Monday, May 9, 2011

The Past is a Foreign Country (Take Three)

A great way for someone to prove they have very little grasp of recent history is to use the phrase "this generation's Star Wars" in an un-ironic fashion. Just type that phrase into Google and you'll find lots of interesting comparisons made between some current bit of pop cultural ephemera and George Lucas's space fantasy juggernaut. I mean, there have been plenty of very successful films, TV shows, comics, and books over the last couple of decades, but are any of them even close to Star Wars when it comes it comes to the impact they've had on the wider culture? Perhaps Harry Potter comes closest but, since it's barely been a decade since the release of the first book and the final installment of the movie series has yet to be released, it's difficult to tell if its impact will be as lasting as that of Star Wars. Other than that, though, can anything truly be called "this generation's Star Wars?"

I say this not because I'm a Star Wars true believer who will brook no dissent from the Jedi Way. Heck, I'm probably a bigger Star Trek fan if I'm honest with myself. I say this because I'm not sure pop culture works the same way in 2011 as it did in 1977. Certainly there are still fads (and their brain-damaged cousins memes) today, as there were 34 years ago (!), but they don't seem to have much staying power. Paradoxically, I think the ubiquity of cheap, instantaneous, worldwide communication ensures that fads burn out more quickly than they did in the benighted days of my youth when you couldn't pop onto a movie discussion site or forum and find out everything you wanted to know about an upcoming movie. Nor could you expect to see a movie anywhere except in a theater, where any moderately successful film could be expected to be shown for many months rather than mere weeks (or so it seemed to me anyway).

But I think the main factor that prevents most contenders for "this generation's Star Wars" from any plausibility is the way Star Wars changed the cultural landscape forever. Much like D&D, it's not so much that Star Wars burst fully-formed from the head of George Lucas with no cultural antecedents; it's that it brought together a number of things we had seen before in a way that no one else had ever done -- and it fed a hunger that no one knew the popular culture had. Star Wars made science fiction cool and fun and, most important of all, mainstream. Everyone seemed to be a Star Wars fan back then, not just kids and nerds. It was OK as a "serious" adult to admit you liked Star Wars and with that admission came a kind of respectability that allowed these movies and their ideas to take root in unexpected places within the wider culture.

Indeed, I would argue that Star Wars was so successful that it all but precluded the possibility of there ever being a "this generation's Star Wars." There very fact that we still, more than three decades later, talk about Star Wars and use it as a yardstick to measure pop cultural influence is a good indicator of just how potent a force (no pun intended) it remains. There are vast swaths of the population who were born after the release of the original films who still feel as strong a connection as I do, who saw Star Wars on the weekend of its premier in Baltimore in 1977 with my sci-fi-loving aunt. I'm certainly open to the possibility, but will kids not yet born feel the same connection to Harry Potter decades hence that many feel today for Star Wars?

I honestly don't know, but my gut tells me no. I mean, take a look at that editorial cartoon above. My kids have no idea who Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev are but they can recognize Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and get the point of the cartoon. Star Wars has so suffused our culture that we can talk in metaphors derived from it and others understand what we mean, much the way that our grandparents might have done by referencing the Bible or Shakespeare. That's a level of cultural penetration that I don't think we've seen since then and I am skeptical we'll ever see again. Certainly, I don't anticipate seeing disco versions of the Harry Potter soundtrack anytime soon and, while that's an admittedly low standard for judging success, I nevertheless think it shows that the circumstances that gave birth to the Star Wars phenomenon in the past are not easily replicable today.
It might be instructive to compare Star Wars with D&D in terms of lasting appeal. Both were products of the same era and both enjoyed immense success beyond the expectations of their creators. Yet, as I have argued before, D&D isn't particularly culturally relevant anymore (though its ideas are), while Star Wars remains broadly appealing and influential. I doubt my children would have even heard of Dungeons & Dragons if I weren't their father, whereas I am certain they'd have heard of Star Wars. World of Warcraft has usurped the Throne of Generic Pop Cultural Fantasy Referent, while Star Wars is still the science fiction referent of choice, even amongst those not particularly knowledgeable about it.

