‘Star Wars’ Is King of Film Franchises
Its last installment proved a critical disappointment. Once the trendsetter on visual effects, it lost out in that category to an edgy upstart at the Academy Awards the last time around. Surrounded by fresh-faced film serials, it no longer holds clear claim as the year’s most anticipated movie.
“Star Wars” may have rusted a bit in the 25 years since Luke, Han, Leia and Obi-Wan blasted into theaters. Yet as “Star Wars: Episode II ó Attack of the Clones” arrives next week, George Lucas’ creation remains the Cadillac of film franchises, the surest sure thing that a blockbuster-minded movie industry can deliver.
Its previous chapters account for four of the top 13 grossing movies of all-time domestically. Fans camp out at theaters a month or more before a “Star Wars” film opens to be first in line to see it.
And consider “Star Wars: Episode I ó The Phantom Menace.” After waiting 16 years for the first prequel to the original trilogy, audiences almost universally found something to deride in “Phantom Menace,” a critical dud that sacrificed story to special effects and introduced the loathed buffoon Jar Jar Binks.
What other film franchise could produce a mediocre movie that disappoints the most loyal fans yet still rakes in more than $900 million worldwide and $431 million in the United States and Canada alone?
“Sure, the last movie was not what people hoped it would be,” said Barrie Osborne, a producer on “The Lord of the Rings” franchise and executive producer on “The Matrix,” which beat “Phantom Menace” on visual effects and two other categories at the Oscars for 1999.
“But I think everyone will want to see the new `Star Wars.’ It’s something we all grew up with, and the whole body of work is more powerful than any one of the films. This powerful, mythic story George originated way back still captures the imagination, and people want to see what happens next.”
In the past, “Star Wars” sequels or prequels clearly were the film events of the year. Given the record opening of “Spider-Man” and anticipation for this fall’s “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” sequels, “Star Wars” now has heavy competition for the title of most hotly awaited movie.
Unlike the 3,000-theater-plus launches of today’s Hollywood, with its fixation on huge opening weekends, the original “Star Wars” premiered on just 32 screens on Wednesday, May 25, 1977. The procedure then often was to start slowly, letting positive buzz on a film spread as the release widened to more theaters.
It worked perfectly on “Star Wars,” which distributor 20th Century Fox expanded to 43 screens by that Friday, with the film grossing $1.55 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.
As it expanded, its total take during that initial run hit $221.3 million, the equivalent of about $560 million when the 1977 average ticket price of $2.23 is adjusted for inflation. “Star Wars” was such a phenomenon that it took in $101 million more in four reissues within just five years after its debut.
With the 1997 special-edition releases of the original trilogy, the first film ó officially called “Star Wars: Episode IV ó A New Hope” ó has totaled $461 million domestically, second to “Titanic” at $601 million.
Including all reissues, “Episode V ó The Empire Strikes Back” is No. 13 at $290 million, and “Episode VI ó Return of the Jedi” is No. 9 with $309 million.
With the hype on “Phantom Menace” as the first “Star Wars” chapter since 1983, some Hollywood analysts had thought it would do better than its $431 million haul. Many found the story weak and the characters and dialogue flat compared with the first three films.
“The other movies were about defeating the empire and overcoming evil and living for the greater good,” said Tariq Jalil, writer-director of “A Galaxy Far Far Away,” a documentary examining “Star Wars” fandom that hits video stores two days before “Attack of the Clones” opens on May 16.
“As far as I can tell, `Phantom Menace’ was about taxes, which doesn’t lend itself to great emotional attachment,” said Jalil, referring to that installment’s trade-war conflict.
For all the criticism, “Phantom Menace” obviously offered something that audiences wanted, said Rick McCallum, producer of the current “Star Wars” trilogy.
“When you look at the difference between films that gross $100 million and $200 million, once you’re over that $175-$200 million mark, people have to love your film. That is the only thing that drives it,” McCallum said. “I couldn’t be happier with our $431 million gross. It’s a major achievement.”
“`Star Wars’ is one of the surest bets there is,” said Bill Warren, a science-fiction expert whose books include “Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the ’50s.” “Why do people go see John Wayne movies? They’ve got John Wayne in them. People see `Star Wars’ movies because they’re full of `Star Wars’ stuff. There’s a familiarity and affection for the material.
“All the new movie has to be is a little better than `Phantom Menace’ and people will go bananas.”
‘Star Wars’ Is King of Film Franchises