The Empire Strikes Back Created the Modern Film Franchise

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas effectively invented the modern blockbuster with their work on Jaws and Star Wars respectively, establishing a reliable template for box office titans for generations to come. A lot of modern Hollywood can trace its roots back to those two films, which left an indelible mark on the popular consciousness.

The legacy and impact of The Empire Strikes Back is often overlooked in these conversations. Not in terms of quality, of course. Although divisive at the time of release, The Empire Strikes Back is now considered the best film in the franchise. It ranks highest on Rotten Tomatoes and the IMDb 250. It is also the film in the original trilogy least impacted by Lucas’ subsequent alterations, suggesting that the director was highly satisfied with the result.

Before The Empire Strikes Back, sequels were largely seen by studios as cynical cash-ins. A successful film provided an exploitable property, and studios traditionally capitalized on this by driving up the profit margins by dramatically slashing the budget from one installment to the next.

Jaws produced three sequels, two of which are reviled enough to have landed on IMDb’s Bottom 100. The franchise’s box office history tells a story of diminishing returns, with Jaws IV: The Revenge earning less than one tenth of the original film. The Planet of the Apes franchise underwent a similar decline, shedding production value and creative talent as it burned through four sequels between 1970 and 1973, with box office returns shrinking from one film to the next.

The Empire Strikes Back flipped the playbook. Lucas had plans for a possible low-budget sequel if Star Wars were only a modest success, which would have adapted Alan Dean Foster novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. However, Lucas was emboldened by Star Wars’ box office success. He decided that the sequel would go bigger rather than smaller, offering a bigger investment for the potential of much greater payoff. The initial budget of The Empire Strikes Back was $18 million, an increase of more than 50 percent from the original Star Wars. By the time production was finished, The Empire Strikes Back cost a total of $33 million, triple the original’s $11 million budget.

That production value is obvious on screen. The Empire Strikes Back unfolds in a busier and more expansive universe than Star Wars. It features more alien worlds and exotic settings. The film’s relatively loose episodic structure – which is based on the movie serials that inspired Lucas to create the franchise – seems designed to showcase this increased sense of scale.

In the wake of The Empire Strikes Back, what was once a radical notion has become accepted wisdom. It is now expected that sequels will cost more to produce than the original film, with studios hoping that these sequels will also return a higher profit. Older franchises tended to be whittled away until there was nothing left, getting trapped in a cycle of reduced budgets and diminished returns. Modern franchises tend to implode when costs become too high to be sustainable, growing so large that they collapse under their own weight. This is a world where a film can earn $700 million and still be considered a failure.

The Empire Strikes Back also created the concept of a franchise stuck in the second act. Sequel hooks existed long before The Empire Strikes Back, but very few films were built upon the expectation of a sequel, actively seeding story points that would only ever pay off in a hypothetical follow-up. Star Wars was not designed to set up the reveal that Darth Vader was Luke’s father since Lucas came up with the idea relatively late in the process of writing The Empire Strikes Back. In contrast, The Empire Strikes Back is built on the promise of future developments – Han’s fate is left dangling, while Yoda and Obi-Wan cryptically allude to the possibility of another Jedi.

This sort of sequel seeding is expected in modern blockbusters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe owes a lot to The Empire Strikes Back, even beyond the sly in-joke of writing a dismemberment into every one of their Phase II films. Those films all tease the possibility of future developments, assuring the audience that there is more story to be told. This is even true in films that promise closure. Avengers: Endgame might bid farewell to a few established characters, but it also teases the setup of Thor: Love and Thunder, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and the series Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Marvel Studios is the most obvious beneficiary of this model of blockbuster storytelling, but it is a fact of life in modern blockbuster filmmaking. It is not uncommon for stalled franchise-launchers to spend as much time teasing future plans as telling their own story. Green Lantern bombed at the box office, meaning that audiences will never find out what Sinestro was going to do with that yellow ring. Even older franchises find themselves forced to adapt to the new model. Jurassic World included a sequence of Dr. Henry Wu stealing some embryos to set up vague and sinister developments for the sequel.

The original Star Wars seems almost quaint by the standards of modern franchise filmmaking. It is very linear and surprisingly self-contained. The Episode IV: A New Hope subtitle that defines it as the middle chapter of a larger story was only added in 1981, after the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars might have created the modern blockbuster film, but it was The Empire Strikes Back that birthed the modern cinematic franchise.