I'm neither a sociologist nor a cultural historian; I'm just a guy who remembers the 70s. So, I can't explain either why Star Wars has remained so vital nearly 35 years after its initial release or why nearly every contender for its place in the hearts of "this generation" has been anything but. However, there's definitely something at work here and my guess is that it has a lot to do with when Star Wars was released. I suspect that, had it comes out a few years earlier or a few years later, it might not have had the traction it acquired. Figuring out why that is so and why no one has ever repeated its level of success would be a fascinating exercise.

60 comments:

  1. I can't explain either why Star Wars has remained so vital nearly 35 years after its initial release, let alone why nearly every contender for its place in the hearts of "this generation" has been anything but.

    I think George Lucas' skills as a filmmaker have atrophied in these past 35 years, while his skills as a business man have continued to improve.

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  2. I'll agree with and expand Stuart's comment. As much as I'd like to say Star Wars taps into Jungian mythic archetypes that appeal to everyone's collective unconsciousness in order to explain its lasting effect on popular culture, I've begun to suspect the lasting influence is as much if not more due to Lucas' ability to keep his product on shelves and, therefore, in hearts and minds, than anything else.

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  3. I don't know James. I think the influence of SW was fading pretty fast prior to the release of the sequels. At that time I had a retail job at a Sf book store and it was definitely not on anyone's mind. In my opinion the continued relevance of SW is a product decades of relentless marketing- and oddly enough, that has more to do with generational iterations of the property than it does with the initial release of the 1977 film. My kids are far more interested in the Clone Wars TV show than they are in the original films- or even the prequels. Clone Wars is this generations Star Wars, he said, without irony.
    Two other examples of very similar cultural phenomenon are Tarzan and Batman. Tarzan has more or less lost relevance, but still everyone has some sort of idea about who the ape man is. In fact, considering the longevity of the character's relevance, one might say that we'll have to wait another 80 years to know if Star Wars was our generations Tarzan or just some flash in the pan.
    Batman is pretty much the same thing. The character is every bit as well known as Star Wars and has been around and relevant within the context of pop culture for more than twice as long. The cartoon you posted could just as easily have featured iconic characters from Batman. One could say, of course, that the Batman of 2011 bears little resemblance to the Batman of 70 years ago, but then again, the Star Wars of 2011 bears little resemblance to the Star Wars of 1977.
    These differences are, imo, key to the longevity of the products under discussion.

    I'm not trying to say that Tarzan, Batman, and Star Wars are not all special and cool creations. They certainly are; however, there are many equally cool and special things that have come and gone and long since been forgotten. The difference comes down to decades of relentless marketing, which is itself tied to the potential for the property to be reinvented for a new audience. Reinvention leads to The Darknight. A juggernaut property like Tarzan, which can no longer be made palatable through reinvention will eventually fade away. In my opinion, Star Wars is very much still in the same stage as Harry Potter and Batman- all these properties are still being pushed by giant machines and subsequently still generating new product and new audiences. So, I guess my final point is- I don't see SW as unique at all, really. If i could I'd post a button of the Bat symbol here as a counterpoint to your "May the force be with you button." So like visualize that for me, won't you? :).

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  4. I'm more optimistic about Harry Potter's longevity than you: we're fourteen years out from the publication of the first book, twelve years out from the onset of Pottermania, and ten years out from the release of the first film, and all of the kids I know in my daughter's cohort (5-8 being the age range she associates with) are Potter-mad--even though none of them was born before the first film's release. (Frances was born three years after the first movie came out). Considering that we've more or less been in a narrowcasting world since the end of the 1980s, Potter is by any standards a massive, broadcasting success (although not by the standards of Star Wars, which benefited from coming before the end of the broadcast era). I'd agree with Stuart that much of the reason for Star Wars' cultural longevity has been Lucas's skillful manipulation of the brand. Rowling seems much less inclined to milk her success (for the moment), but then again there's clearly a largely invisible to the mainstream but massive world of Potter LARPers, RPers, and shippers/fan-fic writers out there to keep the property going until she decides to cash in again or her heirs take advantage of the Pottermaniacs' own parenthood (and nostalgic return to their childhood interests).

