How publishing and the Expanded Universe in the 90s kept Star Wars alive and helped it become the most successful Space Opera franchise of all time.
*Note: Star Wars would not be the behemoth it is today without great authors writing novelizations and original stories and these authors should be compensated for their contributions. Alan Dean Foster is one author that is currently in a battle with Disney for royalties for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and several Alien novels. Foster wrote an open letter to Disney published by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America last year and I hope that both parties can come to a solution that gives Foster the compensation he deserves. You can read Foster’s letter here.
Forty-four years ago this day in 1977, Star Wars released in theaters during burgeoning film technology advances in sound and pictures that were perfect for an epic film set in space. George Lucas was also a hot new director alongside Steven Spielberg (who had just brought Jaws on screen as the first summer blockbuster a few years earlier). With a Best Picture Academy Award nomination and subsequent successful films The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, the Star Wars franchise quickly became the premier franchise of the Space Opera sub-genre.
Although containing elements from both genres, Space operas are not like Comic book franchises or Romance franchises. For every DC character, there is a Marvel counterpart and similar storylines come up all the time (Civil War/Batman v. Superman films came out within months of each other). And it is not as easy as pulling a Fifty Shades franchise out of a Twilight Fanfiction bag. The global taste for Space operas seems to only have room for one franchise (there have been successful Space operas from other countries but none of those have yet to achieve the global success of Star Wars). The only franchise that has come close has been Star Trek, which is perceived more as a TV franchise. And while it looked like it might have come back to theatrical relevancy in 2009, it ultimately was just holding Star Wars‘ place in line. Nestled almost exactly between Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Force Awakens (2015), Star Trek (2009) had positive reviews and strong word of mouth but was only able to gross 386M globally. The sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) made 467M and that seemed to be the ceiling as the last film in the trilogy, Star Trek: Beyond (2016), which came out a year after The Force Awakens, grossed the least amount globally at 343.5M. All of these numbers are great for Star Trek films, but for comparison, Solo: A Star Wars Story was a financial disaster for Disney and it grossed 393M.
Despite Solo’s financial failure, the film does have a significant part of the fanbase who loves it (it might also be the best-looking Star Wars film) and there is a chance that the film will heavily influence one of the upcoming Disney Plus series, Lando.
So why has Star Wars found success and longevity as the sole dominant Space Opera franchise when it was neither the first (and some would argue nor the best)? Yes, the financial backing and multi-media platform access that Disney provides has made Star Wars almost untouchable; however, before that, there was a period of almost 20 years between the original trilogy and prequels that were crucial and could have seen Star Wars completely fade from pop culture. But an insurance novel, a Sci-Fi/ Fantasy publishing visionary, and a blessing from George Lucas helped revitalize Star Wars and build it up to a luring acquisition.
The Expanded Universe
You could say the precursor to the Expanded Universe (EU) started even before Star Wars hit theaters in 1977. In 1976, ghostwriter Alan Dean Foster wrote the first-ever Star Wars tale not created by George Lucas. The novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, was Lucas’s insurance policy in case Star Wars was not a financial success, he would use it for the basis of the screenplay and make a sequel on a smaller budget. The book was published in 1978 and was a success. Foster was offered more deals by Del Rey but declined and moved on, so Marvel Comics filled in the gaps between the films.
More than ten years after the release of the first film in 1988, Lucas stated that there would be no more Star Wars films, dashing fans who were eager to know what happened to their favorite characters after Episode VI. In his book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor credits Bantham Books publisher and Star Wars fan, Lou Aronica, with convincing Lucas to give the publishing license to Bantham. Aronica’s pitch: Bantham would take a similar approach to the movies and publish one great book a year, starting with a trilogy continuing the story after The Return of the Jedi. This in contrast to other franchises like Star Trek, which released multiple books every month. After a year of trying to start a dialogue with Lucas, the director relented and plans were made for what would become known as the Thrawn Trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, The Last Command). Set five years after The Return of the Jedi, the novels follow Luke, Leia, and Han as well as a new threat to galactic peace in a strategic genius Chiss Admiral named Thrawn.
