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Star Wars: How The World Changed

Friday, 25 May 2007 | 11:50 AM ET

“Star Wars,” the fantasy space epic that premiered 30 years ago this week, is often portrayed as the quintessential, even archetypal blockbuster—the flick that forever changed how the film industry writes, makes and markets movies. But things aren’t quite that simple.

The company that made the film, 20th Century Fox was a publicly traded—but still independent—studio on May 25, 1977, the day Star Wars debuted in 32 U.S. theaters. The company had never surpassed $37 million in annual earnings since its formation in 1935 through the merger of Darryl Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Pictures and William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.

In 1977, those profit numbers were about to change. Gary Arnold, a “Washington Post” staff writer who wrote an original review of the movie, told the story of two friends who “placed orders with their brokers (for 20th Century Fox stock) minutes after seeing the film.”

Box Office Gold

“Star Wars” raked in $6.8 million during its first weekend of wide release. Within months it would do something no movie—including “Jaws,” released the year before—had ever done: It surpassed the $300-million revenue mark. “Star Wars” topped out at $798 million in worldwide revenue. Earnings at 20th Century Fox more than doubled their best-ever mark in 1977, as did the company’s stock price.

Still, says Agatino Balio, a former professor of film at the University of Wisconsin who has written several books on movie industry history, not one of the underlying business strategies that created the “Star Wars” phenomenon was really all that novel.

“As a genre, and as a marketing strategy for a motion picture company, there wasn’t anything new about 'Star Wars' as a concept,” Balio says.

"Star Wars" would go on to be serialized, generating three decades of revenue through the release of sequels and prequels. But Balio points out that United Artists had pioneered the serial concept years before with the James Bond films. And “The Godfather” and “Jaws” had established themselves as “event” films with sweeping cultural impact while "Star Wars" was still an amorphous idea knocking around in George Lucas’ head. Star Wars can’t even claim the honor of being the first mega-blockbuster: After taking inflation into account, "Gone With The Wind" still ranks as the highest grossing movie of all time.

Nothing To Write Home About

As for depth of plot line , "Star Wars" certainly didn't open new territory. "The story of 'Star Wars' could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for the Bible," said critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times.

All those things said, “Star Wars” did, indeed, break new ground. Even though it came along after "2001: A Space Odyssey," Lucas’ firm Industrial Light & Magic (which he founded only because 20th Century Fox had recently scrapped its special effects department) saw to it that “Star Wars” took effects—video, audio, robotic, miniature modeling and otherwise—to extremes previously unimagined.

And for pure mythic originality, “Star Wars” represented something unprecedented: Arnold of the Post and Vincent Canby of “The New York Times” struggled to categorize the film, saying alternately in their first reviews that “Star Wars” evoked everything from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, classic westerns, pirate melodramas and aerial combat films, to samurai epics, “Ivanhoe,” the Legend of King Arthur, and the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

Given that “Star Wars” was made for $11 million, its return on investment certainly surpassed anything before it and probably anything since. "Star Wars" accomplished that without the benefit of "saturation booking"—the relatively new industry practice of opening films in thousands of theaters on the same day. Not bad for a movie whose release 20th Century Fox execs moved to before Memorial Day because they were certain it wouldn’t be able to compete with that summer’s "Smokey and the Bandit."

Blockbuster Business Model

Today, a single film can cost $200 million to produce, and a hoped-for blockbuster may cost another $100 million to market, says Gordon Hodge, media analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners. In short, since the days of "Star Wars," the movie business has become a game of very big bets.

“When you think about the cost of just one film, you could even start a significant company with that kind of money,” Hodge says.

But consumer demand for the blockbuster remains. So, therefore, does studios’ incentive to turn out potential mega-hits. With the investment stakes higher than they've ever been before, motion picture companies have begun turning to financial devices that weren't available in 1977.

Today's movies have the benefit of revenue from DVD sales, which Hodge says often match box office sales. Because DVDs don’t require a huge marketing budget, they present less risk to the studios.

Movie companies have also begun mitigating risk by taking on banks and financial services firms as initial investment partners. Several banks and even hedge funds have developed formulas that factor actors, genres and other elements into account to gauge a film's chance of success. If they like the way the numbers come out, they get on board with the studio. Hodge cites Merrill Lynch's backing of Marvel Studios' "Iron Man" and "Hulk II," both slated for release in 2008.

Marvel Studios, which has borrowed more than one page from the "Star Wars" playbook, has proven itself a winner with its "SpiderMan" films. And it takes full advantage of the new, emerging—and unprecedented—financial tools at the disposal of today's film companies.

Taken in that context, "Star Wars" didn't so much herald the era of modern movie making, as it became the symbol—albeit a very successful one—of an age of filmmaking whose time has already passed by.

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