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In the Force's control

August 13, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz

I READ in the paper last week that tween boys, or young males ages 9 to14, account for $50 billion in spending a year.

That's a lot of moolah, but I'm not surprised.

I have a 9-year-old budding tween and a 5-year-old boy who desperately wishes he were one. And the big release of the late summer is "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," the animated flick that opens on Friday. It's a kind of big-screen prequel to the new animated "Clone Wars" series on the Cartoon Network, as well as the new Clone Wars video games that are coming out for the Nintendo DS and the Wii in November. That's great, because we have both, and I really enjoy trying to pry their little fingers off the remote.

I know, dear reader, that you might actually be surprised that a "Star Wars" movie is creeping into cineplexes without the usual hoopla of a planet exploding, but in fairness, the new movie plays more like a spinoff, targeting the hard-core fans who enjoy reading books like "The Fight to Survive (Star Wars: Bobba Fett, Book 1)" and playing with lightsabers. Kids like mine are also a natural target, because they are pretty much "Star Wars" omnivores. They don't need for the vision to come directly out of creator George Lucas' head, though in fact on this movie, Lucas is executive producer, producer and has story credit. (Wow, two producer credits on the same movie!)

I don't know exactly how "Star Wars" entered our life, except by osmosis, and it's certainly had more relevance in my children's lives than other similar phenomenon like . . . organized religion. Well, actually I have a clue, and their passion wasn't ignited by the movies -- which they hadn't seen until recently -- but by the products.

Last fall, my then 4-year-old, Jojo, decided to be Darth Vader for Halloween. How he learned about Darth Vader, I do not know, because until then we'd been a "Star Wars"-free household. At least the pull wasn't so strong that he couldn't be persuaded to settle for a Stormtrooper because there'd been a run on Vader costumes on the Westside of Los Angeles.

Then this summer, my oldest son, Eli, discovered kiddie crack. That's what I call the Lego Star Wars game he plays on his Nintendo DS, a hand-held computer device. I have to admit that the 2-inch-tall Lego versions of Darth Vader and Chewbacca are pretty darn cute, and I guess it's fun to follow the plots of the six episodes. Still, the games' drug-like grip on my children is a little disconcerting. They prefer Lego to food, even parental bribes like cookies or ice cream.

APPARENTLY, MY kids are not alone in jonesing for the Lego.

Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing, told me that since 1999 they've sold a billion dollars' worth of Lego Star Wars toys. Since 2005, 15 million units of Lego Star Wars computer games have entered the galaxy. Star Wars, in case you've been stranded in an asteroid field for the last 30 years, is "the most successful boys' toy line in history."

According to lore (and Roffman), Lucas initially sold the merchandising rights to his creations to Fox along with the original movie. There was such little anticipation for the title that no toys were actually available until a year after the original film premiered in the spring of 1977.

That Christmas, the original toy manufacturer, Kenner, sold wrapped gift certificates for future action figures. When negotiating the sequel with Fox, Lucas demanded the rights back, and Fox reluctantly acquiesced, as they had to, or else they weren't going to get any of "The Empire Strikes Back."

Roffman says the toy sales actually "fell off a cliff in 1985" as the original audiences aged out of action-figure mania, and the company waited until the '90s to bring back the merchandise, initially for the rabid fans (now young men), which meant comics, books and ultimately video games in 1993. Now it's a well-oiled Force factory, with 100 global licensees and 100 domestic ones, and some 80 million books in print (including 75 New York Times bestsellers).

Lucas himself oversees the spinoffs in the movie and television arena. For everything else, the licensees get a lot of leeway to create products, though they need Lucas' approval. "For fans to get immersed, there has to be integrity to the universe," adds Roffman. That's why there's a staff dedicated to maintaining continuity between all the different "Star Wars" stories and one man, Leland Chee, charged with updating what's called the "Star Wars Holocron." That's the internal database containing every known fact about the "Star Wars" universe. Printed out, it runs about 12,000 pages.

Sometimes I feel as if my 9-year-old, Eli, is prepping for the day he too can run the Holocron. In the last month, the kids have finally seen all the "Star Wars" movies, and I've gotten a little tired of debating the relative merits of Ewoks and Wookies, Luke versus Anakin.

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