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The next "Star Wars"

Richard Nixon became president in 1969 and kickstarted one of the darker eras of modern American history. Between his corruption, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the ever-growing threat of nuclear war with the Soviets, the proliferation of violence and horror on the news, and a rocketing crime rate, the country was well and truly exhausted by 1977, which would have been the end of Nixon's term had he not resigned.

Then Star Wars came out and made all the money.

Lots of nerds and film historians - but mostly nerds - have written extensively about Star Wars in the 40 years (as of tomorrow) since.  I don't need to remind anybody about its impact on pop culture.  But I do have a tendency to get a little combative about the endless fanaticism that surrounds it.

Part of it is petty jealousy - I'm a struggling writer who thinks he has halfway decent ideas, and George Lucas is a dummy who thought Gungans were a good idea, yet he's the one who made ten billion dollars.  Part of it is just pure confusion - I thought the original trilogy was "pretty good overall" and moved on, and I'm baffled by the devotion people have to that universe, particularly since it is so uneven and has so many contradicting ideas.

Mostly I'm combative because the common retelling of Star Wars's success is flat-out wrong.  People talk about it like it was some genius new thing that a maverick filmmaker created from duct tape and hope, and it beat all the odds because of movie magic.  There are seeds of truth in that, but that version is just way too simplistic for me.  It's like saying you "beat all the odds" to become a successful CEO when you're a white man who was born into an upper class family and had friends in high places.  Sure, you worked hard to get where you were and you deserve accolades, but don't pretend you weren't significantly privileged from the beginning.

Star Wars did have a smaller budget than many of its counterparts (only $8 million initially, later ballooning to $11 million), but it would be naive to pretend that it had "no" budget.  Adjusted for inflation, that range is equivalent to a $30 to $45 million dollar feature today - that's enough to work with, especially if you were only paying the salary for one major name actor.  Hell, Ex Machina was made for only $15 million in today's money, and it's a special effects beast.

And even though the studio didn't push it as much as their other movies, you can't pretend like it didn't have a major marketing campaign behind it.  Where the studio failed, Lucas stepped up by securing tie-in adds with toy manufacturers, comic books, and other nerdy shit.  His innovation in that respect is admirable, but let's face it - that constitutes a major cross-promotional push.  You can't pretend it was released without any advertising.


And the film sure as hell wasn't made by a maverick - it was heavily influenced by the studios and significantly re-edited by Lucas's colleagues.  It wasn't breathtakingly original - although it had its innovations, Lucas himself readily described the influences that inspired it, ranging from Flash Gordon to Kurosawa to the monomyth.  And it wasn't exactly a grimy, controversial film - it's a family-friendly movie with distinct lines separating good from evil featuring inoffensive white people.

But I'm not writing this on the eve of its 40th anniversary to shit on it.  Quite the opposite - despite my complaints, I admire the movie's success.  I just think it's better to admire it for how it truly became successful rather than to elevate its material to the level of religion.  Because, at the end of the day, the story itself isn't that much of a mystery.  It's a pretty cookie-cutter tale about a guy chosen by Good to go fight Evil, and then he does.

If you ask me - and you didn't, but it's my blog, so deal with it - the only true "secret" to the success of Star Wars was its timing.  Everything else about it is part of a formula that's been pretty well tested by Hollywood at this point.  Special effects fantasy with simplistic morality?  Check.  Geeky cross-promotional push?  Check.  Summer release?  Check.  These are all things that studios can and do control down to a science.  The one thing they can't control is the country's malaise.

And that's where Nixon comes in again.  If we go back and imagine an alternate timeline where George McGovern became president, would Star Wars have been as much of a hit?  I suspect the answer is "Not quite."  I think it still would have been a major success and it would still be talked about today, but I don't know that it would be the endlessly successful franchise we all know and love.

The thing is, by 1977, the country had gone through eight years of political corruption, crime, and frustration.  Artists typically will create work to reflect their own mood at the moment, which meant much of the work coming out of the '70s was inspired by despair, cynicism, and anger.  As a perfect example: Sorcerer, one of the bleakest movies ever made, was a contemporary film of Star Wars and was actually released head-to-head against it.

But people don't really want artists to tell them how the world is.  People ask artists to tell them how the world could be.  A gritty, accurate representation of daily struggle might resonate and win critical acclaim, but it's not something anybody will pay for more than once.  Reality is only fun to see in fiction as an altered reflection.

Star Wars is a movie about overcoming evil that came out at a time when most of the other options were too gritty.  It was a fun, happy package of hope that was delivered right when people needed it.  Those who saw it in their teens and twenties latched on and their obsession pushed it over the top from "success" to "phenomenon."

So where am I going with all this?

Well... Trump took office this year and we've already seen him embroiled in a scandal that's at least on part with Watergate, if not worse.  Our country's being torn apart from the inside by bigotry, jealousy, and deep political divides while we continue to lose lives in unpopular wars abroad and face the threat of an even larger war with countries that are represented to us in cartoonishly evil proportions.  We're also seeing a level of corruption that we haven't had to deal with since Nixon and even though violent crimes are down, mass shootings are way, way up.  Our artists are producing reflections of this left and right, and even though we're barely four months into Trump, nearly all of us are already looking for escapism.

If my math is right, the franchise that'll dethrone "Star Wars" is due in 2025.  The question is: who gets to be the lucky SOB that cracks it?

Hmm.  I'll have over ten years of self-publishing experience by that point.  Hope springs eternal....