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Is 'Star Wars' making merchandise or is merchandise making 'Star Wars'?

The coolest Christmas present Star Wars fans opened in 1977 was a nearly empty box.

First-generation Jedi coveted the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package, including stickers, a display stand and the promise of four action figures two months later.

A cultural phenomenon was exploding like Alderaan, and the hottest Star Wars merchandise was an IOU.

Fast-forward to Christmas 2015, and the invasion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, opening Dec. 18. Merchandising tie-ins are everywhere, even where it doesn't make sense. (CoverGirl Star Wars limited edition lipstick? Not very General Leia.)

CoverGirl Star Wars lipstick, $6.99.

The rush began Sept. 4 with "Force Friday" midnight openings at major department stores including Walmart and Target. In some stores entire aisles are devoted to Star Wars-related merchandise, and grocery shelves are sprinkled with licensed foodstuffs. Walk into any Disney Store to behold a new space mountain of Star Wars play sets, apparel and collectibles.

WHAT ORDER: The order in which to watch the various Star Wars movies is up for debate

Disney bought the franchise from its commercially innovative creator, George Lucas, in 2012 for $4 billion. Total revenues for The Force Awakens are estimated to be as high as $5 billion next year alone. Two final episodes — and merch bonanzas — are due by 2019.

It's Hollywood business as usual now, something that Lucas pioneered and Disney perfected long before buying him out.

In 1977, the movie came before the merchandise. Now it's the other way around, with The Force Awakens held in unprecedented secrecy. After a widely panned trilogy of Skywalker saga prequels (1999-2005) and the franchise's hyperdrive leap in merchandising, it's fair to wonder:

Is The Force Awakens another nearly empty box?

• • •

Mark Clark was 11 years old when he redeemed his Early Bird Certificate for four Star Wars action figures: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2.

Nestle Coffee-mate limited edition Star Wars bottles, $3.99.

Today he's the author of Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Trilogy That Changed the Movies. Yes, he knows there are six Star Wars episodes, so far. Like many fans Clark doesn't pay much attention to the prequels, focusing on the original Luke Skywalker arc and its cultural impact.

"Cautiously optimistic" is how Clark describes his anticipation of The Force Awakens. Bringing in Star Trek reviver J.J. Abrams to direct and bringing back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) are pluses, while the merchandising blitz is reminiscent of the oversold prequels.

"The amount of products produced for those (prequels) was exponentially larger than any merchandising we'd seen previously. And it looks to me, judging from every store I walk into, that it's gone through another geometric increase for the current film.

"In the '70s, no one would've considered nondairy creamer with a Star Wars logo, or makeup, and not even Halloween makeup. It wouldn't have crossed your mind to brand those items with Star Wars. It's staggering."

Credit and blame go to Lucas, who made a $6 million cinema classic grossly underestimated by Twentieth Century Fox. The studio wasn't much interested in merchandising rights, after being burned with a 1967 Doctor Dolittle campaign. Nobody expected a Star Wars sequel, so Lucas held those rights, parlaying that into a sweetheart licensing deal.

By Christmas 1980, aspiring Jedis had plenty of The Empire Strikes Back presents to open. By the time Lucas sold out, the Star Wars label had earned an estimated $20 billion from licensed merchandise.

First Order Stormtrooper Backpack, Disney Store, $22.95.

This being Hollywood, other studios noticed and imitated — including Disney, doing it better than anyone. The second-highest earning merchandise franchise after Star Wars is Disney's Cars (estimated $10 billion). Last year's top U.S. retail earner was Disney's Frozen ($531 million), in addition to its Marvel universe products.

With so much money on the line, would-be blockbusters sometimes feel shaped by what action figure, play set or even theme park ride they may inspire.

That's what happened to the Star Wars prequels, what Clark hopes isn't the case with The Force Awakens.

"It's not just Star Wars," he said. "A lot of movies today are written with an eye toward the merchandising: Hey, this sequence would make a great video game. Or this character design is really cool; let's make sure we have an action figure of this guy.

"That's definitely under consideration. … It shouldn't be the primary driver of what happens, but I'm sure as they're putting things together somebody has it in the back of their mind."

• • •

Toy companies, publishers and clothing designers have dibs on spoilers these days, getting designs and story lines months in advance, so IOUs aren't necessary anymore.

Pair of shoes from the Star Wars shoe collection, irregular choice.com, about $165.

Leaked prototypes and sketches are pored over by online obsessives seeking clues. Especially with The Force Awakens, not just because it's a Skywalker adventure but Disney has to date effectively controlled everything we shouldn't see but what we should buy before the movie opens.

No other studio finesses money from moviegoers better than the Mouse House.

Secrecy surrounding The Force Awakens comforts while debit card registers beep, a feeling that the movie experience itself is still sacred, even in a collection plate sort of way. Abrams' film still has a better than usual chance to surprise, even if we're already playing with an app-enabled BB-8 droid or a "Frylo Ren" Mr. Potato Head.

"Everything is in place," Clark said. "They have all the resources in the world to pour into these things. … It's just a question of whether they can pull it off."

After so many empty-box blockbusters delivered by Hollywood, that would be a gift.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

Is 'Star Wars' making merchandise or is merchandise making 'Star Wars'? 12/09/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2015 5:36pm]
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