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  5. Oof, one more thing. It has been said in reference to DR.Who, that the most important doctor in the history of the series was Patrick Troughtan, the second doctor. the reason for this is that he proved that the brand could be pretty much completely reinvented. And just like Star Wars and Batman, complete with long product free gaps, Dr Who is still going and is something other than what it was all at the same time.

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  6. Oh, I'll readily admit that Tarzan was, in its day, something akin to Star Wars in terms of its broad appeal and influence, but, like D&D, I don't think Tarzan has had significant traction in popular culture in a long time.

    Batman is probably a better example and one I didn't think of since I'm not a comics guy. I am quite willing to concede that the Caped Crusader has a similar level of broad appeal and influence as Star Wars, though it's a bit different since it's rather tightly focused on the character of Batman and a handful of related characters (Robin, Joker, etc.). I suspect Superman (and maybe Spider-Man) occupies a similar position.

    Dr Who I just don't see as being in the same league. In the UK I understand it's very well known and influential, but outside it? I think it's primarily known by geeks outside of Britain. You certainly won't see American or French political cartoons making reference to it, for example.

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  7. Interesting article but is the cultural impact of "Star Wars" really that unique? If you were a boy growing up in the 70s or 80s then yes Star Wars has had a pretty big impact on you and your friends. If you a are a SciFi fan then yes Star Wars may seem ubiquitous. Either way, I think this kind of cultural impact is hardly unique or particularly noteworthy. I can think of several iconic movies that have had just as much an impact on their generation of followers and maybe even more. Not to mention I have to believe the vast majority of Star Wars fans and followers are male (I know my wife has never even seen the movies nor have many of her friends) so that seems limit its sphere of influence right there.

    For example, my parents and aunts and uncles, most in their 60s, 70s, and 80s today, have no noticeable connection to Star Wars other than it being "something the kids like". However with these same people if you were to mention "Gone with the Wind" or "The Wizard of Oz" they light up with recognition and references younger folks might not get. My mother probably has no idea who Darth Vader is but she does know Scarlett O'Hara and the Tin Man.

    To list movies (franchises or not) that have had as much or more global cultural impact than Star Wars I think wouldn't take much: Gone/wind, Wizard/oz, Casablanca, Jaws (which did cause a near worldwide genocide of sharks and a baseless fear of them that both continue to this day), Exorcist, E.T. (a movie almost as old as Star Wars with no sequels or followups of any kind that still resonates today), and even Harry Potter (which does have an ENTIRE theme park dedicated to it a feat even Star Wars has not managed yet). So while Star Wars may be a juggernaut in SciFi circles or with certain male demographics I don't think it's any more noteworthy than any other "blockbuster" or culturally popular motion picture.

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  8. Regarding the editorial cartoon, it was not only the fact that Reagan called the russians an evil empire that facilitated the use of star wars immagery.
    Actually I'd say that Star Wars conquered the world a decade later: there was a parallel "star war" being fought by the USA and the CCCP at that time.
    The connection between colorful sci-fi and the reality of cold war helped a lot to fix star wars in the cultural landscape I guess.
    Anything that allows you to crack jokes about your possible nuclear destruction you read of in the newspapers is bound to remain in your heart and mind.

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  9. Aos said...
    "I don't know James. I think the influence of SW was fading pretty fast prior to the release of the sequels."

    I agree. I know when I was in High School (late 80s) Star Wars was pretty well faded and gone. The second trilogy and subsequent marketing is what brought it back. After all, wasn't that the whole point of making them?

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  10. Good article, great arguments in both directions.

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  11. @ cibet
    I will note that my parents, who are in their sixties, do have a connection with the original trilogy. Also, I was obsessed with Star Wars before the prequels (and I'm a child of the 90s), but I was a pretty big nerd so I might be the best sample size.

