A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, marketing didn’t drive movies the way it does now. Instead of harnessing merchandising power and pre-existing fan bases, movies existed on their own creative merit, looking strictly to the box office to make the big bucks. But in 1978, that changed when a marketing juggernaut was born. Since the release of the first Star Wars movie (now called Star Wars: Episode 4—A New Hope), Lucasfilm (and now its parent company, Disney) has been leveraging the popularity of the story to sell everything from burgers to vacations.
Over the 38-year span of the Star Wars’ lifetime, Lucasfilm has licensed $20 billion worth of goods. The saga’s brand consistently finds a place in the top five licensed toy brands each year, according to NPD Group. Today, companies like Campbell’s and CoverGirl are harnessing Star Wars’ marketing power, creating Star Wars-themed everything, from canned soup to eye makeup.
The first Star Wars film is released.
In its earliest iterations, Star Wars was a marketing machine. The movie was co-promoted with Burger King through commercials and merchandising (namely glasses, which are now collector’s items).
Lucas sold toy merchandising rights to a company called Kenner, then owned by General Mills. In 1977, the demand for Kenner’s toys was so high, the company actually issued IOUs to waiting customers that included complimentary membership into the Star Wars fan club. Kenner soon expanded the collection to include more characters, including those from the infamous Cantina scene. By the end of 1978, Kenner had sold more than 40 million action figures.
Star Wars' initial run eventually ended by early 1978 with over $260 million in ticket sales, making it the most successful film in history at the time. It was re-released over the next 20 years, adding $220 million to its overall total ticket sales. To this day, it is second only to Gone With the Wind in a list of the highest grossing American films of all time after adjusting dollar values to account for inflation.
On November 17, 1978, the Star Wars Holiday Special aired on TV once and never again. It was never released to video due to a dismal reception at its time, but today, its obscurity translates to a rare Star Wars collectible. The full two hours of the special are now on YouTube.
The Empire Strikes Back is released.
The Empire Strikes Back, the second installment of the franchise and fifth in series chronology, is released, and Kenner is ready with more action figures. The company uses direct mail marketing to promote the toys leading up to the movie’s release. Experts say this marks the beginning of the mega-movie marketing era, in which merchandising outpaces ticket sales.
“Well, when I was writing I had had visions of R2-D2 mugs and little windup robots, but I thought that would be the end of it.” -George Lucas, in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview.
Return of the Jedi is released.
The Ewok Adventures, now known as Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, was released on November 25, 1984. The TV movie's popularity with younger audiences led to Emmy nominations and a sequel in 1985 (Ewok Adventures: The Battle for Endor).
Star Tours is opened.
Star Wars becomes an amusement park attraction, debuting in Disneyland and now operating in Disneyland Paris after its close in America in 2010.
Attack of the Clones is released.
While this second installment of prequels received generally better reviews, it did not outperform any of its predecessors at the box office. Introduction of the clones in this film paved the way to the creation of the succesful animated TV-series The Clone Wars.
Revenge of the Sith is released.
Revenge of the Sith is released as the first PG-13 installment of Star Wars. As the bridge between the prequels and sequels, there was great anticipation for this film.
(Dollar values not adjusted for inflation.)
2005 also brought us this Buger King commercial:
The Clone Wars TV show is released.
As the first weekly Star Wars TV series, the animated kids' show runs to this day on Cartoon Network, maintaining viewership from younger audiences.
Volkswagen harnesses Star Wars in "The Force"
Volkswagen released its first in a series of Star Wars-themed commercials, called “Force,” created by ad agency Deutsch. This VW 60-second spot leaked before its intended release as a Super Bowl Ad (in which it was only allowed 30 seconds). Experts say that its success changed the normal one-time strategy of Super Bowl Ads at the time. Now, brands spend months developing and marketing a Super Bowl-bound advertisement, leaking teasers or even releasing the entirety of the commercial online far before the game.
Disney aquires Lucasfilm Ltd.
Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in cash and Disney stock, which included both Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The acquisition puts the marketing power of Disney behind the Star Wars franchise, opening opportunities for TV shows, merchandising and theme park concepts. At that time, Disney announced that three new films were in the works—a sequel trilogy—the first of which would be released in 2015.
VW also releases a second Star Wars-themed Super Bowl ad, “The Bark Side,” which features a canine choir barking the iconic “Imperial March” most recognized as Darth Vader’s theme song. Within the first 24 hours of its launch, the commercial garnered 1.6 million views on YouTube.
Marvel Comics releases remastered comics inspired by the original Star Wars trilogy films. Cartoon Network airs animated TV series Star Wars Rebels.
The Force Awakens is released on December 18.
Walt Disney Studios and Lucasfilm released a digital collection of the first six movies, remastered in high definition, through Amazon and iTunes in April.
The Force Awakens, the seventh of the series, opens in theaters December 18. Early ticket sales for the film have broken IMAX records at $6.5 million, outpacing past frontrunners such as The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers.
Co-branded promotions for The Force Awakens include TV commercials for Kohl’s Black Friday sales and Verizon. According to Ad Age, at least $66 million has been shelled out for promotional TV time and those numbers are still rising.
"Force Friday" (September 4, 2015) marked the midnight unveiling of new Star Wars: The Force Awakens toys to the public at retailer locations like Target, The Disney Store, Toys 'R Us, etc. According to NPD, every $1 of $11 spent that weekend went toward a Star Wars toy.
2016 and Beyond
After 2015’s The Force Awakens, Disney has announced that new Star Wars movies will be released in 2017 and 2019, all part of the sequel trilogy.
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is slated to open in 2018 on Chicago’s lakefront Museum Campus.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the following correction: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999; not 1997 as previously reported.