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a self-professed nerd living on the East Coast of Ireland. He runs his a blog (the m0vie blog), co-hosts two weekly film podcasts (The 250, Scannain) and has written books on The X-Files and the films of Christopher Nolan. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.

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    14 Comments

    1. JW Rinzler put out these amazing ‘Making Of’ books and one of the main reasons why the budgets ballooned was because of delays and production problems on set. Gary Kurtz the producer supposedly wasn’t being effective enough in bringing down costs (meeting schedules, preventing accidents and mishaps) and Irvin Kershner would go above and beyond by trying to get the best shots and best deliveries. I think that explains why The Empire Strikes Back still looks utterly amazing visually.

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dbbf96a9d814702c1454006db88512d52236b57d9d4e968e5d016540d1b2b4b7.jpg

      Meanwhile… Return of the Jedi looks… sorta cheap and rushed.They tried to cut costs too much, not hiring union crew, using lower quality Kodak film stock, had fewer sets, shot in a typical regular forest, and more.

      1. Man, those shots, makes me want to watch the movie right now. So good.

        1. Just looking at these two clips from Empire: https://youtu.be/fjWxTbVI0cw

          And Return of the Jedi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQB2NXfJev0

          It reeeeally shows the change in artistic approach. Empire is more intimate while ROTJ looks… dull :<

          1. Yep, “Return” is a much less ambitious film, I think – both narratively and aesthetically.

            1. Im sorry but you are all smoking crack. They are both beautiful. now shoosh.

      2. Yep, the budget on “Empire” was originally $18m, which was more than one-and-a-half times the budget of “Star Wars”, but it did balloon to $33m, which is three times that.

        Allegedly Lucas just couldn’t say “no.” And, in hindsight, that turns out to have been a good thing. It’s a strikingly beautiful film.

    2. The author conveniently forgets to mention the James Bond films. The first 11 of which had been released before Empire. And like the Star Wars films, the 007 films increased budgets and box office with each film. But why bother noting facts when your goal is revisionist history. And let’s not forget The Godfather Part II.

      1. Several things to note about this.

        The most obvious is that James Bond films were all relatively cheap by the standards of the films we’re discussing. “Dr. No” cost $1.1m in 1962, which adjusted for inflation was $2.25m in 1977 when “Star Wars” was released. Which is far less than the $11m budget of “Star Wars.” It would be cheaper than any of the low-rent sequels to existing franchises. In 1973, the budget for “Battle of the Planet of the Apes” was $1.7m as compared to (adjusted for inflation) the $1.65m budget of “Dr. No.”

        Similarly, there’s a question of whether the Bond films were traditionally “sequels.” The first few were at least adaptations of existing and popular books, out of order. By the time that “Empire” hit, the part of Bond had been played by three actors in the main series, and it’s questionable to what extent continuity existed – it was alluded to in elements like the Blofeld trilogy where Blofeld was played by three different actors (and Bond by two) or the teaser to “For Your Eyes Only.”

        It’s also notable that – adjusted for inflation – the box office returns for the Bond franchise don’t exponentially grow over time. Adjusted for inflation, Roger Moore’s films earned over a half a billion dollars less than Sean Connery’s, despite the fact that Moore produced one more film than Connery.

        With regard to “The Godfather, Part II”, again that was very much an exception rather than the rule and it’s notable that “The Godfather, Part 2” only earned $229m (adjusted for inflation) to $708m (adjusted for inflation) for “The Godfather.” While “Empire” earned less than “Star Wars”, it was a much shorter drop from $1.2bn (adj.) to $730m (adj.) Crucially, “Empire” was still the highest grossing film of its year, earning more than double its nearest contender – “9 to 5.” In comparison, “The Godfather, Part II” was only the sixth highest grossing film of the year, earning less than half the highest grossing film’s (“Blazing Saddles”) returns.

        These are interesting points, though. Thanks for bringing them up. They were worth raising. But they would have made the piece much more numbers-wonky.

        1. Wow! So much obfuscation here. First the Bond films are a franchise whether each film is a sequels to the prior film is irrelevant, so stop playing semantics games.

