Movie franchises are one of the most commercially viable modes of production in Hollywood. They are easily marketable since audiences are already familiar with the characters and fictional world of a particular story. One of the most recognizable movie franchises of all time is Star Wars, with a worldwide gross of $9,307,186,202 and a total of 15 movies produced; in fact, it is only second to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of financial success (Wood). Although the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, the franchise still continues to lure movie-goers into the theaters. Not only that, but its characters, original score, dialogue, costumes and myths have become a sort of lingua franca that people from all over the world have adopted as their own. The success of Star Wars is, indeed, something worthy of study; it is no surprise that George Lucas’ creation continues to be discussed by film fanatics and scholars alike. So how has Star Wars managed to remain relevant over the years? This paper aims to analyze the sustained success of the Star Wars franchise particularly focusing on marketing and fan participation.
It is no secret that with the resurgence of the blockbuster during the late 70s, media executives found additional ways of creating revenue beyond movie-ticket sales. Jason Scott in “Star Wars as a Character-Oriented Franchise” discusses the ways in which Star Wars became consolidated as a brand and as a multimedia franchise. In particular, citing 2008 data, Scott points out that the total retail sales of licensed products almost triples movie-ticket revenue (13). Lucas’ ability to create simple yet unique characters with whom audiences were able to identify remains one of the biggest strengths of the franchise. Easily identifiable characters means easily marketable products. In fact, even before the release of the first Star Wars, “the release of a comic book and novelization […] served to introduce the characters and story” (Scott 12). Not only that, but early promotion practices, including the movie poster and trailer, revolved around the characters, rather than on cast members. The emphasis on character drew audiences in, and—most importantly—allowed Lucas to create a brand anchored in iconic figures that could be later turned into toys and other types of merchandise.
To illustrate the significance of licensed products in the franchise’s success, one must look at who buys these products and why. The People vs. George Lucas (2010), a comedy documentary that explores fandom within the Star Wars community sheds some light on the interesting relationship between fans and merchandise. Most of the people interviewed self-identify as fans, and agree that the toys were equally as important as the movies. One case in particular stands out: an empty box sold in the Christmas of 1977 became one of the most sought-after toys. Following a deal between Kenner and Lucasfilm in 1976, the toy company gained licensing rights to produce Star Wars merchandise; however, they failed to anticipate that the movie would become such a phenomenon (Lambie). Since they could not make the toys fast enough to satisfy the demand, Kenner and Lucasfilm agreed to sell an empty box with a certificate inside stating that the toys would be mailed in the future (The People vs. George Lucas). Not only that, but to really build up the hype, Kenner limited the production of the box to half a million units (Serafino). To this day, these vintage “Early Bird Certificate Packages” are sold across auction sites; what originally cost around $8 now sells for more than $12,000 (eBay). The example of the empty box proved how, following the theatrical release of the first movie, fans would most likely buy anything with Star Wars on it. That certainly turned out to be true.
Although the empty-box craze is one exceptional case of marketing genius, Star Wars fans continued to buy licensed products in the subsequent years and even decades. After the final film of the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi, was released, fans were left with nothing except toys, apparel, and all other sorts of merchandise to buy. Star Wars fans wanted more, but the next movie would not be released until 1999—more than fifteen years later. They had something to hope for, however; fans certainly picked up on the fact that Lucas had re-named the first Star Wars in its theatrical re-release in 1981. The new name? Episode IV: A New Hope. The importance of this is that they now knew the story was incomplete, which only built more anticipation and increased their obsession with Star Wars products. Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, explains in The People vs. George Lucas how the success of Star Wars as a franchise became synonym with participatory culture. The toys not only allowed fans to collect anything with the Star Wars logo on it, but it also allowed them to make up their own stories.
