May 1999.The epidemic has contaminated the entire U.S. before spreading to the rest of the planet. Nothing resists it. From executives to bleached skaters, from the media to toy stores to cereal boxes, the machine is in motion, slowly but surely gangrening the last hours of the 20th Century like an infectious virus. Itís interesting to look into the conquering strategy of George Lucas, to question the artistic ingeniousness of his approach.
20 years earlier Lucas delivered Star Wars, the first medieval intergalactic western that despite its limited special effects, left an indelible mark on the movie horizon by placing science fiction within everyoneís reach. Where Kubrick or Bradbury used the future in order to answer the questions that haunt modern man, Lucas offered a fairy tale where an advanced technology permitted him to satisfy his childhood dreams. The director was just a spoiled child with the power to project his dreams on the big screen.
Marketing & Merchandising was just beginning, not more than a handful of simplistic action figures accompanying the release of Star Wars.
On the other hand for the financing George Lucas succeeded with a masterstroke. The studios had little faith in the film, so he ceded the most of his salary against a percentage of ticket sales, rights for sequels, and the merchandising.
The release of The Empire Strikes Back re-launched the machine for a transitional episode. While Star Wars was just an entertaining, fun movie, this film had philosophical pretensions with a green midget with pointy ears. Lucas preached a two dimensional world: Good & Evil, symbolized by a white knight and a black night (just like the medieval films of the 1950ís). The second message claims that man can obtain what he wants by "force": stubbornness work. Lucas demystifies a demon: "Size does not matter", countering a certain green giant (not the jolly one) some 15 years later. The film is in itself long and boring and has no pretext other than to serve between Star Wars and the conclusion of the trilogy.
As for Marketing, we go from a minimum plan to a more developed one, the success of the first act gave rise to new expectations. Posters, previews, comics, t-shirts, spaceships and action figures (Just as in the original action figures the light saber was retractable from the hand; later on it became a separate accessory).
For the filmís financing Lucas, now the only owner on board, reinvested his earnings from Star Wars thus becoming his own independent producer.
The Return of the Jedi finishes the trilogy in a rout except at box office. The film that redefined the notion of emptiness only offered a chain of action scenes, selling off all expectations that had grown after its predecessors. The film marks the draining of Lucasí inspiration, as itís not much more that a big budget remake of Star Wars: desert scenes, spatial battles, and a final attack on the Death Star are all recurrent themes.
The film, on the other hand, was a phenomenal marketing success. Posters, baseball caps, bedspreads, mugs, and Chewbacca boxers all invaded store shelves. Lucas understood well that licensing is a profitable cash cow, costing him nothing, and shaped his film for children, the principal buyers of the derived products (since 1977, the trilogyís merchandise has generated a $4.5 billion in sales). He also owns about 15 million shares of Hasbro that gave him a $100 million advance for the figurines licensing. So out with the plot scenario and in with the adorable Ewoks, adding to them a restrained violence in contrast with the more "Western" aspect of the first one (cut hand, destruction of the planet, Han Solo the anti hero). The action figures took over childrenís bedrooms, the range expanding to any character with more than two minutes of screen time.
Lucas, immersed in the writing of Episode 1, re-sparked interest for the saga while preparing the terrain for The Phantom Menace. The few minutes added to the trilogy served only as a pretext for re-release while launching a phenomenon of expectation for his Phantom.
This also permits re-profiting from the merchandise, with new bigger, better action figures (Here we witness the height of realism: the light sabers that before were just a piece of plastic are from this day forward equipped with a translucent, colored tube representing the laser.
For the financing of the film, Lucas again reinvested his earnings from the preceding episode.
The first episode finally arrives. The sly strategy has many levels.
The man presents himself as the savior of cinema, putting his credibility up in big lights.
As a director: After years of absence, he returns as if to show that only a project of this caliber could rouse him from his sabbatical. Even so, Lucas is not Kubrick or Malick: he exists through his trilogy but not so much as a director.
As an independent: He poses as a hermit living away from Hollywood. As San Francisco is a 45 minute plane ride from Hollywood, heís right to an extent. Heís not a part of Hollywood, he is Hollywood. His trilogy invented the blockbuster and planetary marketing (I wonít say interplanetary). His participation in another famous trilogy, Indiana Jones places six of his films in the all time top 20 at the box office. His THX sound system has also become the standard at movie houses, while his ILM special effects company hosts filmakers such as Spielberg, Cameron, Howard. Next he poses as the man who brought the studios to their knees. True, a rarity in Hollywood, he is his own producer and distributor, but his methods are nothing for the "mean" studios to envy. A controlled blackmail limits the release of the film to movie houses that match certain standards of quality, meaning they must have THX sound. Smaller chains or independently owned theater are swept aside. Finally at the technical level, youíll be surprised to learn that the crew had to accept drastic pay cuts as well as 4 months of exile in the desert to work on the film.
As a creator: Lucas justifies his independence for artistic reasons. But it has to be asked, does he really risk having his films cut? Was there any shocking material? Unless Obe Wan opted for a very personal interpretation of a hermit master Jedi.
Previews: They benefited from media support almost comparable to the release of a film, and pushed hordes of geeks to pay $8 for one minute of scenes.
Toys: The release of the toys and the rest of the merchandising also had its own launch date: May 3rd at 12:01 AM. You could see a strange microcosm of young adults as well as the over-40 crowd in line in front of Toys R Us at such an early hour. The afternoon continued with shopping from store to store, each fan ready to complete his collection at any price (only coats in Wookie fur seem to be missing from the shelves). You could also witness surrealist scenes where business men discussed action figures with young adolescents in shorts. To give you an idea of the obsession, Iíll cite this overheard exchange: Young Dude (20): "I already have 15 of the new action figures, but Iím missing the laser gun thatís way cool." Business Man (45ans):"Best thing to do is go to KMart. Thereís more choice and itís cheaper." And the group of dudes rushes to their car to charge to KMart.
Media: From TV stations to magazines, this time thereís the considerable support of a new media :the Internet.
Limited Screenings: Equipped with a security worthy of a chief of state, the screenings have been limited and critics have been asked to keep silent until the release date. One notes that thatís the type of method used by the studios when they fear bad buzz. Given that Lucas, apart from Star Wars has generally collected negative criticism, it wonít escape anyone that The Phantom Menace looks like a compilation of the three preceding films (I mean the three future films, but you know what I mean), they themselves already compilations. This strategy seems fortuitous in limiting all the badmouthing before its release.
The Film: It is paradoxically the most and least important link in the chain. Itís important, but not like you think. It doesnít have, in effect, an existence outside the box office. The question is not "Is it good?", which doesnít matter since everyone will go see it, but will it beat Titanic? Itís also the least important link in the chain, since it doesnít serve as a pretext but to everything that has preceded it, but rather everything that it will surround it.
I leave you with this crucial question: Will The Phantom Menace sell enough action figures?