The signature brown boots, bobby socks and pistols of Lara Croft have inspired fans to write thousands of letters, build Web sites in her honor, write books about her, tattoo her image on their bodies and even propose marriage to her.
She's the star of five video games, a comic book series and an eponymous Hollywood film. In all, products bearing her name have generated close to $1.2 billion in revenue over the last six years.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 375 words Type of Material: Correction
Lara Croft image--An image of the digital character Lara Croft on Monday's Business cover should have included a note saying that the image was changed from its original appearance. The shirt on the figure was darkened to make it less revealing.
Croft, of course, isn't real--she's just a character in a video game. But she has become such a real-world star that today she will become the first virtual female actress to be represented by a major Hollywood talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, which also represents Jennifer Aniston, Beyonce Knowles, Carrie Fisher, Geena Davis and Sally Field.
In many eyes, the move marks Croft's emergence as the preeminent female action heroine, even if she is only a digital illusion. It will be up to CAA to exploit that title by spreading the Croft name to toys, product endorsements and new movies.
The bulk of the Croft franchise is through game sales, which have generated $700 million since the character's 1996 debut in the classic "Tomb Raider" video game for Sony Corp.'s original PlayStation console. Her movie last year, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," starring Angelina Jolie, has brought in an additional $300million.
But most celebrities would love to break into the lucrative advertising and action figure markets, both of which have yielded a relatively paltry $15 million for British game publisher Eidos.
"We're talking about everything from TV to live events and experiences that Lara fans can participate in, even getting into things like adventure travel," said Elie Dekel, a CAA agent.
The emergence of a virtual star has been long anticipated by entertainment gurus. But it has taken decades since the coining of the term "synthespian" for a character to emerge with just the right star qualities to appeal to the masses.
Croft seems to pack just the right punch with consumers, underscoring the growing influence of computer games over the public's imagination. That star power has allowed Croft to make the pioneering leap from games to movies.
The reverse has been easy, with hundreds of games spawning from film and television shows, including "Spider-Man," "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc."
But games in the past have fallen flat transitioning from the little screen to the big screen. Many cite "Super Mario Bros.," which cost $42 million to make but took in only $21 million. Or "Wing Commander," which cost $27 million but made just $12 million.
The latest example was last year's attempt to turn the popular "Final Fantasy" game series into a movie, starring virtual actress Aki Ross, a hyper-realistic computer-made character. Her creators at Square Co. in Japan talked about casting her in other movies, perhaps even alongside live actors. But the movie, which cost $137million to produce, foundered at the box office, taking in just $61million in theaters and ending Ross' would-be career.
"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," in contrast, took in roughly four times the amount it cost to make the film.
Why is Croft different?
The answer that most immediately comes to mind for gamers is sex appeal.
"It's her breasts," said George Jones, editor of Gamers.com, a Ziff-Davis Web site for game industry news. "She's ridiculously huge. And I say that only half-jokingly. No matter what, you can't get around her looks. She has exaggerated proportions. She's a sex symbol. That's always the first thing anybody notices."
Adrian Smith, a director at Eidos subsidiary Core Design Ltd., which created Croft, said her looks have to do with the fact that she started as a cartoon.
"That's why she has a tiny waist, so you notice her figure and how she moves," Smith said. "If we drew Lara with normal-sized breasts, no one would notice them. Mickey Mouse has big ears so you would notice them. It's as simple as that."
It's not just pumped-up polygons, according to Croft's handlers. Most female video game characters have impossibly busty figures, but none sells as many games as Croft, with 28 million copies worldwide so far.
"There's a complexity to her character that you don't get with other video game characters," said Lloyd Levin, producer of the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" film. "She's got a lot of attitude. She's witty and wicked. There's something punk about her. Those are very appealing qualities but also very specific qualities. There's nothing generic about Lara. She's bigger than life and yet very human."
As a modern-day action hero, Croft occupies a genre dominated by muscle-bound men. Few females can vault to fame as a title character.