The Big Issue : Edition 499
16 THE BIG ISSUE 27 NOV – 10 DEC 2015 In one of the smartest moves in Hollywood history, Lucas held onto the merchandising rights when he made a distribution deal for Star Wars with 20th Century Fox. So when Star Wars took off and the tie-in line of action figures from Kenner became the must-have playground accessory for a generation (over 300 million toys were sold), all the profits flowed to Lucasfilm rather than the studio. And while that massive source of revenue ensured there’d be sequels, it also had a big impact on the way the Star Wars universe would develop. Speaking to The Los Angeles Times in 2010, Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz said he had seen the writing on the wall back in 1980. “The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire,” he said. “They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.” While many think this focus on selling toys derailed Return of the Jedi, it might have had a positive impact on the Star Wars universe as a whole. For one thing, Lucas had a policy of encouraging fan-made films, refusing to take legal action against their infringement of his copyright so long as no profit was made from the films. He even hosted annual awards for the best fan films. For a storyteller, this didn’t make much sense. Why would you let other people tell stories with your own characters? But for a toy salesman, it was a brilliant move. Other people were making free commercials for him. When Lucas announced in 1993 he was going to make his long-rumoured prequels to Star Wars, it was another move that made more sense from a toy point of view. Toy sales had stalled since Return of the Jedi, and while sequels would have to involve the main cast – well into their forties by the mid-1990s, and thus hardly prime targets for pre- teen fans – prequels could involve fresh (and eminently toy-friendly) characters. In the prequels, especially the first one, The Phantom Menace (1999), the characters were often sold to audiences one way (so they could be sold as toys) but used in the story quite differently. Liam Neeson’s character, Qui-Gon Jinn, was meant to be the ultimate Jedi. But all he did in the movie was get things wrong (he couldn’t even use the Force successfully), then die. Jar Jar Binks, meanwhile, was meant to be a kid-friendly comedy clown. Yet so many of his sight gags are based around “accidental” super-competence that there’s now an extremely plausible fan theory that he’s really the sinister force behind the rise of the Emperor. Still, despite their many flaws – having many of the alien races be thinly disguised racist caricatures didn’t help – the prequels did what they were meant to do: make a lot of money and open the Star Wars universe up to further exploitation. Every way but artistically, they were a success. And some of the spin-offs – especially some of the Expanded Universe novels set after the original trilogy and the animated series Clone Wars – worked pretty well too. Ideally, the future of Star Wars would have been a steady stream of new material only slightly linked to the old, expanding on the established universe and giving new fans their own versions to love without messing up the originals. Lucas himself repeatedly said he had no plans for any further sequels. Then, in 2012, he sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $US4 billion. With the Disney machine now behind PHOTOGRAPHCOURTESYOFLUCASFILM LUKE SKYWALKER (MARK HAMILL) FROM THE ORIGINAL STAR WARS REMAINS A FAN FAVOURITE.