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  12. The Reagan/Gorbachev cartoon makes sense to me in the context of the original trilogy - Darth Vader's "return" from the Dark Side of the Force and ultimate redemption symbolizing the positive changes in the Soviet Union at the time. But over time Darth Vader in popular culture has become synonymous with "evil" and that element of redemption has been lost - more modern representations of the character such as former Vice President Dick Cheney ("Darth Cheney") never made sense to me because of that loss of a redemption moment.

    And I have no clue what those pictures of President Obama in Heath Ledger's Joker makeup are supposed to be saying other than "look internets I haz mad Photoshop skilz!" :)

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  13. I mentioned Dr Who more as a matter of method than of scale. It is the same method, just at a somewhat smaller scale. Tarzan is gone because he has become embarrassingly unpalatable in a way that defies reinvention.
    The comparisons to D&D do not seem relevant to me. The other properties under discussion all started out as or made their way to extremely successful TV/film properties. The D&D cartoon is no Clone Wars, or even Batman the animated series, and it certainly can't be compared in terms of success to something like the actual Batman and Star Wars movies.
    Also, that cartoon is from, what like 84? Do you think you;d see the same sort of thing in a news paper today? I don't I think you'd be far more likely to get characters from some current SW property.

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  14. I certainly agree that there have been a number of "this generation's Star Wars" that have left nowhere near the legacy needed to actually fill the shoes of the predecessor. Avatar and The Matrix are generally the two most guilty parties in this regard.

    That said, I believe that Harry Potter IS this generation's Star Wars, or as close as anything is ever going to get to being such a thing. That series has held an intense grip on the 8 to 13 year old population of the English-speaking world for over a decade.

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  15. Also, that cartoon is from, what like 84? Do you think you;d see the same sort of thing in a news paper today? I don't I think you'd be far more likely to get characters from some current SW property.

    In the past couple of years, I've seen R2-D2, C-3PO, and Darth Vader all used in political cartoons -- oh, and the Emperor too. I can't recall any of the prequel characters other than Jar-Jar Binks being used, but I readily admit I've never made a serious study of this.

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  16. I wonder if JR Rowling and the Harry Potter books will be considered this generation's (or even this century's) Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

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  17. That said, I believe that Harry Potter IS this generation's Star Wars, or as close as anything is ever going to get to being such a thing. That series has held an intense grip on the 8 to 13 year old population of the English-speaking world for over a decade.

    As I said, I think this is quite possible, though the proof for me is whether kids born after the release of the films and the books get into them. If they do, we're talking about a cultural phenomenon on par with Star Wars (or Batman).

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  18. I wonder if JR Rowling and the Harry Potter books will be considered this generation's (or even this century's) Frank Baum and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

    I've never heard that comparison made, but that means nothing. Were the Oz books particularly popular and influential in their day? I know the film certainly was (and, arguably, is), but I honestly no little about how the books were received in their day.

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  19. Star Wars didn't get into everyones mind. In the 80's Star Wars was on t.v. one night my grandparents were visiting and we were all settling down to watch and my grandmother says "Star Wars, What's Star Wars?" she certainly didn't note it's existence with her grand children chattering about it for years.

    Surely though other folks were paying attention I recall plenty of Darth Rumsfeld and Darth Cheney not too long ago.

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  20. James, I do not disagree with your larger point but just to be clear, all those characters are prequel* characters too- especially the robots and the emperor.

    *I'm including the tv show in this category.

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  21. For what it's worth, here's a Doctor Who-related political cartoon from one of the main British newspapers during last year's election.

    I suspect James is right about Who's international influence, so I mention it only as a point of interest rather than a rebuttal, although I do seem to recall some US political cartoons from a year or so ago involving the Tenth Doctor.

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  22. I'd have to say that Vader only appears in costume for like what... 10 minutes of the last prequel?

    Han Solo shows up occasionally on things, but I think it's a bit rarer to see Luke now.

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  23. Let me agree secondly or thirdly with what Aos said.

    Star Wars Died in the mid to late 80's.

