For younger, modern-day Star Wars fans, it may be difficult to imagine what it was like to live in a time without new Star Wars content. However, aside from a few silly Ewoks TV specials and extended universe novels, there was about a 15-year span without any Star Wars.
After wrapping Return of the Jedi, Lucas knew he wanted to make the prequel trilogy, but his plans for the films were far broader in scope than the original films and would thus require technology that didn’t exist yet, thus leading to a multi-year hype from rabid fans waiting for new Star Wars.
Lucas also saw the prequels as a storytelling necessity, according to an interview with StarWars.com:
"Over the 10 years after Return of the Jedi, I realized people misunderstood a lot — such as where Anakin came from. So it was a way of finishing the whole thing off."
While rumors of an additional trilogy existed in the fandom for years, the world was still surprised when the prequel trilogy, focused on a young Darth Vader, was announced. The rumor mill was so intense that even Ahmed Best wasn’t sure the film was real until he was officially cast.
Even in the pre-Disney era, Lucasfilm had a stronghold on marketing and hype, releasing sneak previews and trailers on films like The Waterboy that led diehard fans to buy tickets to watch the trailers and leave before the film started.
While the internet existed, it was still in its infancy. It was difficult to post videos (i.e. Star Wars trailers) online and stream them efficiently like it would be on YouTube now, but fan forums and message boards thrived with conspiracy theories, leaks, and news about the film.
However, Star Wars.com posted the trailer on its website available for direct download, leading to one of the first en masse streaming moments of the internet age. According to Richard Trenholm in CNET, “the trailer was downloaded more than a million times” within 24 hours.
In short, after 15 years since saying goodbye to Luke, Leia, and Han, fans were more than ready to dive back into theaters. In addition to the news of the prequels, fans were hyped up with the re-release of the original trilogy.
In January, February, and March of 1997, the special editions of Episodes IV, V, and VI respectively were re-released in theatres to massive box office numbers, reinvigorating the original fans and finding new audiences, just two years shy of the release of The Phantom Menace on May 19, 1999.
While Episode I was met with very mixed reviews at the time (to say the least), it was a massive financial success. Though Lucas had worked within the studio system in the original trilogy, he financed the prequel trilogy entirely on his own (for better or worse), making The Phantom Menace the most successful independent film in history.
While the same subset of “not my childhood” fanboys bashed The Phantom Menace (and began a new toxic trend of using the internet to attack its actors), a new generation of fans discovered Star Wars for the first time.
According to an interview with StarWars.com, Lucas himself is the first to remind folks who the audience of Star Wars is:
"The films were designed for 12-year-olds. I said that right from the very, very beginning and the very first interviews I did for A New Hope. It’s just that they were so popular with everybody, that everybody forgot that.Then when I came back to do Phantom Menace, it was 20 years later. So if you were 10 years old when you saw A New Hope, you would be 30 years old when you saw Phantom Menace. So you weren’t a kid anymore.I think you were kind of embarrassed, and what you thought was a really fantastic movie for a 12-year-old wasn’t that great for a grownup. I think that was the main cause of the fall of Episodes I, II, and III. Believe me, it took a beating."
Truthfully enough, The Phantom Menace was a hit with its target audience, leading many of today’s millennial Star Wars fans to treasure Episode I as an underrated moment in the canon.
While it may have a mixed legacy within the larger fanbase, the overall success of the prequels led to projects like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and reinvigorated the franchise overall. Without the prequels, Disney likely never would have acquired Star Wars (for better or worse) and given fans all of the content that’s come since.
In many ways, Phantom Menace may have been the “new hope” Star Wars fans were looking for after all.
How do you think The Phantom Menace holds up today? Tell us in the comments below!