The Empire Strikes Again

May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The force, from a movie, is with us again. Phil Ponce begins with some background.

ACTOR: I can only protect you. I can’t fight a war for you.

PHIL PONCE: As you may have heard, it’s here.

ACTOR: Get to your ships.

PHIL PONCE: It’s the new “Star Wars” movie, the latest installment of the high-tech struggle between good and evil to control the galaxy. Today it finally opened. And how much hype has there been? Magazines from “Time” to “Vogue,” “Vanity Fair,” and even “popular mechanics” have touted the film. “Newsweek’s” cover even hyped the hype.

SPOKESMAN: In the thing what you’re doing is you’re doing this move –

PHIL PONCE: Much of the attention focuses on George Lucas, the movie’s creator, director, and marketer- in-chief. In the 1977 “Star Wars” classic, Lucas turned a generation of filmgoers into Luke Skywalker fans. In that morality tale, Skywalker leads a band of rebels against Darth Vader and the evil empire, an empire that aspires to control the galaxy.

The next two movies, released in the 1980′s– “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”– chronicle the ongoing struggle between good and evil. By the end of the trilogy, Darth Vader, who turns out to be Skywalker’s father, is redeemed. The new film, “The Phantom Menace,” is the start of another trilogy, but one which occurs before the original three movies, a so-called prequel.

It tells the early life of Darth Vader, before he crosses to what’s known as the dark side of the force. It’s been eagerly, almost breathlessly, anticipated by “Star Wars” buffs — and by corporate sponsors. One of Lucas’s biggest deals is with Tricon, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC.

Right after lunch.

Play defeat the dark side.

PHIL PONCE: Lucas’s corporate force also includes Pepsi, toy makers Hasbro and Lego, and Ballantine Books, the publisher of “Star Wars” novels. The merchandising deals are said to add up to over $3.5 billion — the cost of the film itself: $115 million. For toy stores, movie madness began two weeks ago, when “Star Wars” products went on sale. Jedi junkies waited up to six hours to get in.

MAN: I bought a little of everything. I bought the Queen towel. I bought Darth Maul boxer shorts. I bought as many action figures as I could carry.

MAN: I’ve been growing up with these movies since I was five years old. I mean, I heard about this, and I knew I had to be here. I’ll be in line for the movies. I was on lines for the special editions. I mean, it’s something you’ve got do.

PHIL PONCE: And for some fanatics, something you have to see. Some began lining up at the box office in mid-April. Many of the first showings began just after midnight this morning.

MAN: First of all, you don’t want anyone to tell you what happens, so you have to go so you have to go to the first show. I want to be the one to tell everyone what happens. I want to ruin it. Hey, give me that sandwich or I’m going to tell you what happens.

GROUP SHOUTING: May the force be with you!

PHIL PONCE: The movie opened in 3,000 theaters across the country, and millions of people are believed to have left the force today– the work force, that is– among the viewers, an estimated 2.2 million workers, who called in sick today.

JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco takes it from there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining me are Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Company, which tracks and analyzes box office film sales; and Elvis Mitchell, film critic for National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” and host of a pop culture interview show on Santa Monica public radio station KCRW. Paul Dergarabedian, the wires today are reporting that some companies just shut down so that their workers could just go to the film which they planned to do anyway. How do you explain this phenomenon?

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: I think just this has been a long time coming ever since the first film was released back in 1977. It just really caught on with audiences. And I think, you know, sort of there’s been this slow burn from then up and through all the various reissues of the film, of each of the sequels, and culminating now in this pre-quell. I’ve never seen a movie so anticipated as this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And why do you think it caught on so much? What is it you think people love about it?

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: Well, I think Lucas created a modern mythology. He created through the use of the most popular medium, which is film, a whole new way of storytelling and just created these characters that have sort of really captured the imagination of the American public. And I think that’s really evidenced by the amount of people who have lined up for this film today and will continue to through the weekend.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Elvis Mitchell, how do you explain the phenomenon?

ELVIS MITCHELL: I mean, there’s so many different ways to explain it. And one way was probably like the first real move away from Vietnam-era films. It was a real film about romance and mythology and it was a real smart sort of conglomeration of popular culture. He took comic books, he took the Bible, he took Joseph Campbell, he took old movies and sort of put them all together and created this template. And also, too, at this point science fiction replaced the western as the big action metaphor in movies. And it happened at a time when the baby boom generation and the kids were ready for it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Mitchell, is this film critic-proof? Will people go no matter what the critics say? I noticed that Janet Maslyn of the times wrote a very good review. She said it offers a happy surprise. It’s up to snuff, but you didn’t like it very much.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Well, no. It really doesn’t matter. It’s entirely critic-proof. It doesn’t matter if this movie is basically like an intergalactic version of C-Span. They’re talking about treaties for two hours. No. People will go. They want to see it because they want to be part of the phenomenon. There’s a thing we have now where people just want to see big hit movies and movies they anticipate to be big hit movies.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Paul Dergarabedian, do you agree this is a critic-proof movie.