    A friend of mine kept up with the Star Wars fan club to the end, maybe just to keep getting his copies of Bantha Tracks. I remember a letter he received after they ended the club and he wrote in to complaign.

    "No one cares anymore. Why do you?"

    My own experience was this. Around '87, '88 I worked for a wholesaler that bought out unsold lots of merchandise. One day we recived case loads of Star Wars Power of the Force figures for practically nothing. We were selling them for $500/1,000 unti lots. .50c a piece.

    Now, Star Wars came to life again only a few years later. and those same figures jumped from .50c apiece to $30, $40, $50 apiece. There was a ground swelling of interest in Star Wars again and not from any advertising campaign.

    Star Wars had a great cultural impact, but I disagree that it was unique and I believe it also fed upon earlier changes to our culture that were at work on a more subtle basis, comics like Spider-man, shows like Star Trek, the NASA space program, the vast influence of technology reshaping the world from horse and steam, to cars and jets and spacecraft. We live in a magical age, and Star Wars is one of the dreams of a time in history that is something like a dream itself (and sometimes a nightmare).

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  24. HP is definitely this generation's LotR, in that you will see schoolchildren clutching copies of books where were published when they were 4 or whenever. It's pretty ubiquitous amongst a certain age, like Pokemon.

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  25. I've never heard that comparison made, but that means nothing. Were the Oz books particularly popular and influential in their day? I know the film certainly was (and, arguably, is), but I honestly no little about how the books were received in their day.

    I always got the impression from my grandmother (who was born in 1906 and passed away in 1984) that the books were quite popular in her childhood well before the release of the 1939 film. There was even an earlier play or musical that helped make them a cultural phenomenon at the time. I found more at Wikipedia and it appears the publisher failed to predict how successful the original book would be.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wonderful_Wizard_of_Oz

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  26. @jaredaph:
    There were also at least two silent Oz films made before the famous one.

    @James:
    Maybe Marvel comics is collectively the Star Wars of its day?

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  27. An interesting aspect of Star Wars comes into play when reading about the 'b-movie' industry of that time period (Roger Corman mentions this a lot in interviews). Specifically how both Star Wars (for sci-fi films) and Jaws (for 'horror' or 'creature-feature' films) showed mainstream studios that what used to be the domain of the schlock-shops was now a viable moneymaking venture.

    Corman and other filmmakers of his type had to scramble and change the way they made films in order to stay marketable in their niches.

    From their point of view Star Wars and Jaws literally changed the motion picture industry.

    I bet similar arguments could be made regarding Harry Potter.

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  28. From their point of view Star Wars and Jaws literally changed the motion picture industry.

    Most definitely. What had previously been a niche market soon became a mainstream one that has arguably driven the way Hollywood operates ever since. I know of quite a few filmmakers who feel this way and lament it.

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  29. Most definitely. What had previously been a niche market soon became a mainstream one that has arguably driven the way Hollywood operates ever since. I know of quite a few filmmakers who feel this way and lament it.

    I think such lamentation is fairly pointless. Good and bad movies in a wide variety of styles get made regardless of what the dominate genres are. The western glut that took place between the early 30's and the early 60's didn't kill movies like King Kong, Rope, Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story and literally hundreds of others. I can understand why people tire of the SF and super hero movies, but really they only dominate the box office during the summer months and during the winter holidays.
    As for me, I could go my entire life without seeing another family drama, gangster movie, or western ever again, but I'll happily pay to see Captain America and Green Lantern this summer.
    Beyond that, the very worst crimes of Hollywood are all romantic comedies.

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  30. Star Wars, Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons all have something in common: there is a small group who still value the original incarnations, but most current fans of the franchises have either moved beyond the originals or never experienced them in the first place; many fans who grew up on post-special edition Star Wars, Star Trek: TNG and beyond, or D&D 3E and later would not recognize the originals as even being the same thing.

