Revisiting 'The Phantom Menace': Looking Back on the Long Road to 'Star Wars: Episode I'

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Waiting for the next movie to be released is a way of life for Star Wars fans -- but 16 years?!

The Phantom Menace did not appear out of nowhere, and its box office success was a surprise to no one. Packed with familiar stories and motifs, George Lucas ensured this Star Wars prequel would illuminate a thematic symphony across his six-part space opera. If anything about the film is shocking in hindsight, it's how fans and moviegoers' perceptions of Episode I have changed since its premiere on May 19, 1999.

The journey to Episode I was filled with moments that highlight the changing landscape of filmmaking, advances in computer technology and the rise of web-based relationships with fans -- as well as times when Lucas' original plans for the trilogy evolved on the page and behind-the-scenes. To celebrate the Star Wars milestone, ET has compiled a complete timeline of how The Phantom Menace was finally brought to light.

May 21, 1980: With The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas adds the "Episode V" modifier to the title. While developing the movie's script, he fleshed out the saga's backstory so as to incorporate the plot twist of Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker's father. Thus begins anticipation for a trio of prequel films that would explore the beginning of a mythology that had become a pop culture phenomenon.

May 25, 1983: Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi is released and the Skywalker saga begins its long cinematic slumber.

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January 9, 1987: Star Tours opens in Disneyland's Tomorrowland, becoming an instant success and an oasis of sorts for deprived Star Wars fans. On a recent episode of Podcast: The Ride, SNL's Kyle Mooney described the late '80s and early '90s as a "dark period for Star Wars" and commented how the motion simulator ride -- and Star Trader gift shop -- was one of the few places where people could immerse themselves in a galaxy far, far away.

November 1993: "It is definitely gonna happen. I've been saying this for a long time," Lucas tells Entertainment Tonight's Leonard Maltin during a tour of Skywalker Ranch about discussions of a prequel series. Lucas offers ET some hints as to what fans can expect. "There's some really interesting things about it," he said. "It's a little bit different. I used to say 'more soap opera-ish,' but I don't know if I'll say that now."

1994: Lucas officially begins writing Episode I, what he often refers to as the first act of a six-part movie.

February 1995: As head of Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas had witnessed the evolution of the technology that would be at his disposal for the upcoming prequels. The filmmaker explains to ET what advantages he will have this time. "I've waited this long because before I couldn't have Yoda walk," Lucas explains. "But now I can have him walk."

"The droids can do things they could never do before, and I have all kinds of aliens," he says. "I'm sort of unlimited in my ability to maneuver around in the environment, and that makes writing a lot more fun."

Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

January 1997: Star Wars returns to theaters for A New Hope's 20th anniversary as "Special Edition" versions of the original trilogy -- featuring previously deleted scenes and the addition of hundreds of CGI elements, ranging from improving upon previous special effects to manipulating the movements of actors on-screen -- are released on the big screen.

"I'm going to direct the first one and then other directors will direct the other two. Hopefully, they will come out in 2001 and 2003," Lucas tells Maltin of Episode 1. Who was in consideration to direct the sequel? We don't know about the latter films referenced here, but Ron Howard revealed on the podcast Happy Sad Confused that -- along with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis -- he had been approached by Lucas to direct The Phantom Menace.

June 2, 1997: In a then-groundbreaking move for the pre-social media era, the cast for Episode I is announced not in the trades or during a press event, but on The website had been created the previous fall, and it would help define a new generation of fandom.

June 26, 1997: Principal photography officially begins on Episode I of the Skywalker saga. The first scene shot is the walk-and-talk between Darth Sidious (played by Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) on a blue-screen set.

Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Summer 1997: While in Tunisia, the production is hit by a storm that destroyed nearly all of the Tatooine exterior sets and buried 1,400 costumes in the sand. Despite the damage sustained from 100 mph winds, Lucas was able to continue filming scenes elsewhere while sets were rebuilt. Ultimately, the crew didn't end up losing a single day of their already tight shooting schedule.

