Star Wars Ruined Comic-Con!
Yup. People may complain about Twilight crowding out the “true fans”, squatting in rooms while keeping others from enjoying panels, but the hard cold truth is, it’s all George Lucas’ fault, and it can be traced back thirty-five years to 1976.
Back then, Star Wars was the next film from George Lucas, who had some success with “American Graffiti”. An unknown science fiction movie, with few stars, and a militaristic theme in the aftermath of the Vietnam War was a hard sell. So Charles Lippincott, head of publicity and promotion, hit the road. The first stop was Westercon, then in its 28th year, held during the Fourth of July weekend in Los Angeles. Three weeks later, Star Wars hit San Diego and it’s record crowd of 3,000 attendees. Lucasfilm knew they had to promote the film to fans, and so purchased a table to promote the movie, something unprecedented at the time.
So, where did the idea to hit the fan circuit come from? Lippincott had worked at MGM during the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. When the box office lagged on that film, Mike Kaplan tailored a campaign to the hippie subculture, emphasizing the psychedelic “star child” theme. Lippincott realized the same strategy could be done with Star Wars, except with comics fans instead of hippies.
Lippincott knew Lucasfilm needed comics to promote the film before it came out, and met with Stan Lee at Marvel. Stan was hesitant, but Lippincott was able to lunch with Roy Thomas, and sold the Conan writer on the movie. Marvel made a sweetheart deal… Lucasfilm would not make any money on the first 100,000 copies, but Marvel would produce a six-issue miniseries of the movie. Twentieth Century Fox couldn’t understand what good this deal was, but for Star Wars, it proved to be very important. (It also proved very important to Marvel… it was a gamble which paid off handsomely.) Lippincott and Lucas were both fans of Howard Chaykin’s “Cody Starbuck” comic published by Star Reach, and felt he had the sensibility to adapt the movie. Thomas wrote and edited.
So, it’s 1976. You’ve got an unknown product. How do you sell it to comic book fans? Well, you schedule a panel with Roy “Conan” Thomas and Howard “indy” Chaykin, so that people will come and see the cool slide show! Then, in the dealers room, you sell a limited edition poster, illustrated by Howard Chaykin, for $1.75. (It sold badly, and since this is the first ever Star Wars poster, those 1,000 copies now command a princely sum online.)
Afterwards, Lippincott then managed to find friendly press, including Jim Steranko’s Mediascene magazine, which featured production art and storyboards, which stoked interest through the Spring of 1977.
The end result of all this promotion? Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood sells out around the clock on a Wednesday (the day after Mann’s 50th anniversary celebration), as do the other thirty-one theaters across the country when the movie goes into limited release on May 25, 1977, catching the mainstream media off-guard. Of course, the rest is history. (Mann’s Star Wars premiere was also revolutionary: a glitzy backdrop of a movie palace, brand new six-track Dolby stereo, and a 70mm print (one of eighteen). Can you remember the fanfare, the title crawl, and the Tantive IV being swallowed by the Imperial Star Destroyer..? Now, that buzz is generated by midnight showings at Imax theaters.)
You can read about the Comic-Con connection here, which includes some rare art.
A diorama reproduction of the 1976 Star Wars booth. (Soon to be a limited edition?)
Okay, Star Wars isn’t entirely to blame for the Hollywood Hall H hype fest… it would take another thirty years for Hollywood to discover Comic-Con.
Furthermore, George Lucas is one of us, a comics fan, and, at one time, a comics retailer. Besides, that genie is out of the bottle, so we might as well go ahead and enjoy it. Come on… I know you want to get a picture taken with Darth Vader…
- R2D2 and Han Solo ice cube trays
- Her Universe clothing, for those fangirls with a Boba Fett-ish
- The official Star Wars flikr stream [click]
- Programming [click]
- J H Williams III Star Wars art! [click]
- Limited edition Xbox 360 R2D2 Kinnect console [click]
- A Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar [click] (no, not “Life Day”!) Santa Yoda!
I’ve been writing for The Beat since July of 2010.
I’ve been reading comics since 1974, collecting since 1984, and spreading the graphic novel gospel since 1994.
I’m a bookseller, a librarian, an amateur scholar, a cool uncle, and a comics evangelist.
Ask me anything!