Final 'Star Wars' Caps Moneymaking Empire

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

If anyone ever doubted it, "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" proves that creator George Lucas is a Jedi master of merchandising.

As a moneymaking entertainment franchise, the "Star Wars" saga is a galaxy unto itself. When the sixth and final film, "Revenge of the Sith," opens on Thursday, it will be the capstone of a box office, DVD, video game and toy empire, responsible for nearly $20 billion in estimated revenue.

"Sith" breaks commercial ground for the movie series. This film has more promotional partners than any of the previous five films, according to Lucasfilm Ltd., Lucas's production company. And it marks the first time "Star Wars" characters have appeared outside the film environment, or its fictional equivalent, interacting with humans in commercials, the company said.

In a Cingular Wireless ad, Chewbacca the Wookiee is seen growling into a microphone in a recording studio, laying down ring tones for the company's cell phones, as Darth Vader and other characters impatiently wait their turns. In a Diet Pepsi commercial, Yoda sits at a lunch counter.

The pre-film hype raises questions: How much Darth is too much? And, as "Sith" is the first PG-13 "Star Wars" film (the others are PG), is the film appropriate for the children being targeted by the marketing?

Tie-ins to movies and television shows are not new. Twenty years before "Star Wars" debuted in 1977, little boys carried "Howdy Doody" lunchboxes. But "Star Wars" spawned a number of characters -- Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Darth Vader -- who would all become action figures. The Jedi Knight lightsabers were quickly turned into toys and widely marketed. The action sequences were tailor-made for video games. The landspeeder chariot race in 1999's "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" appeared to be lifted directly from a video game.

When "Howdy Doody" was on television, there were no VCRs, no DVDs, no video games, no Internet. The "Star Wars" series coincided with a technological explosion in distribution channels, allowing Lucasfilm to dice and chop the brand and sell and re-sell it over and over.

" 'Star Wars' originated this kind of commercialism," said Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston and author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood."

The five "Star Wars" films have grossed nearly $5.7 billion in worldwide box office sales, with toy and merchandise sales adding $9 billion more in revenue, according to Lucasfilm. The company does not break out VHS, DVD and video game sales, but Forbes magazine estimated those three categories have raked in an additional $4.3 billion. A "Star Wars" video game released last year pulled in $115 million in revenue in the first day, Lucasfilm said.

Now, "Sith" opens with Star Wars characters as familiar to consumers as corporate brand icons, such as Coke and Ford. Kellogg Co. is selling Star Wars Pop-Tarts, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Cheeze-It crackers and Fudge Shoppe cookies, among others. It is sticking "saberspoons" in cereal boxes: plastic spoons that light up.

"These promotions are very popular with consumers, and the excitement surrounding the films drives traffic to store shelves," said Jenny Enochson, Kellogg's senior director of marketing communications.

Darth Vader, the manifestation of evil in the films, is getting plenty of work in the "Sith" promotion, in a way that's oddly counter to his "don't-cross-me-or-I'll-telepathically-strangle-you" character. There he is, holding a huge bag of M&M's. There he is, trying to con someone out of a burger in a Burger King commercial. It's almost enough to make one feel sorry for the lord of the Dark Side, reduced to a heavy-breathing pitchman.

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