The History of Star Wars on Home Video

Posted on 5/4/2023

Happy Star Wars day! We're celebrating now, but the process of bringing one of the film industry's biggest success stories to homeowners' living rooms was not easy.

When Star Wars first debuted in theaters in 1977, no one imagined the level of impact it would have on cinema for generations to come. What started as a B-movie that 20th Century Fox only ran in select theaters became a sudden worldwide phenomenon, with the initial theater run grossing over $307 million. Star Wars remained in theaters for over a year, where it became one of the highest-grossing motion pictures in history.

Unfortunately, Star Wars fans had few ways to relive the space-opera experience outside of the big screen. Although George Lucas licensed several Star Wars-branded products and merchandise, Fox was reluctant to release a home video version of the movie in fear that it would decrease soaring box-office profits. In addition, videocassettes were not popular in Hollywood — the industry feared an increase in piracy and felt that it threatened Laserdisc technology, which was popular among studios.

This meant that a home video Star Wars experience was extremely limited. Those who wanted to watch the movie at home only had three options: licensed 8-minute Super 8 film clips, 1-minute film clips from a Kenner toy or pirated versions of the film. Piracy was, of course, the most popular option. Despite Fox and Lucasfilm’s attempts to take down movie pirate operations, Star Wars was one of the most pirated movies in the world in 1982, earning itself the title of “home video’s biggest bootleg seller” by Video Magazine.

A Super 8 copy of Star Wars (left) and the front packaging of a Kenner Star Wars projector (right).

Indeed, Star Wars’ journey from the theater to home video was long and arduous, as explained by CGC Home Video™ Expert and Finalizer Paul Zamarelli. (Psst... CGC Home Video is launching soon!)

Part I: The Making of Star Wars (1977)

The first home video release in the Star Wars franchise was not Star Wars: A New Hope (as we’ve come to call it today). Despite the rampant piracy taking place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Fox still wasn’t ready to bring the hit film to the living room. Instead, to hold fans over, Fox partnered with Magnetic Video in 1977 and released The Making of Star Wars on videocassette in 1979.

The Making of Star Wars is a 45-minute documentary hosted by C-3PO and R2-D2, who use the time to take watchers through the Star Wars’ production process. The film also includes a treasure trove of clips from the original film. Although a fun piece, it did little to scratch the itch of fans longing for a full release of  Star Wars. It wouldn’t be until three years later that Star Wars finally saw a home video release… though not in the way anyone expected.

Part II: Home Video Rental Horror

The first release of Star Wars as a rental videocassette.

On June 1, 1982, Fox finally released Star Wars on videocassette — but there was a catch. The studio system had long been battling video stores over home video rental agreements, and they weren’t too thrilled with the idea of such a huge box-office hit being readily available before the video actually went for sale in stores. 

So, Fox came up with a solution — any video store who wanted a copy of Star Wars for their inventory had to pay a $75 license fee per cassette and agree to only rent the video for three months, with the video promptly returned after the time expired. According to a statement, Fox believed that many fans would only want to rent Star Wars; not purchase it. Demand was too high for Fox to just give dealers the chance to sell tapes, because they wouldn’t be able to keep up with supply.

Unfortunately, Fox’s plan backfired. As soon as Star Wars was released on videocassette in 1982, video rental stores began coming up with ways to circumvent Fox’s agreement. Many stores sold the videocassette regardless of the agreement plan, some even before its official launch date. Others told their customers they were putting down a greater deposit — usually north of $100 per cassette — for a supposed “lifetime rental.”

This caused chaos among Fox representatives and video store officials. Fox believed that the video store employees were breaking the law by breaching rental agreements. Unfortunately for them, stores that sold the video were protected by US law, which states that those who purchase a piece of media (which the video stores did, for $75 per the agreement) had the right to do whatever they wanted with it, except commit unlawful piracy. Fox ultimately was unable to pursue any legal action and resolved to simply wait until Star Wars went up for sale. 

Part III: Big Movie, Big Sales

An advertisement in Video Magazine advertising the home video release of Star Wars.

Star Wars finally released to the home market in 1982, a few months after Fox released the videocassettes to rental stores. The film community was hopeful that the Star Wars home video release would jumpstart the home video revolution, since only 5.7% of American households owned a VCR at the time of the video’s release. 

The American audience blew their expectations out of the water. Star Wars brought in over $1 million in advance orders, earning it a Golden Videocassette Award from the International Tape Association. Homeowners rushed out to buy VCRs just to watch the tape at home, and Star Wars entered Billboard’s Top 25 Rental Chart at #3.

Fox released several different variants of Star Wars from 1982 to 1995. The first release came in hard black clamshells with the movie’s artwork sealed under plastic sleeves. They released a second version months later in new packaging. This version sold a minimum of 50,000 units and earned at least $2 million in revenue. The following year, Fox released an altered cover with a CBS/Fox logo, to celebrate Fox’s partnership with CBS.

An advertisement for the 1987 Five Star Collection, which included the fifth release of Star Wars.

Several smaller variants were released up until 1997, when the movie re-released in theaters with new CGI effects and deleted scenes. Fox’s videocassette releases of Star Wars from that point on were this “Special Edition” version.

Get Ready to Submit Your Star Wars VHS!

The Force is with CGC Home Video, which is launching very soon! Get your VHS and Betamax cassettes ready, stay tuned to CGC's social media channels and follow @CGChomevideo!

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