'Star Wars' Merchandise Still Sells After 30 Years

Star Wars hit the big screen a long time ago. The George Lucas film was a hit in theaters, but its real impact was on merchandizing.

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Thirty years ago today, an unforeseen force was unleashed on the American cinema. The first "Star Wars" movie broke box-office records and it created a frenzy for "Star Wars" inspired toys and merchandise. Something that changed the way Hollywood thinks about movies.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Every major studio in Hollywood had passed on the script when Twentieth Century Fox said yes. But no one there expected Star Wars to do well. Were they wrong. "Star Wars" was the second-highest grossing film of all time behind "Gone With The Wind," and the dough rolled in from more than theater tickets.

Mr. DALE POLLOCK (Author, "Skywalking"): No one anticipated the success of "Star Wars" merchandising.

SYDELL: Dale Pollock is the author of "Skywalking", the unauthorized biography of George Lucas.

Mr. POLLOCK: It wasn't just action figures and toy sets. It went into soundtrack albums. It was costumes. It was merchandise in more variety and volume than Hollywood had ever seen.

SYDELL: I am here at Toys R Us in San Rafael, California, and of course they have light sabers, Darth Vader's Sith star fighters.

Mr. POLLOCK: It was the groundbreaking film in getting that aisle space in Toys R Us, where you have a whole section now that's film tie-in, didn't exist before 1977.

SYDELL: In fact, the interest in "Star Wars" toys and memorabilia took toymakers by surprise that Christmas, recalls Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing.

Mr. HOWARD ROFFMAN (President, Lucas Licensing): So Kenner came up with this very novel idea of selling a box that had a certificate in it for the first 12 "Star Wars" action figures, and there were an awful lot of kids that year who got a box with a certificate.

SYDELL: Since 1977, "Star Wars" merchandise has done more than thirteen and a half billion dollars in retail sales. After the release of "Star Wars," studio executives were being courted, says David Weitzner, a Hollywood independent marketing consultant.

Mr. DAVID WEITZNER (Independent Marketing Consultant): Those people who would purchase licenses to create everything from lunch pails to lamps to sheets and bed clothing were calling the studios 24/7. We didn't have to go out begging. They were coming to us.

SYDELL: The success of the licensing business was a disappointing surprise to Twentieth Century Fox. The studio had given the licensing rights and therefore profits to George Lucas.

Mr. JACOB SARASOHN: Star Wars.

SYDELL: Jacob, a seven-year-old son of NPR editor Sarah Sarasohn, loves his Star Wars light saber. Just tell him to play "Star Wars" and he lets out an array of sound effects.

Mr. SARESSEN: We must get the Death Star ready before the Imperials destroy it.

SYDELL: Lucas understood his characters could live beyond the screen, says Weitzner.

Mr. WEITZNER: And allow us to not only experience the film, but to role-play, to be Luke Skywalker, to continue the fantasy.

SYDELL: The profits from the licensing fees from "Star Wars" helped Lucas finance a life away from Hollywood others could only dream about. His main production operation is at the 4,000-acre Skywalker Ranch just north of San Francisco.

Two years ago, he opened another huge facility in the city at The Presidio. That's where licensing chief Howard Roffman has his office. His shelves are filled with the collectible "Star Wars" action figures that helped revitalize the merchandising business after a lull in the 1980s.

Mr. ROFFMAN: I've seen it fall off a cliff and be proclaimed dead by all the retailers in the country. And I've seen it work its way back as that original "Star Wars" generation grew up and we started producing different products.

SYDELL: The last three Star Wars movies, starting in 1999, helped bring back old fans and get a new generation excited, says Roffman. Many other Hollywood movies try to capitalize on licensing, but Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, says Hollywood has also discovered not all successful films are made for merchandising.

Mr. MARTY BROCHSTEIN (Executive Editor, The Licensing Letter): For example, one of the biggest box office films of all time was "Titanic." There's just a certain amount of things you can do with "Titanic." After all, the ship does sink.

SYDELL: Brochstein says George Lucas has kept the "Star Wars" franchise alive with new movies and video games. But the independent-minded director has declared there will be no more "Star Wars" movies. So many wonder if the characters he created will remain popular outside the cinema. That might be a question for Yoda.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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