With a budget of $8,000,000 behind him, writer/director George Lucas begins filming his ambitious new science fiction film Star Wars. The location shooting in Tunisia is far from easy, with every thing from dust storms to the language barrier between the filmmakers and the locals impeding progress.
After grueling location shooting in Tunisia and lengthy studio filming at Elstree Studios in England, principal photography wraps up on George Lucas’ Star Wars. But returning to America, Lucas finds his newly-founded special effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic, in disarray, and months of miniature and second-unit filming must still be done before the planned (and later rescheduled) release date of Christmas 1976.
On or around this date in 1976, the very first teaser trailers for an upcoming 20th Century Fox movie called Star Wars is shown in theaters for the first time, with the ominous voice of Malachi Throne (who had, coincidentally, appeared or done voice-overs numerous times in classic Star Trek) declaring that “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.” With no hint of the genre-defining soundtrack music, unfinished visual effects, stand-in stock sound effects, and a logo rendered in Helvetica, the effect is perhaps a bit underwhelming.
In a pre-holiday telegram to 20th Century Fox’s distribution team, the studio’s VP of domestic distribution, Peter Myers, boldly predicts that the upcoming George Lucas film Star Wars could break all standing box office records in America. “Exceptional entertainment usually pays off,” Myers writes, “but when it is coupled with a spectacular and innovative presentation, the critics, opinion makers, and the public will be electrified, and it is quite possible Star Wars will emerge as the all-time box office champion.” Though enthusiastically championed by 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr., Star Wars has thus far been considered a risky prospect by 20th Century Fox shareholders and executives.
At Anvil Studios in Denham, England, John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra convene for the first recording session for the Star Wars soundtrack. Over the course of the next 11 days, and with director George Lucas in attendance in the recording booth, all of the music for Lucas’ movie is rehearsed and recorded. Williams and Lucas had been introduced by their mutual friend Steven Spielberg, with whom Williams had worked on 1975’s Jaws (whose score had gone on to win Williams his second Oscar); Lucas’ original plan was to “score” Star Wars entirely with classical pieces. The first scene scored by Williams and the LSO is the rapid-fire chase through the Death Star, culminating in Luke and Princess Leia swinging across a chasm; other pieces recorded on the first day include the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the iconic theme music.
Boasting a story and characters with universal appeal, a magnificent soundtrack, and special effects unlike anything that had been seen before, George Lucas’ Star Wars arrives, changing the movie industry and geekdom forever. Word-of-mouth – to say nothing of lines of moviegoers winding around the block, eager to immediately see the movie again – spreads like wildfire, and suddenly it’s okay to be a science fiction fan.
The unexpected runaway success of a dark horse in the summer movie race makes for a mad dash for the toy rights. The winner of that race is Kenner Products, the toy division of cereal maker General Mills, and the prize is the exclusive license to market toys and other products based on Star Wars. Prior to the movie’s release, however, George Lucas has convinced 20th Century Fox to allow him to keep all toy licensing rights, meaning that ongoing licensing payments are made directly to Lucas, providing him with the lion’s share of his future wealth. Kenner executive Bernard Loomis finds himself fighting to convince his own sales team that this movie will attract more than a momentary audience. With the late start and the long lead time on design, tooling and manufacture, Loomis concocts an audacious marketing scheme involving an “empty box” available by Christmas.
Produced in the wake of Star Wars mania, Meco Menardo’s disco cover of John Williams’ music from Star Wars tops the Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks. A shortened, radio-friendly single is the song certified as #1, although the album version (titled Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk) is an extended suite lasting over 15 minutes and covering most of the movie’s major music themes. Meco would continue to ride the Star Wars train, disco-style, for years to come.
A series of story conferences begin between Star Wars writer/director George Lucas and science fiction writer Leigh Brackett, the first work toward shaping the storyline for an anticipated (but still untitled) Star Wars sequel film. Lucas has brought Brackett on board to contribute new ideas, but she will only submit a first draft before succumbing to cancer. The conferences continue through early December; the eventual product of these early story meetings will be 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.
Caught completely off-guard by the seemingly unstoppable runaway success of Star Wars, whose toy license it signed on for earlier in the year, toy manufacturer Kenner does something desperate and unprecedented: it sells a mostly-empty box (contents: the Force?) called the Star Wars Early Bird Kit, containing stickers, pictures, and a card to mail off to receive four figures – Luke, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca – by mail sometime between “February and May 1978.” The delay is needed to ramp up production on the figures, which will also be available at retail in 1978. To the surprise of everyone, including Kenner executive Bernard Loomis, who devised the Early Bird Kit, the result is a runaway sales success story.
With an incredibly tight lead time (rights were secured some weeks after Star Wars became a box-office hit), General Mills subsidiary Kenner Toys brings the first Star Wars action figures to market. A dozen characters are sold individually, with a colorful mixture of the film’s heroes (Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Ben Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca) and villains (Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, Death Squad Commander, Tusken Raider, Jawa). While Kenner brings the figures to market in both the industry-standard 12-inch scale and a smaller, cheaper 3 3/4″ scale, marketing focuses almost entirely on the smaller toys, which then redefine the industry-standard size of boys’ character toys (and make any future vehicles and playsets much more affordable). Ironically, prior to the movie’s release when no one expected Star Wars to take off, 20th Century Fox surrendered all toy and merchandising rights to George Lucas, meaning that the runaway success of the toy range is key to his fortune.
