Billion-Dollar Baby

Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace

a film by George Lucas

Star Wars is entertainment for eight-year-old boys. Its creator, George Lucas, had his first major success with a movie for teenagers, American Graffiti (1973), which was one of the most profitable pictures ever made: it cost $775,000 to produce and sold $111 million worth of tickets. Star Wars was his next project, and he set out to make a movie for an audience he noticed was being neglected, temporarily, by Disney. He was able to hire young and almost unknown actors for the lead roles—Harrison Ford, who was working as a carpenter when he was cast; Mark Hamill, who had appeared only on television, notably in the soap opera General Hospital; and Carrie Fisher, whose film career consisted of a bit part in Shampoo—because he knew that children do not care about movie stars.

Lucas’s principal source of inspiration for the movie, besides the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, was adventure comics; when he was writing the screenplay, he used to bring them home by the armful. During the shooting, he dressed Carrie Fisher like a vestal virgin and had her breasts bound with tape so they wouldn’t be seen to jiggle on screen. (Her character, Princess Leia, is one of only two women in the movie; the other, Luke Skywalker’s middle-aged aunt, dies in the first reel.) He had to beg his actors not to roll their eyes or make faces when they delivered their extremely hokey lines, and he had to restrain his editor from cutting to produce a campy effect. When the picture was released, he predicted it would make $16 million, because, he told a reporter: “This is a Disney movie. All Disney movies make $16 million.”

It did a little better than that. Star Wars cost $9.5 million to produce. It opened in May 1977 and was an immediate sensation; by November, it had taken in $193.5 million and was the highest-grossing movie of all time, topping the reigning champ, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which had come out just three years before. In the end, Star Wars sold $524 million worth of tickets worldwide and nearly sextupled the stock price of Twentieth Century Fox, the company that distributed the movie after United Artists and Universal had turned it down. The only film with a higher gross is Titanic, which is a movie (so far have we come) for ten-year-old girls.

Two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), which Lucas wrote and produced but did not direct, were also huge box office hits. In 1997 all three movies were re-released, one at a time, in a “special edition”—that is, with a small number of cut scenes digitally restored—and took in $250 million at the box office. The “special edition” Star Wars, a movie available on videotape for decades, did $36.2 million worth of business in the first weekend. The entire series has grossed $1.2 billion …

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