Last Updated Jul 19, 2011 2:45 PM EDT
It's been 34 years since George Lucas released Star Wars (or Episode IV, if you go by his count) the first of six films that have collectively grossed more than $4 billion just in the theaters. Lucas was an unlikely candidate to make either blockbusters or terrible movies. He had made only two previous films: THX 1138, an impressively dull brainy science fiction picture, and American Graffiti which did well at the box office despite being great.
(It was the1970s and the U.S. loved great movies -- witness the success of The Godfather and The French Connection, to name just two. Sadly, this was a trend Star Wars helped bring to an end.)
Return of the Jedi, the final in the original trilogy of films, came out in 1983 and was the last time a Star Wars product wasn't so bad as to be physically painful to watch. [*] At least the first 20 minutes or so, that is; the arrival of teddy bears (Ewoks) marked the moment at which the whole franchise went from good B movies to dreck.
Make the jump to... hiatus
Despite a nearly tangible public desire for more SW, Lucas spent much of the next 16 years running Hollywood's leading special effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic, before dumping The Phantom Menace on an unsuspecting world.
That hiatus is the reason the SW brand became product-proof. Without anything else to distract them, people grew more attached to those first three movies. Parents who had been kids when the films came out took their kids to see them.
As people said their favorite lines over and over to each other the movies became a world-wide cultural reference.In practically any nation on earth if you say, "Luke, I am your father," to someone the odds are overwhelming he or she will know it is from. (And if you don't speak the language, show 'em the picture above. Same thing.)
Absence does make the heart grow fonder
Unrequited longing can twist people's perceptions. This is why Phantom Menace, Clone Wars and Revenge of the Sith managed to gross more than $2 billion despite being close to unwatchable. (It is also why most people just look at you funny if you say that they were terrible.)
Because of his success, Lucas could make those movies just the way he wanted to: Way too long with plots and dialogue that make your teeth hurt, replete with racist and anti-Semitic stereotypes, and starring someone (Hayden Christensen) whose acting is so bad as to make R2-D2's tweets and whistles seem like Laurence Olivier.
(In Lucas' defense, it must be said he certainly has a good sense of humor about the whole thing. He has either OK'd or actively participated in a huge number of parodies that say not so nice things about the movies.)
So the business lesson here is simple: Don't give people what they want for long enough, and they'll buy anything that even vaguely resembles what they thought they were waiting for.
[*] Anyone saying the animated series Star Wars: Clone Wars is an exception will only get an argument from the most diehard of fanboys.