Science fiction writer Leigh Brackett, who is battling cancer, turns in her first and only draft of a screenplay simply titled “Star Wars Sequel” (later to be known as The Empire Strikes Back); this early draft includes the notation “Episode II”. Brackett, a golden-age SF writer hired by Lucas to help him generate ideas for the second film, loses her battle with cancer soon afterward, and the screenplay is revamped significantly before shooting, though the finished movie will retain her writing credit.
20th Century Fox files a lawsuit against Hollywood rival Universal Pictures over Universal’s upcoming made-for-TV science fiction saga Battlestar Galactica, which 20th Century Fox contends is a copy of its theatrical smash hit Star Wars. Specificially, the studio behind Star Wars claims that the television series infringes on the script for Star Wars, and requests an injunction to bring production to a halt and keep ABC from airing it. The first decision in the case won’t happen until 1980, by which time Battlestar Galactica will already have ended its TV run.
A California judge sides with 20th Century Fox and Kenner Toys in a million-dollar lawsuit against Hong Kong-based toymaker Arco Industries. At issue in the suit is Arco’s “Spacewar” line of action figures, clearly meant to barely resemble such Star Wars characters as Darth Vader, C-3PO and stormtroopers without actually securing the licensing to do so. Kenner contends that the knock-off toys have been eating into its profits, and Arco is far from the only company to suddenly release generic space figures with designs and sculpts that are suspiciously close to elements of the Star Wars universe.
After nearly a year of George Lucas struggling to revise the script for The Empire Strikes Back after the death of his original co-writer, Leigh Brackett, writer Lawrence Kasdan turns in his revisions for the fourth draft of the movie’s screenplay. Kasdan has been brought on board the Star Wars sequel by Lucas, who is co-producing a movie with Steven Spielberg, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, whose script has also been revised by Kasdan – and at this point, Lucas has yet to read Kasdan’s revisions to the Raiders script.
Heavily promoted and given a prime-time slot on a Friday night in a world starved for more Star Wars, The Star Wars Holiday Special unfolds on CBS, enveloping millions of viewers in the slowly-dawning horror that the promise of a new adventure for Luke, Han and friends has lured them into watching a third-rate variety show, albeit one in which the character of Boba Fett makes his first appearance. George Lucas disowns the Holiday Special almost immediately, and it is never allowed to be repeated again.
In contrast to 1977, where no toy licensee had a lock on the right to make Star Wars toys until weeks after the movie’s premiere, Kenner rolls out the first toys for The Empire Strikes Back nearly a month ahead of the movie; kids (and their long-suffering parents) make the first wave of figures an immediate sell-out, despite not knowing anything about the movie’s plotline.
With expectations riding higher than they probably ever will for another sequel in movie history, the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, hits theaters and kicks off a whole new wave of merchandise. Yoda, AT-ATs, and Darth Vader’s march are unleashed on the world, while the cliffhanger ending hooks everyone in for the third movie with a shocking reputation about Luke’s lineage.
Long after Glen A. Larson’s science fiction series Battlestar Galactica has completed its run, a California judge throws out 20th Century Fox’s 1978 lawsuit, which alleged that Galactica was too close to elements of Star Wars for the studio’s comfort. (Also at issue, though not specifically mentioned in the legal proceedings, was Universal Studios’ hiring of such Star Wars personnel as FX guru John Dykstra and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to work on Galactica.) Universal’s television series is declared different enough in key areas to not be considered a rip-off – small comfort for the studio, since ABC cancelled had the series earlier in the year. Still, Galactica’s legal status will come into play later, as Universal will later reassert and exploit its rights to the basic Battlestar Galactica storyline in the 21st century. This is not the end of the lawsuit, however; much like both franchises, it too is revived in 1983, and Universal is ordered to pay 20th Century Fox a settlement of nearly a quarter million dollars in 1984.
George Lucas completes his handwritten first-draft screenplay for the third Star Wars film, titled Revenge Of The Jedi at this early stage. Revisions to the script will continue throughout 1981, with The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark co-writer Lawrence Kasdan once again contributing to the story and dialogue; a revision to the movie’s title will also be made, though merchandising with the early title will already be in circulation by that time.
The first episode of Brian Daley’s radio drama adaptation of the science fiction blockbuster Star Wars airs on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. The series is produced by the NPR affiliate at the University of Southern California, where George Lucas attended film school (and to whom he sold the radio adaptation rights for the princely sum of one dollar). Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels are the only actors to reprise their movie roles, with the rest of the characters being recast.
The second episode of Brian Daley’s radio drama adaptation of the science fiction blockbuster Star Wars airs on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. This episode delves into events not depicted in the movie itself, namely the backstory of Princess Leia’s mission to hand the Death Star plans to the Rebellion. Ann Sachs stars as Princess Leia.
The third episode of Brian Daley’s radio drama adaptation of the science fiction blockbuster Star Wars airs on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. Ann Sachs stars as Princess Leia and Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird) stars as Darth Vader.
The fourth episode of Brian Daley’s radio drama adaptation of the science fiction blockbuster Star Wars airs on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. Mark Hamill stars as Luke Skywalker, and Thomas Hill stars as Uncle Owen.
The fifth episode of Brian Daley’s radio drama adaptation of the science fiction blockbuster Star Wars airs on National Public Radio stations in the U.S. Mark Hamill stars as Luke Skywalker, Anthony Daniels stars as C-3PO, and Bernard “Bunny” Behrens stars as Ben Kenobi.