May The Fourth Be With You! – Entrepreneurial Lessons Behind Star Wars (That You’d Probably Want To Rip Off!)

As the geekier and likely less-socially adept of you will know, May the Fourth is Star Wars day. Others may opt to celebrate on May 25, the release date for almost all Star Wars films since 1977. Those people are deluded. May 25 is Geek Pride Day, and nothing else.

Thir Alec Guinneth holding a crumpet. You know what a crumpet is, right? Neither do I.

In any case, the subtle Britishism in the phrase stems from its first recorded appearance, not in the US, but in Britain in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the May 4, 1979 Prime Ministerial election. Her party took out an ad in the London Evening Times, riffing on the barely two-year old pop culture phenomenon: “May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie. Congratulations.”

Depicted: The 70s.

While Star Wars fans here and there have celebrated May the Fourth since then, it’s only gained attention these past few years, with the first organized May the Fourth celebration held just last year, at the Toronto Underground Cinema.

Star Wars: How Everything Old Became New Again

George Lucas, the man responsible for the sheer awesomeness of the Original Trilogy, as well as atrocities like Jar Jar Binks is probably not the first person you’d think of as an entrepreneur. But the story of how he turned his homage (or rip-off) of 1930s sci-fi adventure serials into a multi-billion dollar brand and into a decades-long trend in action-adventure movies is something you owe to yourself to learn about.

Look familiar?

Now, not to rag on George or his undeniable contributions to cinema, he had very few good original ideas. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and most obviously Willow, are tributes to other works – Flash Gordon, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress, the original King Kong, The Hobbit – the list just goes on and on. He vastly improved on ideas that were forgotten or thought passé at the time.

But ask any Star Wars geek what their favorite Star Wars movie is, and 4 times out 5, they’d probably say The Empire Strikes Back – which he didn’t even direct. Fans will concede the first Lucas-directed Star Wars was- and is freakin’- awesome. But Lucas-directed prequels (and the reissues) inspire such bouts of rage and derision it makes you wonder how it’s possible to feel so passionately about a story you don’t even own, and aren’t even forced to follow.

Never Take Anything For Granted!

But still, it’s hard to argue with this kind of success. Episodes V, VII, I, II, and III all rank among the highest-grossing (technically) independent films of all time. I left out Episode IV: A New Hope, for a very important reason- it was produced by 20th Century Fox.

During contract negotiations with 20th Century Fox, George Lucas however, had a brilliant idea that went FAR beyond just making a movie – and was better than his actual movie-related ideas.

He worked out a deal with 20th Century Fox where he waived his cut as a director in exchange for licensing rights- for t-shirts, action figures –you name it. We all know what happened after:
Bill Paxton? Bill Pullman? Does it even matter?

Back then, NO ONE paid any attention to licensing. George Lucas ended up earning more money from merchandise related to his mythology than from his (extremely successful) movies.

In hindsight, Lucas’s true genius lay not in making films, but in two other areas- executing old ideas in new and exciting ways, and thinking well beyond his core product.

Steal From the Best… But Don’t Stop There!

Let’s use Facebook as an example. By no means was it the first online social network –Friendster and Myspace and a few others were ahead by a few years. At their core, Facebook, Myspace, and Friendster had similar features – a news feed, photo uploading, microblogging- all those features that we now take for granted. But Facebook was eventually able to take the lead in part because it offered superior execution of the same features everyone else had.

Friendster Logo

Ah, Friendster. Remember when it was fun? HA! Trick question. It was never fun.

At the same time, Facebook became a success because it was able to take social networking, and through third-party apps, use it to connect people in ways that escaped the competition- even if it all seems way too obvious now.

In the same way George Lucas didn’t come up with anything particularly novel (you know what I mean. Quit playing semantics) – the innovation lay in how he used existing ideas  in new ways and never took anything for granted.

To use another real world example- we humans put an man on the moon before we started putting wheels on our luggage. All the technology had been in place for DECADES, and no had thought of it until we’d already set foot on another world. Hard to imagine it took so long, but it took just one person with the idea and the backbone to make it happen.

Originality isn’t everything. Where’s Friendster now? If you suck at creating new ideas, it’s not the end of the world. Take this time to look at things around you, and see…really see what else they might be.

May the Fourth be With You… Always!



12 comments on “May The Fourth Be With You! – Entrepreneurial Lessons Behind Star Wars (That You’d Probably Want To Rip Off!)”

  1. Rebecca Caroe Reply

    Love this article, I’m chasing up all the May4th articles for a client (Global Culture NZ) who has done some funny t shirts. But what I like about your stuff is that it’s about lessons learnt, not just rehashing old memes.

    We’re a business development agency with an active blog. Let us know if you’d like a guest post from anything we write.

  2. Sian Phillips Reply

    Brilliant. Love it. And had no idea about Lucas waiving the fee for the merchandising – he really did know what he was doing. Thanks for sharing on

    • Arthur Reply

      Thanks Carolina! I didn’t know that. Where would we be without towels, eh? :)

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  5. Gary Bembridge Reply

    Great post, and very entertaining! I agree that one should not always confuse innovation with being 100% new – reinventing and looking for new angles is also as valid. And often be more successful, as the examples you gave of seeing a gap for license rights as an income stream. iPods were not the 1st MP3 players.. but we know how the reinvention of that linked to iTunes changed everything!

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