From Death Star to Disney, exploring the 'Star Wars' franchise (Q&A)
45 Minutes on IM: Chris Taylor, an editor at Mashable who has covered "Star Wars" since 1997, tells CNET all about his forthcoming book, "How Star Wars Conquered the Universe."
It's one of the biggest film franchises of all time. It's also one of the biggest merchandising franchises of all time. It's spawned dozens of novels, countless comic books, spoofs, video games, and even was responsible for the name of a controversial military defense system.
We're talking about "," of course, George Lucas' mammoth empire that started back in the early-1970s as a much, much smaller creation. But don't think that Lucas didn't have big ideas. From the earliest days of working on the script of his sci-fi space opera, the "American Graffiti" director had broad ambitions, beyond even just the nine films he hoped to make.
Yet all these years and billions of dollars later, no one has ever really told the complete story tying together how the "Star Wars" universe fits into popular culture, how it impacts the economy, and how it inspired so many fans to create their own fiction.
Until now, that is. Today, Basic Books announced that Chris Taylor, the deputy editor at Mashable, has agreed to write "How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The business and culture of a $4 billion franchise -- and where it's going next," an in-depth look at the culture and economics of the "Star Wars" ecosystem, from its earliest days to its future . It's expected to be published sometime in 2014, just when the whole world will be getting worked into a frenzy over the 2015 release of "Star Wars Episode VII."
Earlier this week, Taylor, whose "Star Wars" reporting goes back to 1997, sat down with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview about his project. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: The title of the book is "How Star Wars Conquered the Universe." What does that mean to you?
Chris Taylor: Like many things "Star Wars," it works on two levels -- one for casual fans, one for the uber-geeks. For the first group, it's a poetic way to answer the question, How did George Lucas do it? How did this movie take over our childhoods, create a franchise that sold for $4 billion, spawn the summer movie blockbuster and modern special effects, and transform merchandising? Or, the slight variation for parents: How come my kids know every "Star Wars" character's name without even seeing the movies? The uber-geeks will notice the reference to "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" -- a 1930s serial Lucas was consciously basing his science fantasy on.
A big part of your narrative riffs on a catchphrase from the 2012 presidential election, right?
Taylor: "Lucas didn't build that?" Well, obviously Lucas was the originator, and sweated blood over the original movie -- to the point where he said he'd never direct again. He retained unprecedented control over how his creations were marketed. But, a lot of people think he did it alone and that it sprung from his head fully formed. It didn't happen like that. There was a lot of early input on key decisions, such as how to include the concept of "the Force of Others," from his producer Gary Kurtz. And the first movie was a kind of perfect storm, where he was able to use the input and creativity of a whole generation of model makers who'd been ignored by Hollywood, a bunch of talented unknown actors who were able to tweak their lines, John Dykstra's camera, John Williams' music, Alan Ladd, his champion at the studio, and even Steven Spielberg, who introduced him to a lot of people. The list goes on and on.
Does the metaphor extend to the ecosystem as a whole?
Taylor: Absolutely. In 1978, you get the Expanded Universe, which starts with Alan Dean Foster's book "Splinter of the Mind's Eye" and is the first sign that other writers can take the bare bones of this myth, and create new tales. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan write the second film, and the ecosystem really takes off with Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy in 1991. After that, and picking up steam in the 2000s, there's this tremendous groundswell of writers creating content for what appears to be a bottomless pit of fandom. I like to think of Walt Disney and the hordes of animators who learned to draw like him, and outdid him quickly.
What's the book's main takeaway?
Taylor: Ultimately, it's about the astonishing power of creativity -- how if you think you have something, and hammer away at it, you can create an entire galaxy of characters and make billions, something that people will flock to and help you flesh out. I'd also want readers to think about the question of whether this can happen again in a culture as diverse as ours.
What was it about "Star Wars" that made this all possible?
Taylor: Maybe this was a perfect storm that could only have happened in 1977, when everyone was still capable of watching the same thing to the point where it is universally known. Also, in 1977 there was nothing like it, nothing that escapist and optimistic. Sci-Fi cinema was all post-apocalyptic melodrama with far cheesier acting and relatively poor effects. The subtext was always "we're doomed," but couldn't even sell that convincingly. Look at "Logan's Run," which was "we're all doomed," but we're going to be wearing silver jumpsuits.
