A couple weeks ago, I discussed the twisted subtext of Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars. But there’s another, even darker aspect of the series: the way George Lucas is pushing it at the expense of the original Star Wars movies. Like all Sith plots, this one is hard to see, even as it unfolds in plain sight.
Last summer, my son informed me that he wanted to have a Star Wars: A New Hope party for his fourth birthday. This was among the proudest moments of my life. Definitely prouder than the day he was born. (Think about it: everyone gets born. Not everyone appreciates Star Wars before he turns four.)
So it was with great relish that I went online to buy a full spectrum of party stuff from a galaxy far, far away. I wanted plates that looked like Death Stars, cups that each showed a different member of Red Squardron (I was gonna keep Wedge for myself), and a tablecloth that reproduced that original poster where Luke’s shirt is open.
What I found was page after page of Clone Wars stuff. Nothing that showed Luke, Han, or Leia. There was a lot of Vader, but I’m sure it was because he was in Episode III. Yoda was only depicted holding a lightsaber—his Clone Wars incarnation. There are 42 items listed in EZ Party Zone’s Clone Wars category. In the “Star Wars” category, there are only four items, all of which are Vader-related. I scoured the internet, and I couldn’t find a single kids’ birthday party item that was definitively original trilogy. This was a problem for me, because I am carefully shielding my child from all knowledge of the prequel trilogy for as long as I can. If he finds out Santa isn’t real, that’s alright. The day he hears about Jar-Jar, I’m going to cry.
Now, it’s totally possible that there’s nothing sinister at work here. After all, Clone Wars is one of the most popular shows for little boys right now, whereas the original trilogy is over 25 years old. I was probably naive in thinking that they’d still be making Millenium Falcon napkins.
But I can tell you, as someone deep in the parenting trenches, that A New Hope is still a sacred text among the juice box set. Last year, Slate‘s Emily Bazelon wrote about the incredible hold the movies had on her young sons: “With their friends, they dissected the business of Jabba the Hutt and the furriness of Ewoks, never mind that they appear in later movies that my kids have never seen.” Over at Wired, Daniel Donahoo tells a similar story about how his kids love to draw Vader and R2, even though they’ve never seen any of the movies.
In fact, Howard Roffman, the President of Lucas Licensing, once said that a chief reason for the brand’s continuing popularity was that “so many parents who were influenced by Star Wars when they were children or teenagers are now introducing their own children to the Saga. You couldn’t ask for a stronger brand endorsement.” Lucasfilm damn well knows that today’s kids are loving A New Hope, right along with their parents (who are actually responsible for buying birthday party favors).
(Weird unrelated fact: Howard Roffman, in addition to controlling all the Star Wars merchandise, is also a fairly famous photographer of gay male erotica. I am totally serious.)
So I don’t believe that there are no original trilogy party supplies because there’s no demand for them. This isn’t the invisible hand of capitalism at work. This is the invisible hand of Lucas.
There is so much Star Wars merchandise out there that it’s easy to believe Lucasfilm pretty much rubber stamps any proposal that’s not written on a cocktail napkin. But I don’t think you gross over a billion dollars a year by letting just anyone slap your logo on their cheap plastic. Roffman and his gang are very picky about what Star Wars products are out there–if you don’t believe me, read this account of one toy designer’s many brilliant but rejected proposals.
“We take our role as shepherds of the brand very seriously,” said Roffman in that 2002 interview, “particularly because it is a long-term prospect and needs to be managed accordingly.” He also said: “I can’t think of a time when Star Wars merchandise didn’t have to compete for shelf space! It’s a competitive world out there and everything has to hold its own. Star Wars earns the shelf space it gets.”
Here’s what I think is going on. Lucasfilm feels that if it produces too much Star Wars stuff, it’s just going to be competing with itself. It also wants to emphasize products that build the brand for the future. I can’t prove this, but I’m pretty sure they have an official policy of NOT marketing original trilogy stuff to children (or at least significantly downplaying it).
