How Lucas, ILM redefined business-as-usual

In the official souvenir program for “Star Wars,” George Lucas says of his most famous creation: “It’s always been what you might call a good idea in search of a story.”  One that 30 years later, the industry seems to have taken to heart.

“George never set out to reform or change Hollywood,” says Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm’s official “Star Wars” ambassador. “He has invested in what he thought was necessary to make the kind of movies that he wanted to make.” 

Lucas arguably created the concept of the summer blockbuster by targeting Memorial Day weekend as the optimum release window — an honor Sansweet is loath to claim.

But Lucas was clearly the first to see the latent value in merchandising, a profit stream so obscure that Fox Studios, which legendarily released the film on just 32 screens, allowed him to take 40% of it in exchange for a reduced salary. Forbes Magazine estimates earnings for all “Star Wars”-related products at $20 billion. Sansweet will only confirm the figure of $12 billion in worldwide merchandise sales, which he calls “the big number,” plus more than 100 million copies of various “Star Wars” videos sold, but he notes that merchandising went from a $5 billion annual business in 1976 to $60 billion within a decade, largely on the film’s example. 

Jeff Walker, a freelance marketing liaison between studios and fan conventions, credits Lucasfilm’s Charles Lippincott with pioneering the marketing of genre pictures to their core audiences. “He’s the guy who took ‘Star Wars’ out to the conventions,” Walker says. “He did slideshows at ‘Star Trek’ and comicbook and science-fiction conventions the year before it came out, and really revolutionized this whole approach of going directly to the fans — where essentially those three audiences converged.” 

Walker credits “Star Wars” with launching the ’70s-’80s boom in science-fiction films, and credits the merchandising with tiding the fans over during the three years between each of the first three installments. But arguably, the whole notion of extended franchises, fanbase marketing and ancillary licensing — the comicbooks, novelizations, et al that within the subculture are known as the “expanded universe” — would not be possible without Lucas’ unprecedented dedication to creating new technology. 

One who knows that dedication firsthand is Richard Edlund, a key figure at the inception of Industrial Light & Magic, the Lucasfilm division created in 1975 to meet the series’ special effects needs. Today a major visual effects supervisor himself, he hailed from a background in photography, robotics and motion control, and was recruited by effects team leader John Dykstra.

“John was a real evangelist,” says Edlund, “and got the ear of (“Star Wars” producer) Gary Kurtz, who was really the unsung hero of ILM. Gary is a gearhead, and he understood that this lugubrious process we had to build was the only way to do it.” He credits his team with perfecting motion-control repeatable robotic photography and the mastery of the bluescreen process, with its ability to composite multiple images, among other innovations. 

“Basically, we would paint ourselves into a corner, and then we would have to invent ourselves out of it,” he says. “Every day we were doing something that hadn’t been done before.” 

“Star Wars” also initiated what later evolved into animatics — creating crude, sometimes multiplane animations as placeholders and previsualizations of more complex effects shots still to be realized. It was the first film to screen in Dolby stereo (a special Dolby mix was created for participating theaters), which allowed the film to use sound for the first time as a spatial component, and for subfrequencies to augment traditional sound effects. Sound designer Ben Burtt also garnered a Special Achievement Oscar for his unique sound textures. This led directly to THX, Lucasfilm’s own sound calibration division, as well as TAP, the Theater Alignment Program, whereby filmgoers could report technical inconsistencies back to the parent company — in effect providing quality control for individual theaters.

The company’s EditDroid digital editing technology was eventually sold to Avid as a basis of that company’s system, and its SoundDroid innovation represents the first digital sound mixing capability. The team that eventually became Pixar was imported en masse from New York and kept on payroll as an open-ended experiment.

As Internet film maven Harry Knowles says of Lucas: “He was a one-man research-and-development arm for the technology of the film industry.” 

That’s not to mention the renewed interest in Joseph Campbell or the revival in movie soundtrack sales or what we know today as “fan fiction.” Nor does it include the “Star Wars” missile defense system, “the evil empire,” “the Force,” “the dark side” and all the other ready-made political tropes and working metaphors that have impacted the culture at large. 

Perhaps Sid Ganis, who joined Lucasfilm in 1979 and is currently head of the Motion Picture Academy, offers the film’s ultimate legacy. “I can tell you I have a 4-year-old grandson named Isaac who has not seen ‘Star Wars’ and does not know that I was a member of the team from ‘Empire’ on. But he knows the characters by name, he wears a Darth Vader cape, and he goes to the library and gets kids books about ‘Star Wars.’

“So ‘Star Wars’ is in his life because it’s in the culture. The merchandising exists, but it’s not being pounded into the psyche of kids. It doesn’t have to be. They know it.”

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