‘Star Wars’ by the numbers
Back in 1977, a young director released a fantasy movie set in space, starring a cast of largely unknown actors. None of them knew it at the time, but they had a bona fide hit on their hands. In the decades since, ‘Star Wars’ has become one of the most enduringly popular film series of all time.
These megahit blockbusters brought in mega cash, but they also cost a lot to create. To give you the full financial scoop, we’ll go behind the scenes to see just how much money the ‘Star Wars’ trilogies have been able to wring out of the galaxy. Read on, and may the finance be with you.
1. ‘Star Wars’ reached all-time highs
The heroic tales from a galaxy far, far away are some of the most popular and highest-grossing movies of all time. In fact, the Star Wars franchise is the second-highest-grossing film franchise of all time, with $9.3 billion brought in at the worldwide box office. It’s beaten only by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 23 movies put together. However, at a per-movie level, an average Star Wars movie still makes more than its comic book rival’s films.
Part of Star Wars’ success, and its enduring appeal, is creator George Lucas’ ability to weave samurai movies, Joseph Campbell’s study of mythology, and serialized B-movies into something at once familiar and totally unique.
NEXT: You won’t believe how much it cost to make the first Star Wars movie.
2. ‘A New Hope’
Originally released as Star Wars, and later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, this 1977 classic was made on a relatively low budget. Lucas made his original Star Wars movie with an original budget of $10 million, which expanded over the course of shooting to $11 million.
This movie introduced new stars Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill, alongside a cast of droids, Wookiees, and the iconic villain Darth Vader. Fisher plays Princess Leia, who has been kidnapped by the evil Vader. Hamill and Ford play Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, an unlikely pair who team up to rescue Leia and fight for the rebellion against Vader. The movie was a surprise hit, and eventually made $775 million at the box office, holding the title of highest-grossing film until E.T. in 1982.
NEXT: Despite his now-legendary performance, this actor might not have been cast at all.
3. How Harrison Ford became Han
When George Lucas was casting Star Wars, Harrison Ford wasn’t even on his audition list, in an official sense, that is. Lucas wanted to work with actors he hadn’t used before, so he asked Ford, who had played a small part in his previous film, American Graffiti, to come in and read with the new actors who were auditioning. Lucas ended up liking Ford’s style so much that he sent the other actors packing.
Now it’s impossible to imagine anyone else telling Leia, “I know,” and Ford went on to work with George Lucas again in the Indiana Jones movies. Though the star was paid just $10,000 for his work in A New Hope, Harrison Ford’s current net worth is estimated at $230 million.
NEXT: Star Wars launched more than a movie franchise.
4. Inside Industrial Light & Magic
The visual effects in Star Wars were groundbreaking at the time, and the film owes much of its success to the efforts of the team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Industrial Light & Magic is a special effects studio founded by George Lucas in 1975 specifically for the production of Star Wars.
Since then, ILM has created movie magic for countless blockbusters, including Jurassic Park, Transformers, and the Harry Potter series. Additionally, digital animation giant Pixar got its start as an experimental branch of ILM. From its beginnings as a scrappy bunch of special effects artists sometimes using wadded gum and tennis shoes to create props, ILM has grown to become a giant in the film industry.
NEXT: Between the first two Star Wars movies, there’s a dark secret George Lucas wishes we would all just forget.
5. The infamous holiday special
In between the release of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas struck up a deal with CBS to keep the galaxy hyped up for his next film. In those days, successful sequels were rare and there were concerns that audiences would lose their passion for the Force.
So, with a budget of $1 million and cameo appearances by the main human cast of Star Wars, the holiday special was created, spending two increasingly bizarre TV hours detailing Chewbacca’s attempts to get home to his family for a fictional holiday called “Life Day.” Although the special was a disaster and has never been re-aired or released on VHS or DVD, it is notable for one thing: the introduction of Boba Fett.
NEXT: You won’t believe how much an original Boba Fett action figure is worth today.
6. Boba’s bucks
This masked bounty hunter made quite a stir when he first appeared in the Star Wars universe. Though the character was introduced without a personal history, fans of the franchise seized on him as an opportunity to use their imaginations and create their own version of the Mandalorian’s lore.
