandising, though the studio did receive a cut of every Darth Vader mask and Chewy figurine. (Fox has retained the distribution rights to the first film, now often known as “Episode IV — A New Hope,” in perpetuity.)
Mr. Lucas’s true genius may be in marketing, including of his vision. Like other filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s, when American directors became auteurs, he has strong views on authorship. In a 1997 interview with Wired, he addressed the studios’ and artists’ rights, arguing that a copyright should belong to “the artist” of a film and not the large corporation that owns it. “I solved the problem by owning my own copyright,” Mr. Lucas said, “so nobody can screw around with my stuff. Nobody can take ‘Star Wars’ and make Yoda walk, because I own it.” When asked about the changes that he had made to his earlier work, including to “Star Wars,” he said: “It’s my artistic vision. If I want to go back and change it, it’s my business, not somebody else’s.”
He could not be more wrong. If the past four decades have made anything clear, “Star Wars” the phenomenon doesn’t belong to Mr. Lucas or a studio, no matter what the copyright states: It is owned by the fans who — aided and abetted by him and his expansive empire — turned it into a sensation, a passion, a cult and, for some, a lifestyle. In 1977, when the first movie opened, a fan could buy tie-in promotional toys, T-shirts, posters, masks, books, comics and children’s costumes. And no wonder: It was a film, as Mr. Lucas said in 1980, written with “visions of R2-D2 mugs and little windup robots.” As the decades and sequels opened and closed, those mugs and toys multiplied into a seemingly infinitely expanding emporium of desire, a “Star Wars” alternative reality in which you could live, play (online and off) and dream.
In its narrative simplicity — its good versus evil morality, its cheerfully blank hero and bang-bang action — “Star Wars” became the ultimate toy, one that fans could spin in all sorts of directions. Its universe was at once specific and so broad that it inspired fan fiction in every imaginable form, tone and medium from comics to novels and movies. Years before the popularization of the idea of participatory culture, a term for those who are at once pop-culture consumers and contributors, “Star Wars” fans had staked their claim on this world. That engagement sometimes took Mr. Lucas aback. “It’s always amazing to me when people take them so seriously,” he is quoted as saying in Dale Pollock’s essential book “Skywalking” (1983). His movies, Mr. Lucas also said then, are “kind of dumb.” (In turn, the fans have lashed out at him, including for digitally fiddling with “A New Hope.”)
In the years since, Mr. Lucas has clearly embraced his destiny as a force. And while it may seem strange, given his hatred of the studios, that he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, he found it a perfect home. Mr. Lucas helped shape modern conglomerate cinema, to borrow a term from Mr. Schatz, but it was Disney that really pioneered cradle-to-grave entertainment. In 1929, Walt Disney sold the rights to use Mickey Mouse (soon called the “million dollar mouse”) on children’s writing tablets, signing his first licensing contract a year later. “The sale of a doll to any member of a household,” Roy Disney, Walt’s brother, said, “is a daily advertisement in that household for our cartoons and keeps them all ‘Mickey Mouse Minded.’ ” As it turns out, though, the real Force is the mouse that roared.