I remember well going to see Star Wars in 1976 at the Empire Leicester Square. It was visually an exciting film, launched the career of Harrison Ford,whose furrowed brow enhanced many a blockbuster, and theatrical knight Sir Alec Guinness finally made some money out of his distinguished career. So why the contrarian view? In a sentence Star Wars was bad for the making of films thereafter.
It was the first of the brands. With films becoming more or more expensive as the big stars emulated Sir Alec in demanding a share of the box office, marketing costs soared to $100m, the financiers realised you need a reliable brand that could make the sequels profitable and that is how the movie industry went. To make an one-off film was to speculative, better to do a $1m one-off pilot on HBO and see how it fared. It might become West Wing, The Wire or The Sopranos.
Special effects became the order of the day rapidly followed by computer graphics. At around the same time time I saw Star Wars I watched Casablanca for the first time. I marvelled not just just at the screen romance between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman but the character acting in the lesser roles of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. This more or less died with Star Wars.
Alec Guinness demanded and got 2% of the box office. A cadre of bankable actors and actresses -Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Sandra Bullock – said thereafter to the producers “We don’t make unsuccessful movies but the price of our success is a share of the box office”. However some of their films, even well made ones like Captain Phillips did not achieve a profit. By Star Wars 5 and 6,which were dire movies, the brand was waning so back to the original with the same cast. It’s left to Robert Redford’s Sundance festival to showcase the independent movies.
At my local supermarket I saw Star Wars spin-off toys everywhere cynically selected for the Xmas market. Disney have to recoup their massive outlay for the rights of course, but is this cinema? I am not alone in seeking refuge in a French film covering more accessible human topics, a director who has written the scenario and quality acting all through the film. Or my favourite film of the year The Lady In The Van with a superb cast, interesting story, but not the stuff of which you can bank on spin-off toys.