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: I agree with Elvis on. That it’s definitely critic proof. But I think there are critics now who are seeing the movie who are the most important critics. Those are the people seeing the movie, the fans. Now, when those people go home and they say to their friends, you have to see this movie. I’m going to take you, we’re going to take everybody in the car and see it over the weekend, then your going to see the big numbers. Beyond that, you’re really going to need a lot of that great word of mouth, as everybody talks about, to carry this film through the summer, which is a very competitive time period — and carry it through to these record grosses that everybody is expecting.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Dergarabedian, tell us about the marketing of this film. It is not like other films, is it?

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: Yeah. This film is not like other films. The way it was marketed was kind of interesting in that there were the reissues in 1997, which were hugely popular, and I think those sort of served as a marketing tool. Each one of them was a two-hour sort of primer for the prequel. And I think in that way, it sort of built on itself. And the marketing didn’t have to be that overt. I think like programs like this and all the newspapers and everybody picking the story up and they’ve been running it every single day for the past, you know, at least six months very heavily creates its own marketing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Elvis Mitchell, the media really does go along with marketing. I mean, even “Popular Mechanics” is doing a series of stories on the machines in this film. Why? Why is this happening?

ELVIS MITCHELL: Because they want to be a part of it. In some ways it’s like the Stockholm Syndrome. Everybody wants to be in with the kidnappers. I think the movies have turned up everywhere but the watchtower because I think everybody wants to be a part of the whole phenomenality.

And that’s what’s changed in the past 22 years. Everybody is following entertainment and blindly reporting these stories and not attempting to disentangle what makes a phenomenon like this work. They want to have exclusives with George Lucas and the actors. So “NewsWeek” did a very funny idea of detailing everybody who had an exclusive interview with the cast and crew and George Lucas. It turned out the to be eight or nine different magazines. It kind of distorts the meaning of exclusive, doesn’t it?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Dergarabedian, tell us about the distribution. It’s also done differently, right?

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: Yeah. I mean, the distribution of this film, I’ve never seen before so much press just normal consumer press devoted to the terms and conditions that go along with the exhibition of a film. You know, talk of film rental, rental splits, terms as far as how long the film had to play in a given theater, what size theater it had to play in, how many trailers were allowed to be played with the film — you usually don’t see that in “USA Today” or the “Los Angles Times,” which are terrific newspapers, but they formally don’t carry that detail with regard to the inside machinations of exhibition and distribution. Usually that’s relegated to the trade papers, the industry trade papers. So, I’ve never seen anything quite like that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But they’ve done something interested. They’ve artificially limited supply, right? It’s in fewer theaters than other films might be of this size.

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: That’s true. 2970 theaters is not the biggest release ever. But I think what Lucas was originally going for was the high quality of the exhibition. In other words, if you put a film in 4,000 theaters, chances are not all of them will have THX-approved sound and the proper projection system and all that that Lucas demanded. So I think by the nature of his quest for quality, he had to keep it in fewer theaters.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Elvis Mitchell, going back to something you said, you said that the baby boomers love this film, and now their kids can go too. This is really a film for all demographics, right?

ELVIS MITCHELL: Yes. I think it is. I think it plays very well for kids because there’s such a lack of sophistication because there’s such a willful attempt at mythology in this movie. I mean, it takes itself incredibly seriously and it lacks some things that make the other fun. It lacks the kind of cheerful bravado we got from Harrison Ford in the first three movies, but again, that doesn’t seem to matter. It may be the first thing that unites — intersects Generation X and baby boomers in terms of popular culture. It’s a movie that people that were born in the 40′s and 50′s and took their children to.

Now they want to take their kids. Nobody talks about the John Ford westerns or “Gone with the Wind” or even “Jaws,” which came about three years before “Star Wars.” They’ve kind of been blasted away from popular memory.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Dergarabedian, what about the demographics? How do you see the demographics of this? Will everybody go?

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: Yeah, I think so, although this movie in particular seems to screw a little bit younger. There are some characters such as Jar Jar Binks who I think will appeal to the really young kids, a character they can sort of grab on to and have fun with.

And it may be Lucas is really smart in that because he is sort of creating this whole new generation of kids who are really young now who are going to grow up during the — there will be two other installments coming along in the next two years and sort of creating this whole new generation of moviegoers. And so that’s pretty good insurance. I think that’s pretty smart.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.