Friday, October 8, 2010

Merchandise Wars

        Maybe you were there: standing in line at the movies after finishing your homework, peeing your pants, having waited for that moment since you first saw the end credits of Return of the Jedi.

        I was there.

       I had seen some people on the news that had been camping out in California for a year in advance, homeschooling their children, teaching them the ways of the force.  I didn’t need that.  I knew more about Star Wars lore than American History.  And I read all the Jedi Academy books, so at the time I thought I knew more than George Lucas himself.

        Oh well, those homeschoolers had to camp out and only beat me by a couple hours.  I remember being dazzled by Phantom Menace: Darth Maul’s cool martial arts, the high intensity light saber battles, Liam Neeson’s and Ewan McGreggor’s fresh and regal performances, the pod-race, the Industrial Light & Magic.

        But even then, and more so as I less anxiously waited in movieplexes in 2002 and 2005, I realized there was so much missing in the new films that had been in the original 70’s and 80’s trilogy that had rocked the world: among them: Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, the lack of Jar-Jar Binks, and a plot.

        That and the phenomenon that merchandising used to come after a film’s release and not before it.  They say that money ruins everything (sports, mainstream music, M. Night Shyamalan movies) and that includes what is now sometimes called “The Star Wars Franchise.”

         I should have seen it coming.  Before Menace came out, they already had Darth Maul costumes for 4 year-olds and Amidala wigs for (oh my gosh, spellcheck just fixed my “Amadala”!) Darth Maul’s slightly older sister.

        According to, George Lucas, #316 on their billionaires list, “doesn't have to move a muscle and he still makes money.”  “He's personally worth $3.5 billion,” and the Star Wars franchise – including the box office rake-in at $6.52 billion; toys, $9 billion; home video sales, $2.8; videogames, $1.5; not to mention the books, a measly $700 million – totals over $20 million, “about equivalent to the 2004 GDP of Panama.”[1]

        But where’s the sin in making money?  Hats off to George, right?

        Not so fast.  It seems that due to market value, finance savvy Hollywood dumbs down potential adult appeal to cash in on the kids.  Kids’ movies mean multiple tickets for the kids in the family, plus Mom and Dad, plus every time Johnny wants to see it again, plus the DVD for his birthday, the action figures for Christmas, and the cheap-looking Jedi costume for Halloween.  It’s no secret Pixar films make exponentially more than the latest and greatest R-rated thriller.

        So while the original films (the first being my favorite), remain “PG” with some parents opting for adding a “-13” to the end, the prequels could have even dropped the “P.”  (And almost the 3rd, that got a “13” rating due to the “intense images” of Anakin killing off the Jedi young enough to be him for Halloween.)

        Why?  Mel Brooks in his 1987 spoof Spaceballs said it best – “Merchandising!”

        Now I’m the world biggest Indiana Jones fan; lost the SW craze when I got too old to play with the toys.  To this day I have my own fedora, authorized jacket, and whip, and can sometimes be seen wearing them in public.  So when rumors of a fourth film finally materialized, I had the epitome of mixed feelings.

        I braced myself for a letdown, watching as age 5+ action figures filled stores and cereal bowls months in advance, but trusted my favorite director (Steven Spielberg) wouldn’t let us down.  He let us down.

        And it didn’t get beat by only one film, Nolan’s Dark Knight, which was understandable (Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker was almost to die for), but two – Ironman, Downey Jr.’s cool new super guy unafraid to actually kill the bad guys and crack jokes that made us laugh.[2]

        In the midst of the modern Star Wars prequel cheese, Time Magazine offered an explanation for the still considerable adult box office attendance along the lines of: “They’re the only movies with Star Wars stuff in ‘em.”  The same held true for Indy fans.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a.k.a. Indy 4) was a mildly fun tribute for the old fans, merchandise for the new, and the only full length feature with Harrison Ford wearing the fedora in 19 long years.

After Raiders of the Lost Ark, (my favorite movie, hands down) critically acclaimed as the greatest action-adventure flic and #60 on AFI’s 100 Movies[3]; Temple of Doom, the darker comic sequel; and The Last Crusade, an epic in cast and plot – all adult films with teenage followings, it’s a shame the Indy “franchise” had to fall in the way of the Jedi.

And where will it go from here?  Thankfully, the James Bond phenomena of casting younger actors in the same role was turned down for Indy, acknowledging the vital blood Harrison Ford gives to the part.  Fans also breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the Skull film when the albeit Emmy award winning young over-actor, Shia LaBeouf[4] who plays Indy’s son, Mutt Williams, bends over to put on the fedora, only to have it taken away by the only one who – in fans’ eyes – is worthy of the hat.

Now that work on a fifth Indy film is underway[5] and Ford is onboard (as long as it doesn't take another twenty years to develop, he says[6]), fans are – to say the least – more than worried it will be another sellout to the action figure/Lego set merchandising monopoly.

        We can only hope that the genius that made Jaws and Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can; the original Star Wars films; and the Indy series itself will have the sense to make the 5th one right.  And SW faithful hope that rumors of a 7-9 series[7] won’t go the way of the 2008 CG Clone Wars tanker.

Having personally enjoyed hours of epic Star Wars action figure battles and videogames as a young Jedi-mind-tricked child, I know merchandising makes films fun for kids and no one wants to take that away from them.  However, it seems the majority of fans hope moviemakers will give us once more something akin to what we fell in love with in the first place – a real movie.


  1. These comments were previously for this post. After a little surgery, the post is back to stay.

    Fr Matthew said...
    Regarding your conclusion: that would be nice, wouldn't it.

    I recently watched the three SW prequels and got some enjoyment out of them, but they don't match the three originals, which I watched (for the umpteenth time, but the first time in 2 decades) about a month ago. I had every Star Wars toy I could get my hands on when I was a kid...

    I'm also a big fan of the original Indiana Jones movies, and have not yet seen the latest one yet. I think I'll watch it, but with lower expectations, according to what you and others have said about it.
    October 4, 2010 6:27 PM


    Indianajoe77 said...
    Thanks Fr. Matthew.

    I had a similar experience with the prequels: some fun, but overall disappointment: the aftertaste of too little story over too many special effects. Nothing compared to the original epics: the first being my fav; the second, a juicy sequal; the third, all right, but the beginning of the end in the midst of the evil SW franchise takeover. I spent every five dollars I had on a new SW action figure (and played with them).

    Raiders (Indy 1) is one of the best movies ever; Temple, funny, darker; Crusade, epic. The human relationships - esp. Indy reunited with the best yet ugliest girl in the series as his true love & the jokes about Indy's age & fatherhood - are the best parts of an otherwise childish story. Do watch it, but just to have fun. There are several nice tribute moments to the man, but I will leave you those to enjoy.
    October 4, 2010 10:32 PM

  2. Have to say if they do end up making a 7-9 trilogy it better be a) after Lucas is dead in the grave, and b) based off of the Thrawn Trilogy or any of the other great Book Arcs.

  3. Agreed Killazilla. Need some smart new guy to give it rebirth, while capturing all that was good in it. JJ Abrams did a fair job with the new "Trek," but I was never a trekkie, so I can't justly comment on that.

    Harrison Ford already turned down any possibilty of playing Han Solo again, from what I've read. Considering the fact that Mark Hammil and Carrie Fisher pretty much only play ex-SW versions of themselves, I'm sure they'd be on contract in a heartbeat.

    In other words, I think we're going to have to wait a long time til 7-9. I hope it will be in my lifetime though. (And it better be good!)