Legacy of "Star Wars" includes "nostalgic blockbuster" genre, summer movie season, film professor says

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Next Friday, May 25, will be the 30th anniversary of the debut of "Star Wars," which became the highest-grossing film at the box office in 1977 and the first film to reach the $300 million mark.

An assistant professor of radio, television and film at the University of North Texas says the film, now titled "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," was one of the first "nostalgic blockbusters" - films that copy older forms of the genre on much bigger budgets and with special effects and action eclipsing the plot.

Dr. Harry Benshoff says "Star Wars" was inspired by the "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon" serials of the 1930s and ‘40s - just as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies owe their origin to the pirate movies of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. These movies, he says, were based on a Disneyland theme park ride inspired by pirate movies.

"This is the formula that Hollywood has been using during the last 30 years. These nostalgic blockbusters are usually released during the peak movie seasons - summer and December - and they're not considered to be huge unless they make at least $300 million," he says. "We now have saturation of advertising and booking of movies - they've become events that open on 3,000 to 4,000 screens on the same day, and the plot really doesn't matter as much as the special effects."

Unlike other science fiction films such as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Silent Running," "War of the Worlds" and other alien invasion movies, "Star Wars" was "pure escape fantasy," Benshoff says.

"Earlier science fiction engaged in some sort of issue, such as reliance on technology or what makes us human," he says. "Many people look down on ‘Star Wars' because it doesn't really engage in issues - it's simplistic good versus evil."

Once "Star Wars" was a hit, however, "every studio had a science fiction film" in the same format as "Star Wars," he says. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," released in 1979, was put in production by the end of 1977, although original plans for a movie based on the 1960s television series had been scrapped in 1976. Other science fiction movies that followed "Star Wars" included "Blade Runner," "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" and the "Alien" series.

Benshoff points out that while "Star Wars" isn't considered to have started the summer movie season by becoming a hit after being released on Memorial Day weekend - "Jaws," released June 20, 1975, was the first summer "event film" - it cemented the notion for movie studios to distribute their big-release action and adventure pictures during the summer months.

Benshoff also says "Star Wars" was also not the first movie to have toys and other merchandise based on it. The original "Planet of the Apes" in 1968 and its sequels had two sets of action figures, trading card sets, books and book and record sets. However, "Star Wars" "was really on the bandwagon for merchandising," he says.

"(Director) George Lucas became rich not because of the movies per se, but because he held the copyright on the toys," he says.

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