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The Jedi jackpot
After 28 years, we're about to find out why Darth Vader is so evil. He's also made people very rich.
March 31, 2005: 6:43 AM EST
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In a galaxy far, far away....

....a cosmic amount of money was made and shipped back to planet Earth.

"Star Wars," the George Lucas saga about intergalactic love and war, is the most successful film franchise in history -- bigger than "The Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and even the perpetual James Bond.

To date, the five-film "Star Wars" epic has taken in some $12.4 billion in movie tickets and merchandise sales worldwide, delivering a heavenly sum to distributor Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm, the films' production company.

Of that total, $3.4 billion has come from the worldwide box office and $9 billion from sales of "Battlefront" video games, Clone Trooper costumes, Obi-Wan Kenobi toy action figures and other sundry gizmos, according to Lucasfilm.

There's more: 130 million "Star Wars" home videos have been sold, according to DVD Exclusive, a trade publication.

Now the sixth and final installment of this money machine, "Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith," will help kick off the summer season when it arrives in theaters May 19.

The "Star Wars" buzz is already building. Darth Tater -- the Dark Side of Mr. Potato Head -- has just been released. Next month a special edition iPod cover and a barrage of other gizmos will arrive on store shelves. And the official fan club convention in Indianapolis, also set for April, is on track to meet its goal of 30,000 attendees.

After all, "Revenge of the Sith" will finally answer the question that has mystified three generations: How is it that a heroic, albeit moody, Jedi knight went to the dark side and became a rotten, mechanical-breathing villain known as Darth Vader?

A universal impact

When asked to describe the impact of "Star Wars" since the first film debuted 28 years ago, analysts struggle to find the right words. They talk about the films' snazzy special effects and how the first, "Star Wars: A New Hope" helped spawn the summer blockbuster.

"It's part of our culture. It's part of our lexicon," said Paul Dergarabedian, the president of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

The original "Star Wars" helped usher in movie merchandising as another source of revenue, said toy industry expert Jim Silver. To this day, "Star Wars" is still the industry leader.

"There is no comparison," said Silver, the publisher of Toy Wishes, a trade magazine. "'Star Wars' is on an entirely different level," said Silver.

These encomiums come despite the fact that the last two "Star Wars" films -- "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" -- were big disappointments to some critics and diehard fans who did not like the overly-complex plot twists or new characters like the clumsy, patois-speaking outcast Jar Jar Binks.

Both films had merchandising problems too.

"'Star Wars' opened the door to the idea of a franchise that could be successful, even if a sequel doesn't do well," said Dergarabedian. "It made viable the idea that, with sequels, the law of diminishing returns doesn't always apply."

According to BoxOfficeMojo.com data, "Star Wars" has outgrossed all other franchises worldwide, including "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and the 21-film James Bond spy series.

Even factoring in a lead of two extra films and theatrical re-releases, "Star Wars" comes out ahead of its rival franchises.

Dergarabedian, of Exhibitor Relations, analyzed domestic box office receipts for the initial theatrical runs of the "Star Wars" prequels more than two decades ago. He found that, adjusted for increases in ticket prices, the early films pulled in $1.6 billion (compared to $655 million in actual dollars).

By way of comparison, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy sold a price-adjusted $1.1 billion in tickets domestically and the "Harry Potter" trio took in $906 million.

Overseas, "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" have proven more popular than "Star Wars," according to Brandon Gray, the president of BoxOfficeMojo.com. "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" already had loyal audiences thanks to the best-selling books on which they were based.

The toy Jedi beats the ticket stub

What sends "Star Wars" into the outer space of film franchise fortune, however, are the merchandise sales. Jim Silver, the toy industry expert, estimates that director Lucas has made more money from the films' products than the movies themselves.

"Star Wars" was one of the first movies to recognize the profit potential of movie merchandise, continued Silver. He said it happened by accident when the first film's toy maker, later acquired by Hasbro, couldn't get action figures on store shelves. Empty boxes were sold instead, with coupons inside for redeeming the toys when they were ready.

That mix up spurred demand for "Star Wars" stuff, mostly toys, said Silver. "In terms of action figures, 'Star Wars' has the biggest collector base of any brand," he said.

With each new episode, Hasbro and other 'Star Wars' license holders have been able to bank on that collector base, not matter how aged, buying the latest merchandise.

Sales of movie merchandise have struggled in recent years, however. The supply of "Phantom Menace" gadgets exceeded demand, which then led to an under-supply of "Attack of the Clones" products, according to Silver.

Silver, along with box office analysts, think "Revenge of the Sith" can't go wrong.

Described as darker and more emotional than any of its predecessors, the fact that the world is about to discover how the valiant Anakin Skywalker became the evil Darth Vader after waiting 28 years all but guarantees another smash hit.

"The key to this movie is Darth Vader," said Silver, who adds that the blackguard action figure has outsold his co-stars and rival scoundrels from other movies.

"Darth Vader has a huge following," he said. "He is the best-selling villain of all time."  Top of page

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