Revisiting a 1979 Atlantic profile of series creator George Lucas
Star Wars, the franchise of a thousand comebacks, is enjoying another. A new cut of the six-part sci-fi saga is being released today on Blu-Ray discs, rekindling debates about which film is the best ("A New Hope," obviously), whether directors should keep "updating" their classics, and whether George Lucas is a terrible person.
A 1979 Atlantic profile of the Star Wars director may help inform answers to that last question. In the story by Lynda Miles and Michael Pye, written about two years after the smash-hit success of A New Hope (though the film at that point was just called Star Wars), Lucas revealed just how much business concerns factored into the series' genesis:
Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys ("I love them, I'm really into that"), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.
From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. "Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio," he says, "but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn't ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade." Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, "already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff."
...The idea of Star Wars was simply to make a "real gee-whiz movie." It would be a high adventure film for children, a pleasure film which would be a logical end to the road down which Coppola had directed his apparently cold, remote associate. As [American] Graffiti went out around the country, Lucas refined his ideas. He toyed with remaking the great Flash Gordon serials, with Dale Arden in peril and the evil Emperor Ming; but the owners of the rights wanted a high price and overstringent controls on how their characters were used. Instead, Lucas began to research. "I researched kids' movies," he says, "and how they work and how myths work; and I looked very carefully at the elements of films within that fairy-tale genre which made them successful." Some of his conclusions were almost fanciful. "I found that myth always took place over the hill, in some exotic, far-off land. For the Greeks, it was Ulysses going off into the unknown. For Victorian England it was India or North Africa or treasure islands. For America it was Out West. There had to be strange savages and bizarre things in an exotic land. Now the last of that mythology died out in the mid-1950s, with the last of the men who knew the Old West. The last 'over the hill' is space."
Profit considerations also played a role in how the the name "Star Wars" was selected. "The title Star Wars was an insurance policy," Lucas said in the article. "The studio didn't see it that way; they thought science fiction was a very bad genre, that women didn't like it, although they did no market research on that until after the film was finished. But we calculated that there are something like $8 million worth of science fiction freaks in the USA, and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars."
Read The Atlantic's full 1979 profile of George Lucas here.