Kenner, the toy company that managed to snatch up the lucrative Star Wars license, originally manufactured a Boba Fett action figure complete with a rocket launcher on his back. When the rocket launcher was deemed a choking hazard, the toy was recalled. There are only 30 such Boba Fett action figures in existence. One sold at auction in 2018 for $112,926.
NEXT: Three years later, the second Star Wars film was released, but not without controversy.
7. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was made on a ballooning budget that eventually reached $33 million (but more on that later). Picking up several years after the first film, in Empire, the Rebel forces continue their fight against the Empire and Luke begins his training as a Jedi.
The movie made $538.4 million at the box office, but it didn’t necessarily make all the fans happy. Similar to the controversy surrounding 2017’s The Last Jedi, fans were very unhappy with the new move. In fact, they wrote dozens of angry letters to science fiction magazines complaining about the movie’s plot, especially the reveal of the relationship between Luke and Vader (spoiler alert: Luke definitely has daddy issues).
NEXT: Despite raising the ire of certain fans, Empire introduced an unforgettable character.
8. Yoda cost a lot of green
He’s hundreds of years old, he’s green, and he lives in a swamp. The tiny Jedi master with a syntax all his own is an absolutely iconic character. However, making Yoda come to life was an arduous and costly process.
Four different Yodas were built for Empire. One was a puppet molded to fit puppeteer Frank Oz’s hand to perfection. Two radio-controlled Yodas were built for long shots, and finally, a Yoda suit was made to fit actor Deep Roy. On the muddy set, the Yodas got dirtier and dirtier, and careful viewers will probably be able to tell which scenes were shot first based on how dirty Yoda appears. Partly due to the extra work of creating Yoda, the film’s budget expanded from the initial $18 million to $33 million. Now that’s a lot of green.
NEXT: Drain Lucasfilm’s finances long Yoda wouldn’t.
9. Baby Yoda is a cash cow
It’s no secret that toys and merchandise net Star Wars a ton of extra cash on top of box office sales. Great characters like Yoda make the task of selling toys even easier. Who wouldn’t want a little Yoda to call their own?
In 2019, this still holds true. A baby Yoda in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian has audiences cooing at their screens, desperate to hold and protect the little green infant. It’s reported that even serious German director/Mandalorian actor Werner Herzog has caught Baby Yoda fever. However, by failing to have Baby Yoda toys ready in time for Christmas, some analysts say Disney may be missing out on $2.7 million in profits.
NEXT: With our heroes in danger and some fans feeling mutinous, how would Lucas end his trilogy?
10. ‘Return of the Jedi’
In 1983, it seemed that the Star Wars saga was ending. The third film of the trilogy, Return of the Jedi, saw Luke coming to terms with his place in the Force, Han and Leia being rescued from certain doom, and the defeat of the Empire.
Depending on sources, this movie was made on a budget somewhere between $32.5 million and $42.7 million. Box office reports vary on this film as well, ranging from $475 million to $572 million. By all accounts, Return of the Jedi ended the series on a triumphant note and cemented the Star Wars trilogy’s place in the pop culture canon.
NEXT: Princess Leia’s racy costume sold for how much?!?
11. Leia’s bikini is worth its weight in gold
In Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia shed her long white robes for a gold bikini, cementing her royal status as a nerdy sex symbol. The outfit, which Carrie Fisher called, “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell,” fetched a pretty penny at auction, despite the star’s scorn.
In 2015, Leia’s gold bikini was sold at auction for $96,000. Though it appears to be made of metal, the outfit sold at this auction was actually crafted out of flexible dense-urethane rubber. There was another metal version of the bikini that Fisher wore in close-up shots. Neither version seems to have been pleasant to wear. At the same auction, a model prop of Leia’s blockade runner spacecraft sold for $450,000.
NEXT: Thinking of building your own Death Star? Here’s how much it would cost.
12. The real cost of a Death Star
Wishing you had a giant spacecraft capable of destroying whole planets? We hope you’ll stay away from the dark side, but, just in case, the folks at Centives crunched the numbers to see what it would really cost to build and operate a Death Star.
