StarWars.com is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Saturday, and an oral history on the origins of the official Star Wars news and fan site basically shows how George Lucas was one of the first purveyors of official movie fan communities.
According to the oral history, Lucas really pushed to launch StarWars.com because he wanted to reach a global Star Wars audience using new media. We often attribute Space Jam as being the first official movie website in 1996 (technically, that honor likely goes to Stargate in 1994). However, right around when Space Jam launched its still-existing website, Lucasfilm created its own online community dedicated to the Star Wars franchise, while the company was promoting the Special Edition releases.
Keep in mind that this type of online marketing was unprecedented. Around the time, the internet was brand new and hardly any production companies were bothering to use it. You’ve Got Mail didn’t even exist yet.
“I just think that George was always three steps ahead of everybody. Whether it was the tech department, in education, or on the website. He believed in digital technology and knew it was the future,” Lynne Hale, director of publicity, said.
The website was an early adopter of many of the digital tactics studios use to promote their films nowadays, including behind-the-scenes vlogs, forums, character sheets, and site exclusives for fans. For example, while filming Episode II, Lucas hand-picked a series of exclusive on-set photos for StarWars.com to share online. According to content developer Pablo Hidalgo, that was all Lucas’ idea. The website’s writers were embarrassed to ask Lucas for even one photo, but Lucas got the ball rolling and ended up sending about 50 of them.
The website also basically broke the internet when they put the first Episode I teaser on StarWars.com in 1998, seven years before YouTube existed. The teaser release got more than 10-million downloads and shut down the website’s servers. They later followed with the full trailer, which required a partnership with Apple for use of QuickTime.
“In a conversation George and I had, we said, ‘What if we did something really weird, and that was to take our teaser trailer, and ultimately our regular trailer, and put them on our website?’” Jim Ward, senior VP of marketing, said.
Nowadays, StarWars.com is one of the top Star Wars communities, thanks in no small part to the series’ renaissance with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and a slew of other future Star Wars films. Along with sharing exclusives like Emilia Clarke joining the cast of the Han Solo spinoff film, it also has charming online quizzes that I can’t help but suck at.
It’s actually kind of amazing to hear just how much influence Lucas had in creating the website, which has inspired so many other studios to follow suit. We’ve got the acclaimed J.K. Rowling online community Pottermore (for fans of the books and movies), plus all the “viral marketing” that films like Kong: Skull Island and Suicide Squad have been doing. There’s a lot to give Lucas credit for in regards to modern science fiction, even with all of the things he’s sucked at, but it turns out we also owe him a lot for internet fandom too. Although, Space Jam’s website has way more jams.
Clarification: Quote was wrongly attributed to Lynne Hale, instead of Jim Ward. That has been corrected.