As fans eagerly go see Rogue One, the newest installment in the monolithic Star Wars franchise, critics are questioning how long the empire’s 41-year, $40 billion reign can continue. It’s hard to imagine that when George Lucas first pitched his idea for Star Wars, he estimated it would bring in $8 million, $12 million at a push (Telegraph, 2016). With two more films in the pipeline and billions of dollars in prospective revenues from merchandise, bar a major economic disaster, profits for the franchise are looking to continue rising to ever wilder heights.
George Lucas and his partner Gary Kurtz first came up with the idea for Star Wars in 1971. Drawing on inspiration from cult classics like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, they wanted to create a space opera with a twist. Instead of the dark and somewhat dystopian sci-fi films of the time, they had in mind something more fun and accessible to a younger audience (George Lucas: A Biography 2000). What they didn’t know was how successful their fantasy world would become.
In fact, nobody could have predicted the sensation the franchise would be. The buzz that the opening installment, Star Wars - A New Hope created when it first hit cinemas in 1977 was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It was only when the then president of 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., called George Lucas, telling him that Star Wars was on the front page of every single paper that he realized that he had created something massive (Business Insider, 2015). What had started out as a concept for a teenage-friendly film, had quickly become a cultural phenomenon with people queuing round the block at cinemas to get their Star Wars fix a second, third and even fourth time.
Even Kenner, the store that produced the first Star Wars toys, wasn’t prepared. They neglected to buy stock of the first Star Wars action figure to supply demand at Christmas. Kenner’s solution was to offer parents an empty gift package to give their children on Christmas morning and called it an Early Bird Certificate Package. The runaway success of this initiative clearly demonstrates the extent of the franchise’s fan appeal.
The following five films were received with almost the same enthusiasm as A New Hope. There were a few hiccups (we won’t mention Clone Wars) but by this time, the franchise had already taken off. The six films themselves, before Disney bought the rights to Lucas’s empire, had made $4.5 billion in the box office (IMBD, 2015).
The real story behind Star Wars’ multi-billion-dollar industry though, is not the films. An article published in The Economist last year found that, more than $32 billion-worth of Star Wars merchandise has been sold since 1977. Disney’s acquisition of the brand has since added a further $4 billion on to the franchise’s net worth. This was a wise bet on Disney’s part. Not only did Star Wars - The Force Awakens gross $1 billion in box office takings within 12 days, but a whole new generation was indoctrinated with Star Wars mania, primed to market ever more merchandise to in coming years.
A recent article in The New Statesman attributes the massive success of Disney’s first contribution to the franchise to nostalgia, with the hype simply down to the fans’ excitement at the resurrection of Han Solo and Leia played by the original cast members, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. However, this sounds resoundingly similar to early criticism of Star Wars. When sequels to the first film were announced, many claimed A New Hope had been a fluke and that the sequels would suffer the same fate as other smash hit follow-ons, vanishing into film obscurity. This couldn’t have been further from the truth: Fortune.com currently values Star Wars’ revenue at $41.979 billion.
Rogue One is predicted to bring in $150 million in opening takings (Forbes, 2016). Directed by ‘master of special effects’ Gareth Edwards, it is set to be a feat of modern day technology (New Yorker, 2016). And it’s not just the film technology that has received an update, a whole new range of Star Wars gifts are already available to buy for excited fans. With a variety of merchandise and price range so wide that all ages are catered to, Hasbro is expecting Rogue One revenue to be on a similar scale to the $494 million in Star Wars-related sales that followed The Force Awakens last year.
Taking into account the guaranteed success of Rogue One and the inevitable spike in merchandise sales after its release, it’s almost impossible to imagine the franchise leaving the public consciousness any time soon.