May the fourth be with you! It is a cultural phenomenon of incredible magnitude, loved, hated, worshipped and criticised by millions around the world: Star Wars. What started out as the brainchild of visionary filmmaker George Lucas in the 1970s has since grown to be a multi-billion dollar empire, spanning everything from the movie industry to fast food.
As we celebrate Star Wars Day on May the Fourth (an obvious pun on “May the Force be with you”), we take a look at the vast financial impact this sci-fi fantasy has had on global markets, from its humble cinema beginnings to becoming the Disney-owned powerhouse franchise.
To realise the magnitude of this franchise, let’s look at a few quick figures:
- Star Wars movies have grossed more than $10 billion in the box office since 1977.
- Nearly 70% of Americans have watched at least one installment of Star Wars.
- More than a third of Americans have purchased a Star Wars product at some point.
- One in every four Americans currently owns a piece of Star Wars memorabilia¹.
- The top 10 Star Wars video games combined have sold more than 90 million copies².
- Disney+ reaching 100 million subscribers in 16 months is attributed, in part, to Star Wars content such as the original live action show The Mandalorian³.
The Force Awakens
In 1977, the world was taken by storm with the premiere of a new movie, then simply called “Star Wars” (it was later renamed “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”). While the sci-fi/fantasy genre was not a new concept, with franchises such as Flash Gordon and Star Trek already quite popular at the time, the movie introduced a fresh take which audiences found compelling.
The movie was a tremendous success. While costing around $11 million to make, it eventually grossed a whopping $775.8 million. Audiences of all ages fell in love with aspiring Jedi, Luke Skywalker, ferocious Princess Leia, charming space smuggler Han Solo, his beloved companion Chewbacca, the villainous Darth Vader and numerous other characters who are literally out of this world.
Masterfully crafting an entire galaxy of make believe, George Lucas, with the help of impromptu on-set script doctor Carrie Fisher, introduced the world to the first movie in what would eventually become a nine-movie story arc, complete with two more feature film tie-ins, three TV shows (and many more to air in the near future), and countless books and comic book series.
As successful as the first trilogy was, after Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, the franchise gradually faded away. There were several spinoff attempts, but none came near to the success of the original trilogy. The franchise remained very present in the form of toys and other pop culture merchandise, but those all relied on the lingering success of the “old” movies. To this day, toy maker Hasbro relies on Star Wars for much of its revenue, citing it as one of its two most successful toy lines in 2020⁴.
However, about 15 years after the third movie in the franchise was released, the announcement numerous fans around the world were waiting for was made: Star Wars is coming back to theaters. George Lucas was working on a new trilogy that would depict the fall of Anakin Skywalker from Jedi Knight to Sith Lord. This might sound like gibberish to some, but for the fans, this was a childhood dream come true.
The Fandom Menace
Unlike the original trilogy, in which Lucas had help from screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, this time around, the writer/director retained complete creative control. While many fans cheered this fact, as it turns out, this was not in the franchise’s best interest.
Lucas is a brilliant visionary, and the galaxy he created is arguably the most recognisable and popular realm of content in the history of pop culture. However, in retrospect, many critics and fans claim that he works better as a team leader, and that letting him fly solo only hurt the eventual outcome. Convoluted plotlines, coaching actors to overact in every scene and using too much CGI are just a few of the recurring complaints heard regarding the prequel trilogy, which was released between 1999 and 2005.
While still considered cult classics more than 20 years later, some of the fandom still hold a grudge against Lucas for the second trilogy.
The Empire Strikes Back
Despite the lukewarm reception, fans still loved Star Wars with a burning passion and were eager to consume any piece of content the franchise had to offer. It is no wonder, then, that the TV show The Clone Wars, originally a cartoon meant for kids airing in 2008, quickly became a fan favourite, with the content adjusted accordingly, becoming darker and more mature as the seasons progressed.
The lingering popularity of the franchise, coupled (perhaps) with Lucas’ own disappointment at fan reactions, led to the sale of the Star Wars franchise to Disney in 2012, for more than $4 billion(!). The franchise would now become a well-oiled business machine, serving as a cash cow (or a blue milk-generating tauntaun if you want to stick to the source material) for Disney.
And, much like the clone army executing Order 66 in Revenge of The Sith, Disney took quick action. In the nine years since the acquisition, five more movies and two more TV shows were made, a Star Wars theme park was built, and an additional 16 (!) new movies and TV shows were announced.
The High Ground
Indeed, it seems that Star Wars will be part of our universe for many years to come. Alongside movies, TV shows and theme parks, we will also see continuing releases of video games from studios such as EA and Ubisoft, which are helping fans immerse themselves in the action.
You don’t have to own a replica lightsaber to know Star Wars. Even those who are not fans know the brand, as they meet it wherever they turn: over the years, Star Wars has partnered with cereal makers General Mills and Kellogg’s, fast food chains McDonald’s and Yum! Brands’ KFC and Pizza Hut, fashion brands Adidas and Levi’s and numerous other recognisable names that we see every day.
Whether you’re a hardcore fan or couldn’t care less about the Skywalker family tree, Star Wars is here to stay, and will carry a significant impact on pop culture, merchandise and, subsequently, financial markets around the world. Such a powerful cultural phenomenon is rare, and it is no wonder that so many around the world are celebrating it today. Happy Star Wars Day! May the Force be with you, always.
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