    The relevance of Star Wars the brand or franchise is a lot different from the relevance of Star Wars the movie (the one that is now called "A New Hope" after the subtitle that was only added into the film three or four years after its original release). Like the original Star Trek or 1970s era D&D, some of the characters and tropes from Star Wars survive into the present, but the way we experienced the original has basically faded from the broader culture.

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  31. This may be a shot in the dark (as I wasn't around when SW was originally released) but was SW one of the first, if not the first, to do large-scale tie-in merchandise?

    I mean, we take all the tie-in stuff for granted nowadays but it must have taken off from somewhere - was SW the first film to make it to the toy box?

    Again, I've no knowledge of the context back then, but were the world events of that era such that SW really tapped into the zeitgeist of the late 70s? I always wonder how Cameron's 'Avatar' would look today had it coincided with, say, the creation of Man's first colony on another planet. Was SW culturally relevant in some special way on release?

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  32. This may be a shot in the dark (as I wasn't around when SW was originally released) but was SW one of the first, if not the first, to do large-scale tie-in merchandise?

    Based on my recollection (from the point of view of an 11 year old when Star Wars was released in 1977), I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. Looking back, it's pretty amazing how much Star Wars permeated our culture back then in the days before the Internet and when many Americans still didn't have cable TV yet. It was definitely a phenomenon.

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  33. Here is a list of the twenty movies that sold the most tickets, and the number of tickets sold for each:

    1.Gone With The Wind – 202,044,600
    2.Star Wars – 178,119,600
    3.The Sound of Music – 142,415,400
    4.E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – 141,854,300
    5.The Ten Commandments – 131,000,000
    6.Titanic – 128,345,900
    7.Jaws – 128,078,800
    8.Doctor Zhivago – 124,135,500
    9.The Exorcist – 110,568,700
    10.Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – 109,000,000
    11.101 Dalmatians – 99,917,300
    12.The Empire Strikes Back – 98,180,600
    13.Ben-Hur – 98,000,000
    14.Return of the Jedi – 94,059,400
    15.The Sting – 89,142,900
    16.Raiders of the Lost Ark – 88,141,900
    17.Jurassic Park – 86,205,800
    18.The Graduate – 85,571,400
    19.Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace – 84,825,800
    20.Fantasia – 83,043,500

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  34. In my above list of films, Gone with the Wind stands alone at 1st with no near competitor. Star Wars (the 1977 film) stands alone at 2nd place with no near competitor. Third place and lower on the list are all clumped together. In terms of movies, only Gone with the Wind and Star Wars are phenomena. All the rest are only movies.

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  35. Star Wars was definitely the first massively merchandized movie (or IP of any kind, I think). Lucas was even canny (or prescient) enough to take a cut of all merchandise profits in lieu of a salary as director!

    Quoth IMDB: "Lucas agreed to forgo his directing salary in exchange for 40% of the film's box-office take and all merchandising rights."

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  36. I think you misunderstand the meaning of "this Generation's Star Wars." I think it is intended to refer to the big movie phenomenon that a generation grows up with. As kids we didn't know Star Wars was going to be special, lasting or whatever, and it would have been just as important to us if it had turned out to be mere pop culture ephemera - it was just the big pop cultural phenomenon of our time. So for kids growing up today Harry Potter is it.

    What's more interesting is to compare "this generation's star wars" with our own and ask what the differences are and what they signify.

    e.g. for starters - Harry Potter started as books. Star Wars didn't. Yet many people claim this generation is dumbed down relative to ours. How do people making such claims reconcile them with the literary basis of modern Star Wars (LoTR is also based on books, after all...)

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  37. Geoffrey, you need to adjust those figures for person-viewing years.

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  38. What are person-viewing years?

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  39. @ Geoffery

    It's also worth noting that some of the others on the list are Star Wars' sequels.

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  40. person-viewing years - the total number of people who could have seen the movie over its lifetime (e.g. 70 years x whatever population could view it, for Gone With the Wind vs. 5 years of a much larger population for The Phantom Flop).

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  41. I suspect that a good part of the reason for the cultural success of Star Wars was the extensive merchandising that accompanied it. It left a lasting physical reminder after having seen the film (as well as the cross-market advertising bombardment that reminded people of the film's existence).

