Friday, 23 November 2018

When was the title Star Wars devised? It’s earlier than you might think

The title Star Wars as it appears in the film

Apart from its virtues as a film, Star Wars had one of the best titles ever to grace a movie.  But it could just as easily have been called The Adventures of Luke Starkiller

Today, we’re looking at the origins of the title Star Wars – and, at the same time, the meeting at Cannes that set George Lucas’s idea on the way to becoming reality.

The origins of Star Wars – the film and its title – go back further than you might imagine.

George Lucas had been kicking around the idea of making a Flash Gordon-inspired space fantasy for many years before he began writing it. And the idea became the subject of a deal even before the release of Lucas’s low-budget hit American Graffiti

Cannes, 1971: George Lucas makes a deal with United Artists

Former United Artists president David Picker

In May, 1971, George Lucas’s debut film THX 1138 was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. George and Marcia Lucas, then by no means wealthy, flew to London en route to the festival. 

While in London, Lucas made a phone call to pitch his idea for American Graffiti to David Picker, president of United Artists. Pecker offered him a $25,000 deal for the idea. As Chris Taylor notes in his book How Star Was Conquered the Universe, the elated Lucases then travelled on to France by ferry and rail.

George and Marcia sneaked in, unrecognised, to a sold-out screening of THX 1138, but the high point of the trip was the meeting with Pecker in his suite at the Carlton Hotel. There, the UA executive confirmed the deal for American Graffiti – and asked whether Lucas had any other projects in mind.

Lucas recalled in JW Rinzler's book The Making of Star Wars:
“I said ‘I’ve been toying with this idea of a space-opera fantasy film in the vein of Flash Gordon… And he said ‘Great, we’ll make a deal for that too’. And that was really the birth of Star Wars. It was only a notion up to then – at that point, it became an obligation. Picker agreed to take an option on that too.”
On August 3 1971, United Artists duly registered the title of a proposed new movie with the Motion Picture Association of America. That title was The Star Wars

How United Artists and Universal missed out on Star Wars

An early logo for The Star Wars,
produced by Ralph McQuarrie

Not everybody was as enthusiastic about THX 1138 as the audiences in Cannes. The film had been made by Francis Ford Coppola’s company American Zoetrope, bankrolled by Warner Brothers. But Warner Brothers disliked the film so much that it pulled the plug on the arrangement with Coppola.

Lucas’s deal with United Artists fell through after the screenplay was written, because Picker could not convince his own boss to produce it.  
Lucas took the project instead to Universal, which put Graffiti into production and took out an option on Lucas’s next idea. 

After the huge success of Graffiti, Lucas was obliged to offer his next project to United Artists, then to Universal. In 1973, he wrote a treatment for his space fantasy epic that was, by all accounts, impenetrable, and both studios passed on it. Three months later, UA gave up its trademark on the title The Star Wars

As for that momentous meeting at Cannes, Picker can no longer remember it, telling Chris Taylor in 2014: “You can imagine how many meetings I had on that terrace. More deals were made, more hearts were broken than any level of the business anywhere.” 

But he said George Lucas never stopped reminding him that he had let Star Wars slip through his fingers.

Star Wars, The Star Wars and The Adventures of Luke Starkiller

The title as seen on 1977 Star Wars posters 

As we all know, George Lucas’s Flash Gordon-style adventure was eventually made for Twentieth Century-Fox, after production head Alan Ladd Jr persuaded a divided board of directors to bankroll it.

In some places, the film’s title was announced as The Adventures of Luke Starkiller or The Adventures of the Starkiller. For most of its production, it was referred to as The Star Wars.

Losing the definite article (“the”) improved the title considerably, giving it a pleasing symmetry. It also made the title easier to turn into a memorable logo. (We discussed the contentious history of the famous Star Wars logo here.)  
The shortened title also echoes Star Trek, of course, and Taylor’s book points out that Lucas saw a lot of Star Trek, spoke a bout it a lot and even went to a Trek convention, where he got some idea of the power of fandom. 

Fox, however, was concerned about the name of the film. It cited market research which said the word “war” in a title would turn off women.

Lucas thought differently. “The title Star Wars was an insurance policy,” he said. “We calculated that there are something like eight million dollars’ worth of science fiction freaks in the USA and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars.”

Fox’s research was, of course, wrong. Star Wars was the perfect title. It was impossible to forget, especially when emblazoned on marquees the world over. 

A great title alone doesn’t guarantee huge success – otherwise The Driller Killer would be among the most successful films ever made. But the fact that the movie delivered on the promise of its name made it irresistible.

Who knows whether the film would have had the same impact if it had been called The Adventures of Luke Starkiller?

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