'Star Wars' finds expanded universe with today's kids Commentary

The Baltimore Sun

Everyone knows that George Lucas' Star Wars series takes place "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ... "

But the key line repeated verbatim in the dialogue of all six Star Wars movies is, "I have a bad feeling about this."

It would be dramatic to report that 30 years ago today, during the original Star Wars' premiere, Lucas' competitors were having "a bad feeling about this." Dramatic - but wrong, because Lucas' rivals had no feeling about Star Wars at all.

Unlike Jaws, which had ruled the summer two years earlier, Star Wars wasn't based on a best-seller. It was a Flash Gordon-like space opera at a time when science fiction and fantasy were supposedly dead and the most recent sci-fi blockbuster had been Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Star Wars made its debut in just 32 theaters, and it opened when kids were still in school, because Lucas wanted to get word of mouth going in playgrounds, study halls and cafeterias. His instincts proved uncanny. A year later Star Wars was still playing - in more than three times as many theaters. It ultimately reached a worldwide box-office gross of $797 million.

It spawned a series that would take in more than $4 billion internationally and generate $13.5 billion in licensed merchandise and video games, including $1.5 billion in 2006 alone. According to at least one industry estimate, the Star Wars product line has been No. 1 for boys in 2006 and the first four months of 2007.

The message is clear: The phenomenon has remained phenomenal and, even more astoundingly, youthful.

Steve Sansweet, director of content management and head of fan relations for Lucasfilm, Ltd., says the crowds he sees at fan events such as Celebration IV, being held this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center, are getting younger all the time. One reason is predictable: "At each new Celebration we see parents bringing kids around. It's as if the Star Wars fan gene passes from generation to generation."

But there's another, more surprising and maybe more heartening reason. On his cell phone outside the Convention Center Wednesday, Sansweet said, "The last Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith, drew a younger audience than either of the two earlier prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. That was despite being the only Star Wars film to carry a PG-13 rather than a PG rating. And I think it was successful because of its seriousness and because of the fact that it was darker [than the others]. Kids didn't feel like they were being spoken down to, and that's made for a real resurgence of interest among younger people in the last two years."

For Sansweet, "It's as if everything that happened in the late '70s and early '80s is happening again." When he sees "kids now dragging their folks to conventions," he thinks "that is because Episode 3 [Revenge of the Sith] got talked around in classrooms. Although the film did extraordinarily well immediately [with a global take of $848 million] it was also like a 1970s slow-growth hit, in the way it became a schoolyard cultural phenomenon."

Lucas has sometimes intended his work to be used as a teaching tool; he especially wanted his Young Indiana Jones TV series to rouse interest in history and archaeology. As far as Star Wars goes, says Sansweet, "In the early days there were some reading and comprehension and math programs done by some of our publishing partners who also did things for classrooms. But none of it was a conscious effort. No one was saying 'Let's capture these young minds when they're still manageable.' There hasn't been anything like that with the Star Wars films." Lucas has always wanted to keep the fascination for these films organic. Even now, says Sansweet, it's "a grass-roots movement."

Lucas' awareness of the populist strain in his fan base extends to StarWars.com, the movies' Web site. Starting today, the site will contain an online video-editing tool enabling visitors to meld their own footage to more than 250 scenes from Star Wars movies and create their own Star Wars fan films. They will also be able to savor five years of Star Wars Fan Movie Festival Shorts along with other "user-generated Star Wars videos from across the Web, including such cult favorites as 'Chad Vader.'"

And there's one more reason Sansweet thinks his experience as Lucas' fan-relations chief should make movie-lovers happy. When he first started going around to promotional events and fan gatherings, he would ask people to raise their hands for their favorite Star Wars film.

"My assumption would be they'd say the original Star Wars, but it would often be Return of the Jedi. Later it would be The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. I realized it came down to which was the first they'd seen at a movie theater - the first time they'd been with a crowd having that kind of shared experience, with an audience hooting and hollering. That experience is partly the movie but also more than the movie, and it gets permanently fused with a warm, fuzzy feeling you want to feel forever. It bodes well for the longevity of seeing movies in movie theaters."


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