By their calculations, getting enough steel to build the first, smaller Death Star would cost $852,000,000,000,000,000 in 2012 dollars, about 13 times the world’s GDP at that time. And that’s just the cost of raw materials. Factor in labor, other parts, computer systems, and interiors, and you’re looking at a bill that’s out of this world.
NEXT: After a long absence, Star Wars hit theaters again with a vengeance.
13. 1997 theatrical rerelease
After the release of Return of the Jedi, things were pretty quiet on the Star Wars front. Two made-for-TV Ewok movies appeared in 1984 and 1985 respectively, but fans looking for a Star Wars fix had to turn to books, comics, and video games until 1997.
Twenty years after the release of the original Star Wars movie that started it all, Lucasfilm re-released all three Star Wars movies in theaters, giving a new generation of fans a chance to see the classic movies on the big screen. The rereleases proved that Star Wars movies could still get fans lining up around the block. By the end of the special editions’ run in theaters, they had generated $138.26 million.
NEXT: There was just one problem with the Star Wars special editions …
14. Special edition special effects add up
Thanks to advances in CGI and animatronics, George Lucas saw the Star Wars special editions as a chance to “improve” upon his original films while also hyping audiences up for a prequel trilogy. After seeing Industrial Light & Magic’s work in Jurassic Park, Lucas put the studio to work yet again adding new scenes and characters to the original trilogy.
Lucas reportedly spent a total of $15 million on the unpopular edits. Thanks to the changes, Han no longer shoots first, and don’t even get us started on the musical act at Jabba’s palace. Adding insult to injury, the original versions are no longer available outside of eBay.
NEXT: Up next, the most expensive and divisive Star Wars movie yet.
15. ‘The Phantom Menace’
In 1999, fans hungry for a new Star Wars flick finally got their wish. However, as if they had wished on a cursed monkey’s paw, this movie wasn’t exactly what they had been hoping for. The Phantom Menace tells the story of how a young Anakin Skywalker begins his journey to the dark side of the Force. The movie, unfortunately, drags at times due to its C-SPAN-in-space portrayal of a trade dispute on the planet Naboo.
With the biggest budget for a Star Wars film so far, The Phantom Menace cost $115 million to make. Despite mixed reviews, it brought in $1.027 billion at the box office.
NEXT: The Phantom Menace introduced the Star Wars franchise’s most-hated character.
16. Let’s talk about Jar Jar Binks
Whether you see him as a bumbling-yet-lovable sidekick or a buffoonish racist caricature, odds are you’ve got strong opinions about Jar Jar Binks. Intended to inject humor into the movie, Mr. Binks was also notably the first entirely computer-generated character in the Star Wars universe.
Actor Ahmed Best donned a rubber suit and headpiece on set, and digital animators fleshed out the rest of his character. Best told Rolling Stone that he had wanted to keep the Jar Jar head he wore during filming as a souvenir, but could not because — get this — Jar Jar’s placeholder head alone cost $100,000 to make.
NEXT: In the next movie, we learn that Anakin Skywalker was not a fan of sand.
17. ‘Attack of the Clones’
The 2002 film Attack of the Clones continues the prequel trilogy’s obsession with intergalactic politics. Against a backdrop of political intrigue, Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala begin their romance, and Obi-Wan Kenobi discovers a secret clone army. Also, Jar Jar is a senator for some reason?
Attack of the Clones was made with a budget of $120 million, and it made $649.4 million at the box office. Despite a superstar cast including Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson, critics panned the movie’s flat acting and stilted dialogue. However, critical disdain didn’t keep Star Wars fans from seeing it in theaters.
NEXT: This actor is one of the brightest stars in Star Wars history.
18. Samuel L. Jackson’s wish came true
Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as Jedi Council member Mace Windu is a bright spot in the prequel trilogy. Jackson’s charisma and personality manage to shine through a script that tends toward the dry side. And Mace Windu’s distinctive purple lightsaber was created at Jackson’s request.