April 3, 1998: 20th Century Fox secures a deal with Lucasfilm to distribute all three prequels films, just as it had for the original trilogy. The absence of Fox's logo at the start of the subsequent Star Wars films released by Disney was considered jarring by many longtime fans. (With the studio's recent acquisition, I wouldn't be surprised if the Fox searchlights found their way to the opening of Episode IX for nostalgia's sake.)

June 22, 1998: begin releasing video production diaries from the set. Named for Lynne Hale, a now 30-year veteran of Lucasfilm's publicity department, "Lynne's Diaries" highlight various behind-the-scenes going ons of the movie. The best part is you can still check them out on the website!

September 25, 1998: announces the movie's full title: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.

Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

November 10, 1998: The teaser poster is unveiled, providing the first look of Jake Lloyd as 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker. The minimalist design features Darth Vader as a literal foreshadow.

November 17, 1998: For the release of Episode I's first trailer, posts a list of theaters across the country that will hold special screenings of the preview before its online debut. The trailer itself gives away a lot, including the moment Anakin and Obi-Wan first meet, new Yoda musings and Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber.

February 10, 1999: Composer John Williams begins recording the film's score in London. One inarguable triumph of Episode I is "Duel of the Fates," a high-energy track with a chilling, almost religious tone that accompanies the climactic lightsaber battle. Williams' music, meanwhile, has become as tied to the franchise as the Death Star or Yoda's speech syntax.

March 11, 1999: The release of a second trailer sets an Internet record, with the Quicktime-only video being downloaded 3.5 million times in the five days after it debuted.

April 20, 1999: "Weird Al" Yankovic records "The Saga Begins," a rundown of Episode I's plot parodying Don McLean's "American Pie." Considering the song was written two months before the The Phantom Menace would premiere, it's crazy how many plot details the singer was able to acquire.

May 3, 1999: Star Wars had already generated $4 billion from licensed products, so it's hardly surprising that there is an avalanche of new toys and merchandise being offered for Phantom Menace, officially released at midnight on this date. A $2.5 billion marketing deal with Pepsi is also signed, as well as a $500 million deal with Hasbro toys and a $50 million deal with Lego.

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In recent years, the Internet has become obsessed with photos taken of Leonardo DiCaprio by all appearances purchasing a large amount of Episode I toys at Target in the middle of the night. Later that year, he would reportedly be on the shortlist of actors being considered for teenage Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III, along with James Van Der Beek and Ricky Schroeder.

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May 6, 1999: As cast members set out on the press tour, they can't contain their excitement over being part of the beloved franchise as they discuss working on a blue screen-heavy set and what it's like to hold a friggin' lightsaber. It was also the first time we would be introduced to a very special entry in Samuel L. Jackson’s legendary Kangol collection.

Photo by Ke.Mazur/WireImage

May 16, 1999: Episode I has its red carpet premiere the Avco Theater in Westwood, California. The event doubles as a charity benefit that ended up raising $250,000 for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Lucasfilm also held screenings for the Boys and Girls Club and other charitable organizations across the country.

May 19, 1999: The first Star Wars feature film in 16 years is released to the public. Hundreds of think pieces and video essays later, everyone can (mostly) agree that each of the prequels accomplished what Lucas set out to do, to complete a story that had been missing its first half, while simultaneously introducing themes that would resonate and reflect each other across all six films. The Phantom Menace also set up what is perhaps the Skywalker saga's most frequent theme: R2-D2 ends up saving the day.

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February 12, 2012: The Phantom Menace returns to theaters after undergoing a 3-D conversion. While there had been plans to do this for each of the prequels, Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and Kathleen Kennedy becoming president later that year shifted the future of Star Wars toward a new trilogy -- and so much more.

April 15, 2019: To commemorate the film's 20th anniversary, host Warwick Davis (who appeared in a number of roles in The Phantom Menace) and cast members Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Ian McDiarmid (Sheev Palpatine) and Ray Park (Darth Maul) take the stage at Star Wars Celebration to reflect on the movie and share behind-the-scenes secrets.

"It’s one of my favorite movies and, of course, Jar Jar is my favorite character. Ahmed, he did a fantastic job. It was very very hard,” Lucas said in a video greeting. "The fans are always such a big part of these films and, obviously, those of you who are here are the fans of Episode I and I love each and every one of you."