- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

The marketing force is certainly with George Lucas. The “Star Wars” creator has spun his sci-fi franchise into just about every possible product tie — including the upcoming Darth Tater, an offshoot of the Mr. Potato Head product line.

Now, as his space opera draws to a close with “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” (opening Thursday), Mr. Lucas is pulling out all the stops.

And his beloved franchise is taking a hit in the process.

The last “Star Wars” is a big improvement over its first two prequels — “Episode I — The Phantom Menace” and “Episode II — Attack of the Clones” — but the franchise’s bright aura might not withstand the sight of Chewbacca pitching wireless phones or Yoda shilling for Diet Pepsi.

Yes, Mr. Lucas licensed his favorite characters for a variety of product sales just in time for “Sith.”

We’ve got nothing against marketing tie-ins. For many features, it’s an effective way to spread the word about a new film while providing a financial safety net against soft box office tallies.

Moreover, we’d rather see images of Obi-Wan Kenobi at the local hamburger joint instead of, say, that spooky stationary burger monarch figurine or the smiling red and yellow clown.

“Sith,” which marks the end of a 30-year cinematic era, is primed for success (and unfortunately kitschy marketing ploys). There’s the sentimentality factor. There’s the built-in audience, something we won’t likely see again in the near future. Even casual fans who lost faith in Mr. Lucas will simply have to see the first time Darth Vader dons his gleaming black helmet.

But will the indelible images from the film come from the silver screen, or via some annoying commercial?

Let’s face it. It’s hard to keep Darth Vader’s evils in mind when we see a yellow M&M; dressed in that trademark cowl and multilevel mask.

It didn’t have to be this way.

A long, long time ago, a young filmmaker rolled the dice and kept complete control of a budding film franchise.

Talk about a gamble paying off. The “Star Wars” films have generated nearly $3.5 billion in global box office receipts, not to mention another $9 billion in retail sales, reports Reuters News Agency. And “Revenge of the Sith” alone should pad the coffers with another $1 billion-plus, estimates Business Week magazine.

The opening of a Lucas film (beginning with “Star Wars” in 1977) isn’t merely a premiere, but a major event, the kind that generates magazine covers — from TV Guide to Time — and “60 Minutes” profiles.

That, apparently, isn’t enough. Despite past successes, Mr. Lucas and his cohorts are behaving as though no one knows his little independent film is coming out next week.

Perhaps the hype won’t hurt.

Andrew Greenberg, CEO of the San Francisco-based Greenberg Brand Strategy and Greenberg Studios, contends Mr. Lucas remains keenly aware of his fan base and wouldn’t chase fans away by oversaturating the market.

“Too much only means people who ordinarily would go won’t go because of the hype,” says Mr. Greenberg, adding that won’t happen with “Sith.”

Mr. Greenberg, who has assisted Mr. Lucas in forming focus groups to help build interest not only in “Sith” but in the previous prequels, says “you can’t just assume your core target is gonna make up all the difference [at the box office].”

These days, film studios need more to attract as many ticket buyers as possible.

A successful “Sith,” in the eyes of critics and fans alike, could position Mr. Lucas to turn his creative sights toward new directions. The embattled filmmaker, hammered for his first two soulless prequels and the hated Jar Jar Binks character, could use the “Sith” momentum to jump-start a second chapter in his career.

For years, Mr. Lucas himself has expressed his longing to make smaller, more artsy films.

We’re still waiting, George.

However, given his need for attention — something hammered home over the last two-plus decades — it’s unlikely he can resist the marketing siren song.

How inspiring it might have been if Mr. Lucas used his enormous wealth to create films outside the studio system, letting himself and his fellow artists operate free from box office worries. Imagine the outcome, a legacy that quite possibly could have been as stellar as his massive space sagas.

It still could happen, but doesn’t appear likely.

Like his pal Steven Spielberg, Mr. Lucas isn’t your average filmmaker. He’s an icon whose fan devotion is considerable. I remember talking to a die-hard “Star Wars” fan after the muddled “Phantom Menace” first came out. He didn’t dare find fault with the film.

Whatever George wants is how it should be, he told me with a glazed look, as if Mr. Lucas had used the Force’s mind-bending tricks on him.

As the wise Yoda might say, with great power comes great responsibility. Mr. Lucas’ first three films revolutionized the industry and inspired countless children to think about having a film career of their own — or at least, in some cases, consider reviewing movies one day.

Today’s youngsters could find similar inspiration in “Sith.” But when Johnny or Susie sees the commercial onslaught accompanying the film, he or she may wonder if that’s a necessary part of the journey.

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