Flashback Friday, Movie Marketing

Flashback MMM: Star Wars

I wasn’t planning to write about Star Wars this week. There was another movie I had in mind to jump back and take a look back at the movie for and I had an angle in mind and everything. But over the last week I’ve seen so much celebration of this being the 40th anniversary of Star Wars – now officially referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope – that the pull to go back and revisit this classic that’s defined much of my life proved too great to resist.

Yes, as I said, it’s been 40 years since the first Star Wars movie was released in theaters. I won’t waste time or space recapping how the movie was just kind of a middling sci-fi title before it came out. And I don’t need to rehash the plot about a farm boy that is drawn into a larger world of mystery, magic and rebellion on the path to embracing his destiny. We all know what the movie is about and why it’s become such a cultural touchstone, despite (or because of) its B-movie origins.

The challenge in looking back at portions of the marketing for this 1977 classic is that I’ve watched it roughly 5,392 times over the last 40 years. The first time, according to my parents, was when they took me to the York Theater in Elmhurst, IL (then a single-screen second-run house) when I was just a few years old. Because I wasn’t even two when it first came out, I’ve always assumed that screening came during one of its releases in subsequent years, either ’78 or ’79. Since then I’ve seen it on VHS (it was my go-to movie on days when I was home sick from school) and recently on DVD, as well as when it came back to theaters 20 years ago in Special Edition form.

That means it’s hard to judge the trailers and other components objectively. I love this movie. It’s part of my DNA. I’ve explored the Expanded Universe (New and Original Formulas) in depth. But I will make an effort for my art.

Luke and Leia Like You’ll Never See Them Again

The poster, specifically the A poster that we all know and love, is a wonderful bit of artwork from the Brothers Hildebrandt that captures the spirit of the movie even if it makes a couple choices that in retrospect are questionable. It sports the famous “triangle” design that pairs Luke and Leia, he standing defiantly at the top of a rock, his hands over his head holding a lightsaber that’s flaring in all directions. Leia is just off to his side, looking voluptuous and holding a blaster as her space gown blows in the wind. The design decides to up the “superhero” angle showing his bulging chest muscles through his open tunic and she’s very sexualized in her own way with a low-cut outfit that also shows plenty of leg. The droids are off to the side, though as StarWars.com recently pointed out they were a late addition by comic artist Nick Cardy and weren’t part of the original design.

Looming in the background is Vader, who as we’ll see wasn’t an otherwise big part of the marketing, but who here is shown as an evil presence that is seeing everything. That’s a very mysterious image, with his shiny black visage personifying darkness and danger. The Death Star is in the upper left, a swarm of starfighters racing toward it, an image that hints at the rebellious conflict that forms the crux of the conflict faced by the characters. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” is in the corner, copy that would set up the entire universe and become perhaps the most well-known marketing copy in the history of movies. It also serves here to tell audiences that this isn’t a futuristic story like Logan’s Run or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a “historical” story that is set in the past of some other culture, not our own future.

A Billion Years in the Making

The teaser begins by promising this is a story that may be happening right now elsewhere in the universe. It name-drops director George Lucas and ties him to American Graffiti, before beginning to divulge some of the story and settings. We’re told that this is an adventure involving a boy, a girl and a universe and that it’s a “sprawling space saga or rebellion and romance.” There are shots of many of the exotic aliens and other characters that audiences would encounter in theaters ranging from Tusken Raiders to the inhabitants of the Mos Eisley cantina. Along the way, we’re also shown droids, laser swords and more that make it clear a whole world has been created that’s unlike anything else.

The trailer lays out the story in a bit more linear fashion. It introduces us to Luke Skywalker, a humble young man who’s about to have his world turned upside down, along with Han, Leia, Ben and the rest of the main cast. It’s short but is heavy on laser blasts, space battles and other adventures.

Looking at both of the trailers, they’re not trying to set up what we now call an expanded universe or mythology. It’s simply selling an epic space adventure. There are no references to The Force – though that would get more play in the theatrical re-release trailer – or anything else that would make this more magical. There isn’t even much screen time given to Darth Vader, the character that would inspire countless Halloween costumes and help convince George McFly to talk to Elaine. It’s…subtle. Subdued. The movie is certainly big, but it’s sold as being more focused on the personal adventures of the main character of Han, Leia and Luke than anything else.

Taking off my “let’s pretend I haven’t watched this movie so much I wore out two VHS copies” hat, it’s amazing how the campaign undersells some of the key points that have made this movie so memorable. There’s so very little dialogue, and while the was never the movie’s strongest point there are so many classic lines that have been repeated endlessly over the last 40 years it’s surprising to see that that missing. As I said, Vader is a big missing presence from much of the campaign. And The Force is almost completely absent.

What was sold was…kind of the movie Lucas set out to make. It’s positioned here as a matinee adventure in the vein of Flash Gordon and other old outer space tales, without much that nods to any aspirations to cinematic greatness or, as I said, any hints as to there being more to the story than what’s on display here. This campaign, coupled with the publicity and eventual word of mouth that came out of a release that saw it open on just 32 screens opening weekend, obviously worked, positioning Star Wars as a must-see for everyone, regardless of age, gender or other differences.

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