Star Wars at 40

40 years ago today, a little movie called Star Wars was released. I hear it was pretty good and was fairly well received.

In all seriousness, and with no interest in blasphemy, our pop culture should be split into two timeframes: BSW, and ASW. Before, and after, the film that changed everything about how movies were made and how people engaged with them. While popular films released before the original Star Wars had its fans, no other movie struck the zeitgeist like it did – before or since. While many credit Jaws with the birth of the summer blockbuster, it didn’t hold a candle to the light(sabre) that was Star Wars.

One of the things I love to collect is old movie magazines from the 1970s and early 80s – before the Internet, this was how people kept the “conversation” alive about movies, and learned about what was coming from Hollywood. Looking back today at some of these early Starlogs and Famous Monsters and Fantastic Films, I am struck by just how slow the build was. Magazines had lead-times, so they didn’t know how big Star Wars was until months after the issues came out. The early pre-release magazines mentioned the film in passing, or had a quick article with some publicity stills. Then, three months later, after the film had become huge, the editors realized they needed to completely rebuild their upcoming issue. Articles about Star Trek or Close Encounters went by the wayside, and Star Wars was put on every cover.

The most obvious example was in Famous Monsters magazine. Forrest “Uncle Forry” Ackermann put out a rushed Star Wars Spectacular special issue as soon as he could, Dracula and Frankenstein was replaced by cantina creatures and Chewbacca, and the back pages of every Famous Monsters were ads galore selling every licensed Star Wars item he could get his hands on to sell. And there wasn’t much.

Because no one thought it would succeed, there were very little licensed merchandise. Kenner rushed out an “early bird kit” that was basically an action figure stand with a mail-in certificate to get the first four figures. They also sold two puzzles and a board game. Other licenses – for the movie soundtrack, a comic adaptation, a novelization, and a handful of t-shirts – made some companies a lot of money (Marvel, who did the comic, would have gone out of business if they hadn’t). Burger Chef gave away posters, and later on did a Star Wars “funmeal” (the precursor to the McDonald’s Happy Meal, which was a rip-off of Burger Chef’s idea).

Simpler times.

The next year, of course, things were different. The gold rush for George Lucas (who gave up his directors fee for merchandising rights) began.

When it came out I was six and a half. The first time I saw it was at a drive-in. It was one of the most perfect-imperfect viewing experiences ever. The border of the screen blended into the night sky and during the final trench run sequence it was like we were there, and even the audio of the box dropping out at a key moment was fine. The visuals worked, and with no sound it almost worked better for those few seconds. The action figures and the playsets were quickly acquired as soon as they came out, as well as the aforementioned soundtrack, comics and novelization).

(My mom gave away a whole closet worth of the stuff six years later, and I often remind her I could have paid for a year of my son’s college with the value of what was lost.)

Now, Star Wars is older than the majority of its fans around the world. And since it is now owned by Disney, we will never see the end of it. Which is fine. Good, bad or indifferent, Star Wars has inspired three generations of people in ways that are incalculable and never ending. I only hope that the good continues to outweigh the bad… not for me, but for those yet to know the universe that George Lucas brought to life. I enjoyed it, and look back at it fondly. It belongs to the youth of today. George did call it a kids movie, after all.

Star Wars is theirs, now. Star Wars: The Next Generation, to coin a phrase.

May the Force be with you.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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