Jackson wanted his lightsaber to stand out during battle scenes, so he asked for the unique color. According to CinemaBlend, he also had “BMF” inscribed in the handle, an acronym for Bad Mother, um, “Friend,” a reference to his Pulp Fiction character. Jackson is the world’s highest-grossing actor, with his films making a total of $16.7 billion at the box office. Yes, that includes Snakes on a Plane.
NEXT: In what would be George Lucas’ last Star Wars movie, the dark side wins.
19. ‘Revenge of the Sith’
George Lucas brought his prequel trilogy to a close in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. As the Clone Wars rage on, Anakin Skywalker embraces the dark side and, following a battle with his mentor Obi-Wan, he finally puts on his trademark black helmet. Twins Luke and Leia are born and hidden away from their father, and the stage is set for the events of the original trilogy.
Revenge of the Sith was made with a budget of $113 million, and it made $848.8 million at the box office. Revenge also enjoyed the best critical reception out of all the prequels.
NEXT: From Vader’s breathing to the zap of a blaster, one man made a big mark on Star Wars.
20. The sounds of ‘Star Wars’
There are certain sounds that practically scream Star Wars. From Chewbacca’s guttural howl to Darth Vader’s labored yoga-breathing, one man worked tirelessly to create the sounds of a galaxy far, far away. Ben Burtt was the sound designer on all of the Star Wars movies, and he’s responsible for the gentle buzzing of lightsabers and R2-D2’s whistles and chirps.
You can hear more of Burtt’s sound design work in Pixar’s WALL-E and the Indiana Jones movies. He even makes a brief cameo in Return of the Jedi as an Imperial officer. This behind-the-scenes genius has a net worth estimated around $1 million.
NEXT: George Lucas makes a big deal for big money.
21. Disney buys Lucasfilm
By 2012, Star Wars was in a holding pattern. Though two fairly successful television series about the Clone Wars gave dedicated fans some new material, many fans felt that Star Wars had a George Lucas problem. After Lucas’ debatable “improvements” to the original trilogy and his oddly dry vision of the prequel trilogy, fans felt distrustful of the creator.
Lucas also seemed to feel it was time to give new creators a shot at bringing balance to the Force. In 2012, he sold Lucasfilm, including Industrial Light & Magic and the Star Wars franchise, to Disney in a $4 billion deal. Thanks to a new trilogy, Disney was able to recoup its investment in Lucasfilm by 2018.
NEXT: A new trilogy promises a return to glory for the fantasy franchise.
22. ‘The Force Awakens’
With director J.J. Abrams at the helm, 2015’s The Force Awakens signified a return to form for the Star Wars franchise. Ditching parliamentary proceedings for swashbuckling space action, The Force Awakens introduces Resistance pilot Poe, ex-Stormtrooper Finn, and desert-planet orphan Rey, as a series of adventures brings them together against a new oppressive regime.
The Force Awakens set a new Star Wars budget high, as it was made for $306 million. It was also the first Star Wars movie to be released in December. All the prior films came out during the summer months. It ultimately made $2.066 billion at the box office.
NEXT: The new cast of Star Wars is a hit!
23. Spotlight on the new cast
Hearkening back to the casting strategy employed in the original trilogy, The Force Awakens cast relatively unknown actors to play alongside Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. According to Business Insider, newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega each earned between $100,000 and $300,000 for their work on the movie. More established actors Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac were paid in the upper six figures.
Speaking of Oscar Isaac, in an earlier version of the script, his character was meant to die early on in the film. Thanks to Isaac’s delightful performance as Poe, the role was expanded to span the whole new trilogy.
NEXT: The human cast weren’t the only newcomers turning heads.
24. BB-8 rolls into our hearts
BB-8 is officially the cutest droid in the universe. There, we said it. Designed to roll and glide through scenes more easily than its clunky-yet-spunky predecessor R2-D2, BB-8 started as a sketch on a napkin drawn by director J.J. Abrams. Abrams also wrote English dialogue for the droid into his script, which was converted into synthesizer sounds with help from SNL alum Bill Hader.
