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Tom Brook Thursday, 13 May, 1999, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Star Wars reaches a new level - of marketing
star wars
Ewan McGregor plays a young Obi-Wan Kenobe in The Phantom Menace
By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

The release of the new Star Wars film is still more than three weeks away, but already I have had enough.

Star Wars
George Lucas is a brilliant filmmaker, and his long-awaited prequel may be awe-inspiring, but I feel we are being reduced to mere pawns in the marketing of a gigantic corporate product.

It reminds me of how I felt a year ago when Godzilla was being promoted as the mother of all monster movies - and we all know what a disappointment that was!

The hype surrounding American movie releases is becoming more intense.

With Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace it has reached a new level. I keep reading how this $115m epic could open to a record box office, grossing more than $100m in its first five days.

There is talk that it could do better than Titanic, which took in more than $600m in the US alone.

Jabba the Hutt
Jabba the Hutt makes a costly comeback
Although the American media has been passive, featuring endless cover stories on George Lucas, there is evidence of a backlash.

This week America's leading entertainment trade paper Variety wrote of the "Gentle George" that is promoted by the official Lucasfilm spin machine, and the "Jugular George" who seems to be a shrewd businessman cutting tough deals to maximise Star Wars profits.

The backlash has been prompted by unusually elaborate efforts to control every aspect of the film's release, in particular that cinemas exhibiting the picture must adhere to certain stipulations.

These include that the movie has a minimum run of eight to 12 weeks, that it must be shown on the largest screen in any multiplex, and that if a cinema agrees to show the film on two or three screens it must stay on those screens for the entire minimum run.

Wrongdoers face fines or may lose the right to show the film.

Cinema executives might not like these requirements, but they are so eager to book what is expected to be a huge cash cow they are not complaining.

Ewan McGregor with co-star Liam Neeson
Stringent rules are also being imposed beyond cinemas. Any retailer who tries to sell Star Wars toys before the 3 May deadline that Lucas has set will, if they are caught, find they lose their right to sell Star Wars merchandise forever.

It is all an effort to patrol a Star Wars retailing bonanza that is expected to bring in more than $1bn by the end of the year.

George Lucas gets to crack the whip, and rake in the profits, because he owns the rights.

He will get the bulk of the box office from the new film. It is estimated that Fox, the studio distributing it, will get only around 10% of the cinema revenues.

The rest will go to Lucas, who could earn over $400m - not counting the money from all the merchandising. Lucas already owns all the Star Wars rights which have generated more than $4bn over the years. These are gigantic sums going to just one entrepreneur.

It is hard to reconcile the image we have of George Lucas as an affable, visionary filmmaker with his aggressive business style.

There is always a tension between art and commerce, but with Star Wars, money seems to have the upper hand.

I hope I am wrong, and that when the film is released in the US on 19 May it is so wonderful I will forget I am consuming a corporate product, that the force will be with me and I remain transfixed in my seat for 130 minutes.

See also:

22 Feb 99 | Entertainment
15 Mar 99 | Entertainment
13 Apr 99 | Entertainment
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