          And again you ignore facts. Yes Dr. No was produced for $1.1MM and earned $59MM. The second film From Russia with Love was produced for $2MM and earned $79MM. The third film Goldfinger was produced for $3MM and earned $125MM. The fourth film Thunderball was produced for $9MM and earned $141MM. Jumping ahead to 1977, The Spy Who Loved Me was produced for $14 and earned $185MM. The next film Moonraker, which came out a year before Empire, was produced for $31MM and earned $210MM. So your statement “that James Bond films were all relatively cheap by the standards of the films we’re discussing” is completely false as is the statement “the box office returns for the Bond franchise don’t exponentially grow over time”.

          Your article didn’t mention anything about box office, just production budgets so it is part of your obfuscation to bring it up now. In your article you state, “Before The Empire Strikes Back, sequels were largely seen by studios as cynical cash-ins. A successful film provided an exploitable property, and studios traditionally capitalized on this by driving up the profit margins by dramatically slashing the budget from one installment to the next…The Empire Strikes Back flipped the playbook.” That is just not true as shown with the Bond films. But not just the Bond films but the Godfather films too. The Godfather was produced for $6MM and Part II for $13MM, more than double the original. But you claim that the Godfather films “was very much an exception rather than the rule” So let’s look at the Rocky films. The first was produced for $1.1MM. Rocky II which was released a year before Empire had a budget of $7MM, more that 6 times the cost of the original. Or what about the Airport movies, Airport ’75 cost $3MM, Airport ’77 cost $6MM and Airport ’79 cost $14MM. Or how about Smoky and the Bandit which came out the same year as Star Wars and cost $4.3MM to make. It’s sequel Smoky and the Bandit II came out in 80, same year as Empire, cost $17MM, almost 4 times the cost of the original. So your statement that Empire “flipped the playbook” is just not true as is your entire premise that Empire created the modern franchise. The Star Wars films just followed at trend that had already started in Hollywood, they didn’t create it. That is a lie.

    3. Curios as to who didn’t actually know this? It’s been discussed and analyzed to death.

      1. I’m curious about your “curios”…

    4. That linked acriticalhit! article trying to demonstrate the parallels of Empire to TLJ fan reaction, calling it ‘divisive’ is trying waaaay too hard.

      The first quotation is just normal fan speculation. The second ‘too many questions’ has no equivalent to TLJ- TLJ did not leave too many questions- it abruptly ejected all of TFA’s questions and introduced no new questions of their own. I left the theatre thinking Space Stalin won and that maybe the franchise should jump ahead 50 years to wait for when Galactic Gorbachev attempts glasnost and they can try again because the realistically the Rebellion is finished for a good half century at least.

      And then Arlene and Bill’s and Keith’s questions are still more normal fan speculation, nothing divisive about that. And then the shipping speculation is just normal fan speculation too- none of this is Star Wars fans becoming disillusioned about the franchise. Anyone seen the newest Jeremy Jahns video on Star Wars and then compare it to when he was pulling out his Star Wars curtain at the beginning? Tragic, but true. None of these quotations so far support what happened to Star Wars fandom post-TLJ. They are all category errors.

      As for politics- the article didn’t demonstrate that the movie was particularly political, but only that one particular viewer was annoyed at tokenism. Very different from Occupy/PETA type rhetoric found in the film itself, which was just sound and fury, signifying nothing as they were not properly integrated with the rest of the story. (As a note, it could be done- if the main conflict was centred around fighting against the Industrial-Military Complex of the Star Wars galaxy. But they were just meaningless throw-away lines, which is more annoying than anything else.)

      And then the last one is just odd in trying to demonstrate that Empire was divisive. The Starlog writer outright says “Just about every other critic in the country has been telling you how good the picture is; they’ve been falling over themselves to tell you.”

      Check. And mate. That proves the very opposite of the article’s thesis. All they’ve found is one hard science fiction fan who medium enjoyed, not really, really enjoyed it. Whoopdee do.

    5. Nice read, but some ambiguous wording in paragraph 2 (“the director”) implies that Lucas directed ESB, which I know you know he didn’t 🙂

      1. Ha, thanks Bobby! Yep, in hindsight that phrasing was a little loose. My bad.

        As you inferred, I was referring to Lucas as somebody best known as a director (in the sense that he’s discussed with the other so-called “Movie Brats” – Coppola, Spielberg, DePalma, etc.) instead of the director of the film in question.

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