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How Star Wars Conquered The Universe

Chris Taylor

American Grafitti released mid-1973 and changed George Lucas' life forever. It was a smash hit - the perfect movie for hot summer nights where you could pretend you were 18 again. Made on a budget of $600,000 it took $55 million in first year, and by 2000, $250 million. The biggest return on investment in movie history. After taxes, it earned Lucas $4 million for his share.

The contract for Star Wars had just been negotiated, giving Lucas an advance of $150,000 to write. His agent knew the success of American Grafittimeant he could get much more. But Lucas wanted control of sequels, music and merchandising rights, not more money up front. These rarely made money, so he got a good deal. Specifically, Lucas got control of the trademark Star Wars.

Star Wars is basically a compilation of everything GL liked from Westerns, Flash Gordon, fairytales and samurai movies. When something very successful, there's always a temptation to retrospectively endow it with creation myth. But to an extent, it's just GL, with time and money, farting around trying things out.

One day, a student from an English University got to wondering how much it would cost to build a deathstar. He sent Q to a friend in US who wrote an economics blog. They looked up Wookiepedia to find that the deathstar was 100 miles in diameter, translated that into number of aircraft carriers (they're both big weapons platforms) and came up with one qudadrillion tons of steel, which would cost about 850 quadrillion dollars, or 13000% of global GDP.

Someone started a petition to White House demanding that the US start planning to build one. Pres Obama got NASA and Defence Dept to check some numbers and came back with a public explanation of why they'd decided not to ("It has a fundamental design flaw that a single-seat fighter can exploit, for one thing")

Spoofs appeared quickly, one of the first being Hardware Wars with the tagline "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss 3 bucks goodbye." An affectionate parody - shot in 4 days with an $8000 budget, "trying really hard to make a steam iron stand in for a Star Destroyer as it chases a rebel toaster." It grossed $500,000 in a year.

Mad Magazine did two spoofs of Star Wars. Lucasfilm legal dept sent them a cease and desist letter demanding all the profits from the issues. Mad just sent back a letter from a guy who said he was MM's No 1 fan - a guy named George Lucas saying how much he loved the satires, finishing with "May the farce be with you!" (It turned out the legal team hadn't spoken to anyone in GL's ofice before sending the letter.

Steve Sansweet is the ultimate Star Warsfan. Lives on a farm close to Lucas, has a huge collection of memorabilia. After 7 years of work, his assistant has catalogued 95,000 items, and estimates there is only another 300,000 to go. Movie posters, models life-size, toys and lego versions, arcade games, pinball machines, clothing, cookie jars, mugs and glasses, albums, pet food, cereal etc etc. When couples come to look at it, the partner's guaranteed reaction - "Ok maybe that collection at home isn't so bad after all."

Major then-and-now change with the models. In the 70's there was just one model of Vader sold; 2012 there are 57 new versions. And the detail is exquisite. The earlier models were cranked out by the millions in plastics factories in China. As the moulds degraded the figures became less and less accurate. Today the moulds are precision made and changed every few hundred pieces.

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