Heir to the Empire was released May 1, 1991, and, within a few months, was at #2 on the NYT Bestseller list, nestled between John Grisms The Firm and Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! It remained on the list for 19 weeks, ran through the initial print run of 70K hardcover copies, and had four print runs within its first year of release. This was before ebooks but for comparison today an impressive print run would be 75K+ hardcover copies. This was tangible proof that the Star Wars brand was still big business almost ten years removed from the final chapter in the original trilogy. The rest of the trilogy was a success which naturally led to the breakdown of the “one movie event book a year” model. It was a great idea but financial successes are too tempting for initial intentions to maintain quality over quantity. Funny enough, Disney would make the same mistake with the ambitious plan of having one Star Wars movie a year. And for a short time that looked promising, with back-to-back successes of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Bob Iger decided to release Solo: A Star Wars Story for Memorial Day weekend just five months after The Last Jedi. It came in far below box office expectations (and even early reports by the trades), grossing 83.3M over the three-day holiday weekend. Disney has since shelved the A Star Wars Story anthology films.
Another successful series of books that started in 1996 was the X-Wing series, the first novel of which was titled X-Wing: Rogue Squadron. The idea was “Star Wars meets Top Gun” and the series would go on to have ten novels in the series, nine of which were in the 90s and the final one coming in 2012. Two years after the release of X-Wing: Rogue Squadron in 1998 came the first Rogue Squadron video game from LucasArts and Nintendo inspired from the book. In the single-player, flight action game, you play as Luke Skywalker during the time between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back as Skywalker and Rogue Squadron go on 16 missions across various planets. The game proved to be a massive success, selling 1M+ copies worldwide by August 1999 (the same month as the ninth X-Wing novel X-Wing: Starfighters of Adumar).
Also, unlike Star Trek, the Star Wars EU was overseen by George Lucas/Lucasfilm who could then cherry-pick storylines they liked and adapt them into other mediums. Kenner and Hasbro were even able to capitalize on Thrawn, Mara Jade, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), and Force Unleashed characters through toy sales. So when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 they also had access to the 200+ novels and short stories, 150+ video games, and 1000+ comic books. Even though they turned the EU into Star Wars Legends and created a firm distinction with Star Wars canon, it still provided Disney/Lucasfilm (who had creatives like Pablo Hildalgo and Dave Filoni familiar with Legends content) with a pool of existing concepts and characters that could be reimagined for canon. And now, some of the most popular characters, locations, and concepts from the prequel trilogy to the Disney era have come from the Expanded Universe: the sprawling metropolis planet Coruscant, the Inquisitors, Nightsisters, Luke’s Force Projection power, and Darktroopers have all found their way into Star Wars canon.
Of course, the most popular EU character Thrawn has not only been canonized but is thriving in publishing and on screen. The announcement at Star Wars Celebration Europe 2016 that Thrawn was going to be in Rebels season three and getting a new book by Timothy Zahn got the most media coverage of the convention and his canon books have been consistent best sellers for Del Rey. The character turned 30 this year and is making his way to live-action soon.
There are mixed feelings within Star Wars fandom on Lucasfilm turning the Expanded Universe into Legends but Disney’s Lucasfilm is doing the same thing George Lucas’s Lucasfilm did…choosing what can come along for the ride and what gets left behind. It was made clear fairly soon after the acquisition that The Clone Wars film and TV series was still canon as well as the Dark Horse Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir (though this was later republished under Marvel comics in 2017). Screenrant has a list of EU concepts that have been adapted to canon in some form and that will continue to grow. Despite what people may think, Disney has not completely shunned the Expanded Universe but is trusting its creatives to adapt and build stories that feel familiar to EU fans but appeal to new fans. Some attempts might be more successful than others but Star Wars has been able to survive and thrive more than any other Space opera franchise because of this, and the content train isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Exploring Every Corner of the Star Wars Universe.