Then all of a sudden there's this epic fairy tale that says, with the first words, this has nothing to do with us or our future. It's complete escapism, so relax. So it had carte blanche to be optimistic and naive, a huge relief in the post-Vietnam era.
Plus, "Star Wars" looked more realistic than anything, especially because of the whole "used future" concept. The spaceships were dirty, the bar at Mos Eisley looked like a real dive bar in the desert with aliens. You could totally picture yourself there. And then with "Empire Strikes Back" being even better than "Star Wars," especially with its dramatic reveal, we all knew this really was something special that would last. We had permission to get invested, because it seemed like this was just getting better and better.
There have been a million "Star Wars" books, but you had several big publishers interested in your project. Why is that? What unfilled niche does the book fill?
Taylor: Strangely, it seems there has never been a business/culture book on "Star Wars." There have been biographies of Lucas; there have been dozens of "making of" books, many more sumptuously illustrated encyclopedias, and hundreds of novels. But no one has taken a book-length view of the whole franchise from the outside and asked: How did this succeed? Where did it make its money? What was the cultural impact? What went wrong with the prequels, and how come they still minted money if they were so bad?
Do you think "Star Wars" will succeed under Disney?
Taylor: Like any other fan, I hope it will. And there's good reason to think so. Disney has proven itself to be a good steward of other people's brands. It bought ; it bought Marvel; it bought the Muppets. The first Marvel-Disney movie ("
Will there be a full-scale "Star Wars" land theme park?
Taylor: The success of Star Tours (both the old version and the new one) would certainly suggest that's possible. If there can be an entire Harry Potter theme park, there can be an entire "Star Wars" one. I can't wait to wander around the Death Star.
What can Disney learn from your book as they take over the "Star Wars" franchise?
Taylor: That story counts, first and foremost. If they have a great story and not a single frame of CGI in Episode VII, I don't think they'd get any complaints. With as the writer, I don't think they're going to have any trouble on the plot front.
How prominently do you think Disney's name will be on future "Star Wars" films? It might be weird to see the Magic Kingdom at the start of a "Star Wars" movie.
Taylor: It's going to be very, very weird to hear "When you wish upon a star" in place of the Fox fanfare in the new movies. But I think we'll get past that. We're big boys and girls.
How hard will it be for Lucas to let go?
Taylor: Lucas has said he'll be a "Yoda on the shoulder" of (new Lucasfilm boss) . It may come down to how much she can say "Thanks, George, but this is my show now." She strikes me as the kind of person who is fully able to do that, and I suspect that may be exactly why Lucas chose her.
Who is the reader of this book?
Taylor: Hopefully, just about anyone who has even the slightest interest in "Star Wars". But I like to think it'll appeal mostly to fans of Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics series -- the kind of readers who like narratives that uncover the surprising truth about an industry.
You're going to spend the year immersed in "Star Wars" culture. How hard is that going to be?
Taylor: I'm sure a lot of people reading this are going to be quite jealous of that part, but it's like anything else -- once it becomes work, it's different. I'm trying to read (and reread) my way through every "Star Wars" novel written, for example, and every comic book. It's probably not going to happen, but I've set that goal for myself. And I won't be able to fully relax into each book without thinking: How does this relate to the larger picture? What does this say about the franchise?
You probably can't avoid thinking that about every single "Star Wars" thing that pops up on your radar, which must happen nearly constantly?
Taylor: Four or five times a day, I find something "Star Wars"-related on Twitter and think "that absolutely has to go in the book!"
So the book will be 25,000 pages long?
Taylor: That would be nice. But at some point in the process, I'll have to switch to editor mode.
Most importantly, how disappointed are you that the U.S. government
Taylor: I am so happy that they said no in the way they did, displaying a lot of love for the series and for science in the process. Now, if they also refuse to build a Millennium Falcon, I'll be really bummed.
Note: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman and Chris Taylor went to graduate school together.