    Because of the innovative financial arrangement Lucasfilm had with Fox, it made sense for George Lucas to push film merchandise in a way that hadn't been found necessary for previous films.

    And it woke the studios up to the incredible value of what they had given away, thinking it worthless.

    Of course, it it hadn't been a film based on mythic storytelling (and thus empowered with a certain degree of resonance with the audience), all this would act as a negative reminder. But as it was a good film, it was a positive reminder, and Star Wars couldn't help but settle into the cultural zeitgeist.

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  42. @ Reverance

    Interesting, it might be that the succes of the SW merchandise secured backing for producing the two sequels. I realise that the 'sequel' was already around at the time ('Godfather' trilogy, Eastwood's 'Dollars' films) but was SW the first time a major sci-fi title got a sequel? (I imagine they just squeezed in before 'Star Trek' in this regard)

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  43. The reasons Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon are legion, for they are many. Just like any bona fide phenomenon, be it Gone with the Wind, the Beatles, Star Wars, CB radios, pet rocks. Some have staying power (GWTW, SW, Beatles), some don't (Pet Rocks, CB Radios, the Bay City Rollers). To have staying power, the quality has to be good, very good. But what makes the phenomenon in the first place is tough to grasp. In Star Wars case? The timing? The cultural context? The merchandising? Probably. The story telling? Maybe. But it was also a monumental leap forward in movie making, a unique blend of everything that was happening in film taken to the next step. I remember Spielberg telling of the first time he saw it. He said that within 5 seconds of the first Star Destroyer coming down from the top of the screen, he knew movies had changed forever. And he was right, for better or worse. That's not an easy thing for most films to claim. The same goes with the others. They have to have that 'something', they need some unique contribution, and they have to be good, very, very good. Will the Avatars, Harry Potters, and Lady Gagas of today meet those criteria? Don't know. In some ways, they are different that previous phenomenon, but only because the cultural context in which they exist is different as well. But only time will tell. Who would have thought, after all, that going on 40 years later, I would still be talking about Pet Rocks.

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  44. Coming in late in the discussion, but I believe super-hero films could well be the "Star Wars of our generation". My wife and my daughter wouldn't touch a comic book with a 10 foot pole, but they do watch super-hero films.

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  45. IndianaJonny said...
    " This may be a shot in the dark (as I wasn't around when SW was originally released) but was SW one of the first, if not the first, to do large-scale tie-in merchandise? "

    I believe Planet of the Apes (1968) preceded Star Wars in merchandising tie-ins and was probably Lucasas inspiration for the idea.

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  46. "IndianaJonny said...
    I realise that the 'sequel' was already around at the time ('Godfather' trilogy, Eastwood's 'Dollars' films) but was SW the first time a major sci-fi title got a sequel? (I imagine they just squeezed in before 'Star Trek' in this regard)"

    Nope. Planet of the Apes was first again. All the sequels were released before Star Wars in 1977:
    Planet of the Apes (1968)
    Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
    Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
    Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
    Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

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  47. cibet,

    No, large scale merchandise had been around for decades. Almmost from the beginning. The huge number of toys possible because of the nature of the film gave us kids the idea that there had never been anything like it. And in terms of numbers of toys possible, yeah, it was off the scale. But from Scarlet O'Hara dolls, to Beatles lunch boxes, to All in the Family board games, there was always mechandise in proprotion to what the production could generate. It's just that with Star Wars, the kid who wanted 500 stormtrooper figures could justify the decision to buy 500 stormtrooper figures, as opposed to one Beatles lunchbox or Scarlet doll. Hence, 500 stormtrooper figures could be produced without question.

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  48. The merchandising is also probably the main reason Lucas never made any non-Star Wars films. I mean, why bother when you can collect 40% of the profits from any spinoffs?

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  49. "...Lucas never made any non-Star Wars films."--kelvingreen

    You mean he never directed any non-Star Wars films after Star Wars, right? Because, of course, he directed both THX 1138 and American Graffiti before Star Wars. And, even after Star Wars, he produced many non-Star Wars films, including all of the Indiana Jones movies.

