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The Lucas Money Machine

Eric J. Plosky

Star Wars hype continues to grow with each passing day.

Although tickets first go on sale tomorrow for “Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” Lucasfilm marketers have already been active for several months. Excitement about the film, the first of three planned prequels to the 1977 original, has risen to titanic proportions. “Menace” doesn’t even open for eight more days, but, as you read this, MIT students are already standing in line outside the Cheri --probably figuring out how to get their $10 Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul action figures to talk to one another. The movie isn’t just a movie -- it’s become a Cultural Event.

Action figures are only the first sign. George Lucas’s merchandising machine -- so eloquently described by Yogurt in Mel Brooks’s “Spaceballs” -- is in a league of its own as far as Hollywood is concerned. Each Jar Jar shoved from store shelf to shopping cart helps to redefine the entertainment industry’s standards; as obedient consumers, we recognize the market leader as a first-tier cultural influence, and we waste no time forming queues outside FAO Schwarz at midnight.

This is Star Wars we’re talking about, after all. The world of Luke Skywalker and company has been part of our own reality, in a strange way, for over twenty years. In much the same way as the trilogy took the motion-picture industry by storm, it has captured the popular imagination to an extent few really understand. Few, that is, except for industry analysts, studio executives and entertainment journalists, who confidently predict that the film will gross upwards of $400 million. It goes without saying, of course, that a $400 million estimate for any other film would get the estimator run out of Hollywood..

Whatever the eventual take, George Lucas will laugh all the way to the bank. Lucas masterminded every nook and cranny of the Star Wars empire, on celluloid and on balance sheets, and is perhaps the only person who truly knows what is going on, in every category. Hype-building? He tantalized millions of Web-watchers by strategically releasing QuickTime teasers; he titillated moviegoers with full-length motion-picture trailers. Media relations? He’s gotten the television news to “report” a new Star Wars story every night (on toy feeding frenzies, ticket buyers’ lines, and the assumed 2 million people who will call in sick the day “Menace” premiers). Distribution? He’s written up a long list of rules; only theaters that meet his stringent specs can even show the film, and anyone who doesn’t play ball is out. Quality control? No more than eight minutes of trailers before the movie itself, and then there are restrictions on ticket sales and marquee runs. Not to mention the fact that Lucas is reported to be noodling with the film’s final print up until the very minute the actual reels have to be sent to venues.

For all his careful preparations, for all his calculations, and even with all the hype that guarantees the film will be some flavor or other of blockbuster, Lucas may actually have reason to be a bit nervous. Early reviews of the film are tepid. Those who have seen “Menace” -- mostly industry types and those lucky enough to know someone with insider tickets to the preliminary screenings -- report that although the movie is quite entertaining and a special-effects spectacle, it doesn’t live up to the hype. What movie could? In the end, no matter how much of a Cultural Event it’s made out to be, the film is still just a film, capable (soon) of fitting quite nicely between “Ishtar” and “Howard the Duck” on the shelf at Tower Video.

A strategy that may yet backfire is aiming the movie squarely at children. Much more so even than “Return of the Jedi,” which introduced us to furry Ewoks obviously designed to inhabit toy-store shelves, “Menace,” by all early accounts, targets the pre-teen demographic. Reviewers (presumably post-teen) have already voiced displeasure at the storyline’s simplicity and with the two child-actors, Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman. Older, less Star Wars-happy audiences might be turned off entirely.

Plus, Lucas has two more prequels to worry about -- Episodes II and III, tentatively slated for 2002 and 2005. It is hardly conceivable that those films will have a comparable media buildup, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars “Menace” takes in. Much of the demand for Episode I is a result of the long, vacant stretch that’s elapsed since 1983’s “Jedi”; since then, apart from digitally spiffing up his first three films, Lucas has left audiences drooling for more. Many fans will be able -- or should be able -- to see “Menace” and then wait the three years until Episode II without snapping up every action figure in sight.

Still, Lucas knows this business well, and has probably accounted for everything I’ve mentioned. He created his own production company, Lucasfilm, precisely so he could micromanage everything from music to editing to distribution; he financed everything out of pocket and will reap nearly every cent of profit; he invented modern merchandising. Lukewarm reviews of “Jedi” and “The Empire Strikes Back” didn’t dampen audience enthusiasm or stop those films from raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, despite their orientation toward teens. Because of Lucas’s skill and cleverness, Star Wars is a Cultural Event in and of itself even without the recent hype.

Yes, I will see “Menace”; as a matter of fact, I’m looking forward to it quite a lot. If it’s great, I may even (gasp!) see it twice. But I’m not going to plunk down $200 to buy a miniature plastic doppelganger of every character. At least, not while I’ve still got my old, circa-1980 Imperial snowtrooper. (Hey, anyone know how much he’s worth?)