Check out this Fox Business interview with Roffman, from only two months ago. The interviewer introduces him as the man in charge of Star Wars licensing, and gushes, “I’ve got three boys, eight, six, and three, seen it a thousand times!” Presumably, she’s talking about Star Wars, the original movie. And the very first thing Roffman says to her is, “I hope that your boys are watching The Clone Wars on TV.” This guy wants kids watching the Cartoon Network. And why not? You only purchase DVDs of the original trilogy once. But you watch Clone Wars every week, boosting the show’s ratings, and the company’s profits.
Lucasfilm is aggressively marketing the original trilogy… but only to adults who don’t care about The Clone Wars. Hasbro still makes a Millennium Falcon toy, but it’s $159.99. Adidas is releasing some gorgeous Skywalker hi-tops, but I’ll bet you they’re not available in kids’ sizes.
Obviously, Lucasfilm has a right to market Clone Wars as hard as it wants. What offends me is the idea of not giving consumers a choice. You want a Star Wars birthday party? It’s going to be a Clone Wars party, period. And if you’re still not convinced that’s what’s going on, I invite you to try and purchase a copy of the original films, the way they were released in theaters. You can’t. You have to watch Harrison Ford meet computer-generated Jabba at Mos Eisley.
But if you want something approaching a happy ending, here it is: I made some goodie bags with Lego storm troopers and inflatable lightsabers, and Casey made a glorious paper-mâché Death Star piñata. In the end, the younglings had their old school party.
But I still want my Wedge cup.
Actually, you CAN buy DVDs of the original trilogy, though I think they come with DVDs of the “special editions” as well. They are also reportedly not of as good quality, since it seems like Lucas is saying “If you want it, you can have it, but I’m not doing anything to it, you ungrateful fans, you.” Which is frustrating, being a fan who’s spent LOTS of money on SW toys, games, etc!
I personally think there’s a huge untapped market of original trilogy items. People love dressing up as storm troopers, but to do so, you have to make your own or buy it from a fellow fan who learned to make it themselves. You could at one point buy SW rollerblades, but only if you had child-sized feet. (I don’t know that I ever did, even as a child!)
And daaaaang, I really want that Cloud City lamp! It looks great, and it wouldn’t be so obvious if you didn’t like the series, but it would brand you right away to other fans, and … there’s totally a market here. Why, George? Why????
It is entirely a marketing decision on Lucasfilm part and they’re entirely correct about competing for shelf space with themselves in the brick and mortar stores where I can assume most of their sales come from. The Clone Wars TV show is on now and is still producing new episodes and I assume is generating a nice chunk of revenue for Cartoon Network and Lucasfilm. Why would a major retailer stock Millenium Falcon and Luke Skywalker toys over Grevious’ ship (the name escapes me) and Anakin Skywalker toys when the kids are watching the new product? There is a much smaller niche market for the original trilogy that major retailers aren’t going to cater to.
That’s not to say that the original trilogy is going to eventually disappear. I remember several years ago when Lucasfilm announced they were going to do Clone Wars and a live action Star Wars show that would be episodic in nature covering various things including Boba Fett’s escape from the sarlac pit. They at least seem to willing to throw us a bone once and awhile to keep us placated. But then again…I’m still waiting for that show, damnit.
On a side note, Jon Stewart had a very interesting interview with George Lucas a few weeks ago and it should still be available on The Daily Show’s website. It was very eye opening to the generation gap in terms of original versus new trilogy.
Don’t worry… it’s almost assured that Lucasfilm will release a 3D version of the movies (possibly to theaters) after the success of Avatar. Then the old toys will be available again.
Not sure if it’s about corrupting children or keeping the corrupted adults continuing the corruption.
Since Star Wars can be manipulated to sway cultural momentums, sometimes it might be worth reviewing how things got that way. This odd video mixtape about, as they describe it, the recorded perception of the SW phenomenon at the time of the release of the last theatrical movie, is a beginning to a conversation into the themes of memes of culture viewed through the Star Wars glasses.