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  50. And don't forget Howard The Duck.

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  51. You mean he never directed any non-Star Wars films after Star Wars, right?
    Yes I did.

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  52. @cibet

    Wow, thanks for the heads-up.

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  53. James - I could write a lengthy diatribe about how much I agree with you on this subject, but it would be pointless to do so.

    I will leave it at this: This has to be one of (if not THE) best posts you've ever made. I applaud you sir.

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  54. I wonder if Star Wars didn't also tap into the West's late 1970s fascination with everything Japanese; the Jedi certainly seemed like samurai/ninja to me, and the Force seemed very Zen.

    Harry Potter has been a huge phenomenon in the last decade+ but I think it's a better match to compare it to LOTR - both started as literary phenomena before moving on to the big screen, and to the true fans it's the books that really matter, (though there are certainly many "mundanes" who have only experienced HP and LOTR via the films).

    As a Junior High teacher I've particularly noted the rise and fall of Middle Earth in the cultural awareness of the average teen over a single decade. Ten years ago LOTR was a huge novel read by the school ubernerds; then the movies came out and for a few years LOTR rivaled Harry Potter in popularity - almost every student could name the main characters, the books were checked out of the library at a much more frantic pace, and GW's LOTR miniatures game rivalled Warhammer 40K in popularity for a few years. Then the movie series was over, and LOTR faded into the background (though at least with more people having an idea about its broad storyline).

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  55. @faustusnotes
    Gone With the Wind and The Phantom Menace are still showing where you live?

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  56. Interested in your observation on how the loam in which cultural ideas can take root may be qualitatively different now than they were then. You may want to compare Patton Oswalt's article on ETEWAF: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_angrynerd_geekculture/all/1

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  57. I think the continued, long-lasting impact of Pokemon is generally under-appreciated by everybody currently over the age of 25. But it's significant and huge and persistent.

    I'll also point out that Harry Potter's influence on books for young adults has been huge. Pre-Potter YA fiction was generally short and relatively simplistic. Potter convinced publishers that YA fiction could be longer and more complicated and still sell. (Multiple YA authors have commented on this over the past decade.)

    What both of these seem to lack, however, is the cross-media revolution which Star Wars created. Star Wars changed the way movies were made, it changed the way Hollywood did business, it created the modern era of cross-media, and it pioneered the current culture of licensing and merchandising (which, in turn, has had a huge impact on how corporations handle their IP).

    It's also true that many of these changes were the result of Lucas using Star Wars as a springboard, continuing to push those revolutions into other properties, and getting other people like Spielberg to follow his example. It wasn't just the immediate films.

    It's this latter factor which is often missing: Lucas had a vision for a new paradigm for how films could be made, financed, and marketed. Coupled to the game-changing demographic shift of Star Wars ("the money is in the teenagers"), this was huge. It's not just Star Wars itself: It's the digital editing tools Lucas pioneered; and the special effects revolution of ILM; and all the rest of it. (Pixar? Yeah. They were a division of LucasFilms that was sold to Steve Jobs in the '80s.)

    (If you're willing to consider the entire body of Nintendo's "core properties" developed from roughly 1985 to 1996 -- Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Donkey Kong, Metroid -- then you've got a real cultural power house that did, in fact, play a large role in reshaping an entire industry.)

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  58. Mike, I'm probably too late to reply to your comment now, but just in case... I think Gone With the Wind played in cinemas for much longer than The Phantom Menace, but to a much smaller viewing population and over a much smaller number of cinemas. However, it has been reissued twice. It appears to have run for 3 years in the USA.

    It's really silly to compare movies in different time periods on raw ticket sales or even on (inflation-adjusted) takings. They need to be adjusted for population values.

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  59. It's funny that as I sit here reading this (yeah, I have a hard time keeping up with your endless stream of posts and tend to fall behind), I look down and realize I am wearing a Star Wars shirt... at work.

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