By George (Lucas)! He Got It!

November 27, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli

Disney doesn’t get it but George did. Despite having paid $4B for Star Wars, Lucasfilm, and everything that goes with it, Disney doesn’t understand the fundamental reason why the franchise is so beloved and successful – why fans have taken such a proprietary interest that they turned on the creator when he did something that disappointed them. Disney is going to learn a little about the concept of “diminishing returns” and the lesson is going to hit them hard where it most hurts – in the pocketbook.

In a song she wrote some six years before Star Wars reached movie screens, Carly Simon had this to say: “Anticipation, Anticipation…Is keeping me waiting.” In many ways, that’s the not-so-secret secret to Star Wars’ success: anticipation. Throughout the 38 years he ruled over the franchise, George Lucas only once rushed into something (the lamentable Star Wars Holiday Special) and the lesson he learned from that misstep led to an approach that has resulted in Star Wars achieving the longevity it has enjoyed. But we now live in an age of impatience, when fans seek out spoilers like the Holy Grail, and Disney has bought into this lock, stock, and barrel. Their shortsightedness will make a ton of money short-term (in large part because of the pent-up eagerness generated by Lucas’ approach) but will most likely kill Star Wars long-term.

1977. Baseball was still America’s pastime. The bicentennial was fading in the rearview mirror as patriotism gave way to cynicism. Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Disco was on the rise. And Star Wars thundered into theaters on its way to changing everything about how movies were made, marketed, and sold. The movie found fans of all ages but the most devoted of devotees were those of my generation – who were between about 7 and 15 years old when Star Wars bowed (I was, for the record, 9 going on 10). At the time, I was a smidgen too young for Star Trek, that other great bastion of ‘70s fan devotion, so I gravitated toward Star Wars.

It has been said that, had Lucas been savvier, he would have been better prepared for the success of Star Wars and had the toys ready to go. But George was a filmmaker not a soothsayer and no one expected the movie to be such a monster marketing machine. I would argue that the lack of merchandise at the outset was a boon because it magnified the desirability of everything out there – a soundtrack album, posters, bed sheets, trading cards, the novel, a comic book (by Marvel, who is now intimately involved with Star Wars in a different sort of marriage), and a few other things. No action figures – those wouldn’t even be ready for Christmas. We had to wait for them. And the waiting made us more eager. We ate up each little tidbit about Star Wars 2 as it leaked out through the official fan club newsletter (published quarterly – I won a subscription through a newspaper contest). We got excited when the comic book reached Issue #7 because that’s when new material arrived. And when Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was published…