A Long Time Ago: A Brief History Of Star Wars

A Brief History Of Star Wars

Devin D. O'Leary
8 min read
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Star Wars opened in Albuquerque on July 1, 1977.
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May 14, 1944

George Walton Lucas Jr. is born in Modesto, Calif. A disturbance in The Force is felt.


Lucas graduates with an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Among his classmates are Randal Kleiser (
Grease) and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian). After a stint training cameramen for the US military, Lucas will return for his graduate degree in film.

January 1968

Lucas’ graduate project “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB” wins first prize in the category of Dramatic Films at the third National Student Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York. There it is seen by fellow film student and future collaborator Steven Spielberg.

March 11, 1971

George Lucas’
THX 1138, a re-working of his award-winning student film, becomes the first feature released by American Zoetrope. The production company is a joint venture between Warner Bros., Francis Ford Coppola and Lucas. The film debuts to mixed reviews and earns $945,000 for Warner Bros.

January 1973

After failing to secure the rights to Alex Raymond’s famous comic strip
Flash Gordon, Lucas begins writing the first draft of his own space opera. He writes and discards several drafts, alternately titled The Star Wars, Journal of the Whills, The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller and, eventually, The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. That title will be shortened by the studio.

March 22, 1976

Principal photography begins on Star Wars in the Tunisian desert. After two and a half weeks on location, production moves to Elstree Studios near London, England.

Dec. 25, 1976

Star Wars is scheduled for a big Christmas release, but after several major production delays and a disastrous screening for studio executives, the film is heavily reedited. These delays increase the budget of the film from $8 million to $11 million. The film is rescheduled for a spring 1977 release.

April 12, 1977

The first issue of Marvel Comics’
Star Wars hits newsstands, predating the release of the film by a month. The monthly comic is written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, both of whom attend an advanced, rough-cut screening of the film. This well-regarded run at Marvel goes on to last 107 issues.

May 25, 1977

The 20th Century Fox studio releases
Star Wars (only later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) in approximately 32 theaters nationwide. The film stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness. It goes on to earn $461 million in the US and $314 million overseas. It surpasses Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to become the highest grossing film of all time. The record lasts until 1982 when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial surpasses it.

Aug. 3, 1977

Bolstered by the runaway (and rather surprising) success of Star Wars, 20th Century Fox schedules an unprecidented second premier at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Thousands attend the screening. Stars C-3PO, R2-D2 and Darth Vader place their footprints in cement in front of the theater. Nearly three months after the film’s opening, it is now playing in 1,096 theaters across America. At least 60 theaters in the United States go on to play the film continuously for more than a year.

December 1977

After the Mego Corporation rejects an offer to create
Star Wars action figures, Kenner designs a line of 3 1/2-inch plastic figures. Unprepared for the huge Christmas demand, however, Kenner is unable to build up enough stock. Instead of selling the product, retailers are reduced to offering “Early Bird Certificate Packages” (better known at “The Empty Box.”) Consumers get a box with a cardboard diorama stand, some stickers, a Star Wars Fan Club membership card and a mail-in certificate which can be redeemed for four action figures (Luke, Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca) as soon as they become available. Eventually over 100 unique figures will be added to the line between 1978 and 1985.

March 1, 1978

Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, written by Alan Dean Foster, becomes the first non-movie-based spin-off of the
Star Wars universe (later known as the Expanded Universe). The story takes place between Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Written as part of Foster’s contract with Del Rey Books, the novel was intended to be used as a low-budget sequel to Star Wars if the film had not done well at the box office. It did, and Dean’s novel is still considered an important part of Star Wars history.

November 17, 1978

CBS broadcasts the “Star Wars Holiday Special,” a mind-bogglingly odd, variety show-style spin-off featuring singing, dancing and lots of wacky comedy. A short cartoon by Canada’s Nelvana animation studio introduces audiences to the character of Boba Fett. Lucas barely acknowledges the existence of the 97-minute “Holiday Special.” It has never been rebroadcast or released to home video.

March 5, 1979

Filming begins on the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back at the Hardangerjokulen glacier in Norway. The film is produced independent of 20th Century Fox by Lucas using his own profits from the first film. The budget starts at $18 million, but soars to over $30 million before production is completed, making it one of the most expensive films to date. Despite all the money he has laid out, Lucas turns directing duties over to Irvin Kershner, one of his former professors at USC.

May 21, 1980

The first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back opens. Some 126 theaters across America screen the film in 70mm.

April 10, 1981

Star Wars is rereleased to theaters, as it has been in 1978 and 1979. Thanks to a new opening crawl, it is now subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope.

December 1982

Deciding that Jedi do not seek revenge, Lucas changes the title of this second sequel to Return of the Jedi. This causes thousands of Revenge of the Jedi posters (with artwork by Drew Struzan) to be recalled. The remaining stock of 6,800 posters are sold off to Star Wars fan club members for $9.50. Today, the posters sell in the $1,500 range.

May 1983

Star Wars, a 3D color vector graphics space simulation developed by Atari is released into arcades, making it the first Star Wars video game.

May 25, 1983

Lucas closes out his original trilogy with Return of the Jedi. David Lynch and David Cronenberg were among the directors considered for the project, but Welsh director Richard Marquand (Eye of the Needle) is given the job. The film earns $571 million dollars at the box office.

Sept. 7, 1985

“Star Wars: Droids” debuts on ABC. This cartoon spin-off depicts the adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO prior to their introduction in Star Wars Episode I: A New Hope. The series is paired with the slightly more juvenile “Star Wars: Ewoks.” Both are produced by Nelvana, makers of the Boba Fett short on the notorious “Star Wars Holiday Special.” “Droids” runs for 13 episodes, “Ewoks” gets 35.

Jan. 31, 1997

In celebration of the film’s 20th anniversary, Lucas rereleases Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as part of the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition. The effects are upgraded and many new (and in some cases controversial) scenes are added. This gives birth to the slogan “Han Shot First.” The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi
are later released in special editions as well.

May 19, 1999

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars film in 16 years, opens to enormous fanfare. This “prequel” to the original trilogy cost $115 million to produce, and—despite its mediocre reception among longtime fans—it goes on to gross more than a billion dollars worldwide, making it the second-highest grossing film behind Titanic. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd are among the new generation of cast members. Lucas writes and directs for the first time since 1977’s original
Star Wars.

May 16, 2002

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones opens worldwide. It receives slightly better reviews than its immediate predecessor.

September 21, 2004

The Special Editions of all three original Star Wars films are released in a boxed set on DVD. They contain even more changes.

May 15, 2005

Some 23 years after the Jedi refused to seek revenge, the Sith happily employ the word in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a sequel set approximately 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, hits theaters worldwide. New cast members Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac join previous stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. The film is projected to break box office records and earn more than $1 billion.

A Long Time Ago ...

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