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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Makings of a Blockbuster

The seed that grew the Star Wars money tree.
In looking down over several lists of the top one-hundred films ever made, I was dismayed to realize I'd already written on most of the top twenty. I noticed that number 15 on the American Film Institute (AFI) list was Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope. It struck me that, for some unknown reason, I'd avoided this "one of a nine" blockbuster (number VIII is due for release in December, 2016, while the final episode is due out in 2019). So, I spent a good hour or more researching it then decided to check my archives after finding some of what I read sounded disturbingly familiar (this has happened before). To my dismay I found I'd already covered the Star Wars Saga (as a whole), Star Wars Art, as well as a biographical piece on director, George Lucas himself, not to mention his groundbreaking classic, American Graffiti. Okay, so I'd not neglected either the man, nor his art, after all. Moreover, if anything, my admiration for this American creative icon verged on outright overexposure.

The opening sequence, Star Wars. Notice that the voice of
Darth Vader is not that of James Earl Jones.
That being the case, this is not so much about a single film, which successfully "kicked off" a multi-billion-dollar cinematic franchise, as it is about one of the exceedingly rare times when a million small points of creative genius happily came together to form a cinematic masterpiece, using Star Wars IV as a classic example and point of departure. As individual film blockbuster masterpieces go, I could just as easily cite Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, only the latter of which has spawned a series. By the same token, only Citizen Kane was the conceptual work of a single writer/producer/director/actor (Orson Welles) while the others were based upon successful novels. Star Wars IV can claim both of these distinctions. Lucas not only conceived the storyline and the characters, he saw the entire effort through to completion, not just once, but six times. The final three episodes of the saga are in Disney's hands (they're even building a separate, Star Wars theme park at Disney World, Orlando).
George Lucas, ca. 1976--cut from the same cloth as Orson Welles
The entire process of making a movie is sometimes compared to raising a child. The baby is conceived (ideas coalesce, the project is sold to backers, and a script is hammered out); a pregnancy takes place (casting and filming ensues); the baby is born (the promotion and a premier); whereupon the child grows to adulthood enjoying some degree of financial success and critical acclaim. In the case of George Lucas (above) and Star Wars, however, this whole, complex, complicated analogy is more on the order of planting a seed, nurturing a seedling, growing it into a sapling, which becomes an entire grove of money trees. No one, not Spielberg, not Welles, not Selznick, nor Woody Allen, not even Coppola, has ever come close to pulling off such a feat, and doing it so one.
An autographed final script.
Using the baby analogy, the whole Star Wars conception element breaks down immediately. With most films there is one mother and perhaps a whole host of seminal inputs (novelists, playwrights, cinematographers, producers, directors, etc.). Not so with Star Wars IV. From the very beginning, Star Wars was Lucas' baby. That's not to say there weren't outside influences, most notably the Flash Gordon sci-fi series in the 1940s and 50s, but also including the popular cowboy westerns of the same era, Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, Tarzan, Jules Verne, and even Gulliver's Travels. Lucas began pulling all these diverse influences together in January 1973, working eight hours a day, five days a week, writing, taking notes, inventing weird names, and developing characterizations. He would discard most of these by the time the final script was written, but many names and places eventually made it into the movie or its sequels. Others were revived decades later when he wrote his prequel trilogy. All this Lucas used to compile a two-page synopsis titled Journal of the Whills, which told of the training of apprentice, CJ Thorpe, as a "Jedi-Bendu" space commando. The problem was, condensed to two pages, the whole story was almost beyond comprehension.

Carrie Fisher never looked so good.
In frustration, Lucas then began writing a 13-page treatment called The Star Wars in April of 1973. Lucas went looking for money. United Artist said thanks, but no thanks. Universal, who had fin-anced his American Graffiti, did likewise. Sci-fi just wasn't that big a deal in the mid-1970s. Even Kubrick's landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey had trouble gain-ing financial traction until later. Hollywood has always been more interested in endlessly repeating past successes than in planning future ones. Beyond that, Star Wars IV was unlike any sci-fi film ever made in the past. It was not about the future, but a space adventure having taken place "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." It was a frightening de-parture from the norm. Moreover, the budget for such a picture was frightening as well. Lucas wanted eight-million. The final budget ev-entually bloomed to eleven-mil-lion. Walt Disney also rejected the project (and has now paid through the nose to the tune of $4-billion for their shortsightedness). Finally, in June, 1973, Lucas was able to pursued Alan Ladd, Jr., then head of 20th Century Fox, to underwrite the project. A deal was completed for Lucas to write and direct the film. Although Ladd did not have much understanding of the technical side, he believed in Lucas. The deal gave George Lucas $150,000 to write and direct Star Wars.
The Death Star came relatively late in the Star Wars conceptual process.
An idea for a film that began taking shape in January 1973, had already gone through various rewrites. Lucas would write four different screenplays for Star Wars, in search of just the right ingredients, characters and storyline. By May 1974, he had expanded the film treatment into the rough draft of a screenplay, adding elements such as the Sith, the Death Star, and a general by the name of Annikin Starkiller. In the process, Lucas changed Starkiller to an adolescent boy, and he shifted the general into a supporting role as a member of a family of dwarfs. Lucas envisioned Han Solo, as a large, green-skinned monster with gills. He based Chewbacca on his Malamute dog. A full year after he'd first begun, Lucas completed a second draft of The Star Wars in which he made a number of important simplifications including the introduction of the young hero, Luke Starkiller. Annikin became Luke's father, a wise Jedi knight. "The Force" was also introduced as a mystical energy field. This second draft still had some differences from the final version as to characters and relationships. But the film, and indeed, the entire saga, was starting to take shape.

The Star Wars IV cast with Lucas and producer, Gary Kurtz.
A third draft, dated August, 1975, was titled The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller. The third draft featured only minor differences as to characters and settings from the fourth and final plot. The third draft characterized Luke as an only child (he'd had brothers, earlier), with his father already dead, to be replaced by a substitute father named Ben Kenobi. The fourth and final draft was dated January, 1976, with a title of The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. Obviously an abbreviated title was needed. Fox approved a budget of $8.25-million largely on the basis of American Graffiti's positive reception. which afforded Lucas the leverage necessary to demand the sequel rights to the film. For Lucas, it was a most fortunate arrangement in that it protected Star Wars unwritten segments and most of the merchandising profits. Fox owned only Episode IV. Lucas grew rich from all the others.

Alec Guinness (Obi-wan Kenobi) and director, George Lucas
on location, of Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope, 1976.
Lucas finished writing his script in March of 1976, just before the crew started filming. What finally emerged through the many drafts of the script was obviously influenced by science-fiction and action-adventure with all the other influences working together in surprising harmony. While much of this new sci-fi genre was, indeed, unprecedented, there were also certain traditional aspects which have helped perpetuate the Star Wars saga. During production, Lucas changed Luke's name from Starkiller to Skywalker, and fortunately, the title was altered to The Star Wars, and later just Star Wars. The film debuted on May 25, 1977, in fewer than 32 theaters. Eight more came aboard two days later. Immediately box office records began to fall, causing Fox to quickly broaden its release. The film was a huge success for 20th Century Fox. Within three weeks it had more than doubled the studio's stock price and raised the company's annual profits from $37-million in 1977 to $79-million the following year. In total receipts, the film has earned over $775-million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, Star Wars IVhas earned over $2.5 billion worldwide at 2011 prices, making it the most successful franchise film of all time.
The people who made it all possible--the Star Wars fans.


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