Interestingly, Scott in Fan Phenomena cites Jekins, who describes how early on fans began writing their own Star Wars stories, as they felt the need to “create and recreate […] characters over and over again,” and beyond the “single life of their original creation” (qtd. in Scott 14). Not only did fans begin to create their own short animated films using the action figures, but they also created their own fan fiction stories. Fanzines also included discussions about reworking or rewriting characters, which was diametrically opposed to Lucasfilm’s desire to be in control of every aspect of the franchise, including copyright. Scott writes that, while the tension between fans writing their own stories and Lucasfilm did not decrease until the late 1990s, George Lucas and Co. soon attempted to “co-opt or regulate forms of fan fiction” (14). Lucasfilm executives soon realized the power of the Star Wars fandom, which is why they began to provide spaces where fans could discuss their favorite characters and write their own fan fictions. In particular, fan web pages hosted by starwars.com allowed Lucasfilm to “assert their authority over fan-produced material” (Scott 14). Nonetheless, while some of these fan activities were endorsed and encouraged by Lucasfilm, Scott suggests that “core fandom can be distinguished by more autonomous activities,” which in turn cultivate fans’ “sense of community and ownership of Star Wars” (15).
This sense of ownership has, in fact, become problematic over the years. To mark the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, Lucasfilm re-released the original trilogy under the name of “Special Editions,” which included new cuts and “improved” graphics, along with brand new CGI scenes. To say that these “Special Editions” upset the fans would be an understatement. Everything from color enhancement to sound mixing to the replacement of original cast members and the addition of controversial details (Han shot first, by the way), was put under the microscope. Following the release of the “Special Editions,” several fan-led projects made it their mission to recover the original unaltered trilogy and prompted them to produce their own edits. As explored by The People vs. George Lucas, after the re-release, fans believed they owned the films as much as Lucasfilm did. This, again, reignited the tension between the Star Wars fandom and George Lucas.
This problematic relationship between Lucasfilm and the fans continued in the following years, especially after the theatrical release of the highly anticipated Phantom Menace (1999). The film did not live up to fans and critics’ expectations, and it was criticized for its screenplay, tone, and the character of Jar Jar Binks among other aspects. Even so, it became the highest-grossing film of 1999, proving that even after the disappointment of the “Special Editions,” fans supported their beloved franchise. While some may say that the fact that fans waited sixteen years for Episode I is the reason why everyone flocked to the theaters, the subsequent film, Attack of the Clones (2002) was also financially successful. In fact, the last of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith became the second-highest grossing movie in the franchise at the time (“Star Wars: Episode III”). This proved that however “disappointing” the prequels were, fans still believed in the Star Wars name. The support from the fans did not come without criticism, though. To this day, some fans negate the existence of the prequels and wish they were never made; this aspect is also discussed in The People vs. George Lucas and it has inspired numerous parodies. To be a real fan, some claim, is to hate the Special Editions and the prequels. Nonetheless, it is through the debates and speculation, the “hate,” the merch and the fan-made media that the Star Wars franchise has been able to remain relevant for over 40 years.
Even after the prequels, Star Wars, now owned by Disney, continues to be a source of significant revenue. The latest installment of the franchise, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, is scheduled to be released later this year. Although the last movie, The Last Jedi, received mixed criticism from critics and fans alike, one can almost be certain that The Rise of Skywalker will be one of the highest grossing films of the holiday season. Although the sequels (The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi) have been more favorable with the critics, it is the fans who have managed to maintain the Star Wars franchise relevant. Not only do they continue to buy licensed products and movie tickets, but they also keep creating their own stories and remain engaged with the characters and the universe. The truth is that, after all the movies, merch, the fan fics, and the disappointments, Star Wars fans are the franchise’s primary marketing tool, and will probably continue to support it for years to come.
Lambie, Ryan. “Star Wars: How an Empty Box Became a Must-Have Item in 1977,” Den of Geek, 6 December 2018, https://www.denofgeek.com/us/culture/star-wars/251879/star-wars-how-an-empty-box-became-a-must-have-item-in-1977
The People vs. George Lucas, directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, Wrekin Hill Entertainment, 14 March 2010.
Scott, Jason. “Star Wars as a Character-Oriented Franchise,” in Fan Phenomena: Star Wars, ed. Mika Elovaara, Intellect, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e025xna&AN=617201&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Serafino, Jay. “The Hottest Star Wars Toy for Christmas in 1977 Was an Empty Box,” Mental Floss, 7 December 2018, http://mentalfloss.com/article/89559/hottest-star-wars-toy-christmas-1977-was-empty-box
“Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=starwars3.htm.
Wood, Jennifer M. “10 Highest-Grossing Movie Franchises of All Time,” Mental Floss, 18 March 2019, http://mentalfloss.com/article/70920/10-highest-grossing-movie-franchises-all-time.