The new droid was one of the top-selling toys based around The Last Jedi, and it’s easy to see why. In 2015, Star Wars toy sales totaled $700 million, with the Sphero remote-controlled BB-8 leading the pack.
NEXT: J.J. Abrams passes the torch to a new director, and new Star Wars controversies unfold.
25. ‘The Last Jedi’
The Last Jedi saw the return of Luke Skywalker, the start of Rey’s training in the Force, and Poe butting heads with a female starship commander. Directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi gallops through the galaxy, but it ultimately leaves our heroes in big trouble.
Some fans criticized this movie for its emphasis on strong female characters and diverse casting, while others loved seeing wider representation from the space fantasy epic. Though a small, radical group called for a boycott of the movie, fan debate didn’t hurt The Last Jedi at the box office. It was made on a $317 million budget and it made $1.333 billion.
NEXT: The Last Jedi sadly contains another “last.”
26. Saying goodbye to Carrie Fisher
In late 2016, actress Carrie Fisher died of a heart attack. She was 60 years old, with a net worth estimated at $25 million. She is survived by a daughter, Billie Lourd, and her beloved dog Gary Fisher, both of whom appear in The Last Jedi, Fisher’s final film (Gary plays an alien, while Billie Lourd plays a member of the Resistance).
More than just an actress, Carrie Fisher was also a great writer and often worked behind the scenes as a Hollywood script doctor. She worked with Rian Johnson on the script for The Last Jedi, writing memorable scenes between Luke and Leia and Leia and Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern. As Princess Leia, Fisher was beloved by audiences and her costars. We’re certain that the Force will always be with her.
NEXT: What’s a new Star Wars movie without a new adorable toy?
The Last Jedi introduces some of the cutest Star Wars creatures yet: the porgs. Porgs look like a cross between a Pokémon and a really cute owl, but they have roots in the real world. The Irish location where many of the Luke and Rey scenes were shot featured puffins. Director Rian Johnson took inspiration from the native birds, and the porg phenomenon was born.
Although Star Wars toy sales declined somewhat in 2017, plush porg toys led the pack in sales that year. With their big round eyes and huggable bodies, is it any wonder that kids had to have a porg? Fun fact: the word “porg” is actually never said in the movie.
NEXT: There’s one distinctive element of Star Wars that we haven’t talked about yet. Can you guess what it is?
28. The other sounds of ‘Star Wars’
Whether you’re humming the main Star Wars theme or Darth Vader’s “Imperial March,” the orchestral score in Star Wars has been a constant in all of the trilogy movies. Composer John Williams created original music for each of the Star Wars films, and has worked on music for Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and Jaws.
His big, booming orchestral sounds came in stark contrast to the synth-heavy sci-fi scores common at the time when A New Hope hit theaters, helping to set that movie apart from its contemporaries. He’s now one of the most respected composers in cinema and has a net worth estimated at $100 million.
NEXT: From Star Wars to streaming wars …
29. ‘Star Wars’ enters the streaming age
With the November 2019 release of Disney’s streaming service Disney+, Star Wars officially entered the streaming age. Disney launched their streaming platform with all the Star Wars movies, TV shows, and even a documentary at the ready. They also added a new series, The Mandalorian, focusing on a Boba Fett-like bounty hunter and a baby Yoda.
After its first day, Disney+ boasted 10 million new signups to its service at $7.99 a month. By mid-December, the Disney+ app had been downloaded 22 million times. Star Wars can’t take all the credit for the streaming platform’s instant success, but having the Force on their side certainly didn’t hurt Disney.
NEXT: A look at the next Star Wars movie and the end of the new trilogy.
30. ‘The Rise of Skywalker’
Released on December 20, 2019, The Rise of Skywalker promises more space adventures with Rey, Finn, Poe, and friends. Based on the trailer, we’re in store for an ultimate battle between good and evil.
The Rise of Skywalker has also managed to keep its budget numbers under wraps, though we would be surprised if it was made for less than $300 million. As for the hottest toy to emerge from this trilogy’s grand finale, that’s anyone’s guess. If we had to bet, we’d put our money on the new droid, D-O. See you in the theaters, and may the Force be with you.