As the final Star Wars movie was released, US Governmental bodies pushed for more restrictions to internet usage. (just this month they’ve continued their lobbying to force ISPs to record 2 years of people’s destinations: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10448060-38.html?tag=newsLeadStoriesArea.1) But in 2005, because of the Revenge of the Sith leak, the FBI/ICE through recently installed Congressional legislature and a newly installed Assistant Attorney General was able to jail and fine several US citizens. A year later George himself would be in Congress pushing for Free Unlimited internet access to all schools and libraries. Also in the time frame of the release of Sith, George’s company cease and desisted an individual who reused the Revenge of the Sith trailer to have 133t subtitles. A few years later that same company allowed Star Wars Uncut to have the entire first Star Wars movie available on the website. Yes things are changing quickly, and many of these decisions might still make sense.
Has more info on this abomination.
@Lisa – I have that DVD set. I remember it being a limited time offer release. The quality isn’t as good but the movies are the way they should be. Although it means that I now have three copies of the Phantom Menace. I guess that’s the price you pay.
@sarielthrawn: THREE copies of _Phantom Menace_? I’m sorry.
When was _Clone Wars_ and anything _Clone Wars_ related *not* about profit, though? I’m about to get anecdotal, so this may sound ramble-tastic- but I do better conveying a point when I give examples.
A friend of mine has a fourteen-year-old son that loves _Star Wars_ and anything related to any episode. He reads the books, plays the video games, has the ornaments, etc. showed him the first article (about irony that ends with the comparison to Homer) and he immediately was affronted and offended and refused to keep reading after the first couple paragraphs. But after talking to him about it, I got the impression that he prefers _Clone Wars_ and the newer movies over the old ones (his rationale coming down to things like, “It looks better!”), and that he sort of took the article personal; and in reconsidering all of the merch and stuff that he owns, it’s probably about 2/3 newer stuff; and most of the things based around the original three are hand-me-downs from his mom. Anakin is his favorite character, and not as Vader. He enjoys the old stuff, but prefers the new.
I think this kid is exactly what Lucasfilm is trying to do: convert kids nowadays to a new adaptation of the brand that will carry over and through into their adulthood. If they bond to it now, they’ll still have that strong, sentimental attachment to it when they’re older, regardless of quality (so the “it looks better” argument, while to an adult now sounds ridiculous, is more than enough for a kid, and that bond forged will remain just as strong as they grow older). Relying on the niche of original fans to get their kids into it with the same fervor as they themselves is too risky for Lucasfilm because there may not be enough of them into it enough to do that in the first place. Sure, there are fans in the sense that they enjoy the original films, but how many of those are going to actively make sure their kids see them? No, much safer for Lucasfilm’s pocketbooks to give kids their *own* _Star Wars_ to learn to love and thus purchase. Belinkie, in all honesty, I admire your loyalty to the original, but I don’t know how many other parents would try to protect their kids from the newer stuff- you’re the first oldschool fan I’ve heard of to do that. The reactions to new-fandom on the part of kids I’ve seen from their parents (that are oldschool) have always been along the lines of, “Meh, well, it’s still _Star Wars_, at least, right?” (That’s actually a quote from my friend, the mother, but the gist is the same every time). Kind of a defeat or resignation- it’s *something*. And I think Lucasfilm and anybody involved there knows this is what would happen, so they bank on it, both literally and metaphorically. I’m not saying your thesis, that the thrusting of the newer stuff in to the merch is intentional- I’m just adding a little nuance to why. Part of why Lucasfilm knows Mom and Dad will buy it comes from the fact that it’s at least distantly related to what Mom and Dad loved in their own youth.
This article is ador(k)able :)
You *can* buy the originals. They come packaged as “original theatrical releases” with the remakes/re-releases in the DVDs. I bought them for my husband for Xmas 2009. Off Amazon. V. reasonably priced, too.
@Diana and Others – Okay, I got carried away in the article. Yeah, I know the originals ARE available on DVD… but only as an extra if you buy the Special Editions. You can’t avoid buying the special editions. And the key thing for me is, the original versions you get are letterboxed, not anamorphic. No need to explain what that means here – basically, the original versions are presented in a DVD format that is outdated and clearly inferior. So Lucas will let you have them, but he’s giving you the same old transfer he used for the laserdisc edition. They will look pretty shoddy on your high def TV.
To me, the real test will come when Star Wars finally makes the jump to Blue Ray. Will Lucas issue the originals as well, as part of some deluxe package? Or is he counting on the fact that, after the last ten years, more and more people are happy to accept his special editions as the definitive versions?