NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The Force is about to be with you in a big way -- if it's not already.
Promptly after midnight Thursday, the sixth and final installment of the hugely lucrative "Star Wars" series hits theaters. Finally learning how a valiant Jedi Knight became the evil Darth Vader -- and, consequently, the most famous and profitable villain in movie history -- will resolve one of the biggest mysteries of the last 30 years.
Three weeks ago, in anticipation of the May 19 release of "Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith," thousands of costumed "Star Wars" junkies, young and old, invaded Indianapolis to attend the films' official fan club convention. Like past releases, fans dressed as Stormtroopers and Princess Leia have been lining up outside theaters in New York City and around the world. (See pictures of fans.)
The official video game is already out, along with Darth Tater -- the Dark Side of Mr. Potato Head. In television spots, Darth Vader pitches M&M candies and France Telecom's Orange cell-phone service. Yoda is hawking Diet Pepsi.
Even Mark Hamill is building buzz. The 53 year-old original Luke Skywalker, whose early stardom proved fleeting, is showing up at special screenings.
"'Star Wars' is going to be a massive hit," predicted Gitesh Pandya, a movie analyst with BoxOfficeGuru.com.
Analysts say this despite knowing that the previous two "Star Wars" films 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 Jar Jar Binks.
This time "Star Wars" has a major safety net: It is the sixth and final installment of an ongoing saga about intergalactic love and war. Described as darker and more emotional than any of its predecessors, "Revenge of the Sith" will reveal the mystery of Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side -- a revelation that's likely to draw even the most apathetic consumer.
With the industrywide box office in a slump, Hollywood is banking on "Revenge of the Sith." Industry tracking firm Exhibitor Relations reports that total ticket sales in 2005 are down 5.4 percent from a year ago despite higher ticket prices.
A disappointing "Revenge of the Sith" debut could panic Hollywood executives. Sizzling sales, however, could provide the industry with the kickstart it desperately needs. Conventional wisdom holds that one blockbluster can boost sales across the industry.
"There's a tremendous amount of pressure on 'Star Wars' to turn the marketplace around," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations.
A franchise like no other
That said, a disappointing "Revenge of the Sith" might bruise some egos, but not the pocketbooks of Marin County, Calif.-based Lucasfilm or Twentieth Century Fox, the "Star Wars" films' respective production and distribution companies.
"Star Wars," with five films released so far, is unquestionably the most successful film franchise in Hollywood history. According to data culled from BoxOfficeMojo.com, "Star Wars" has outgrossed all other franchises worldwide, including "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and the 21-film James Bond spy series.
"Star Wars" films collectively have taken in some $12.4 billion in movie tickets and merchandise sales. 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. (See Star Wars merchandise.)
That's not all. On top of movie ticket and merchandise sales, approximately 130 million "Star Wars" home videos have been sold, according to DVD Exclusive, a trade publication.
The first three movies alone have taken in more than "Harry Potter" or any other major film series. Dergarabedian, of Exhibitor Relations, analyzed domestic box office receipts for the initial theatrical runs of the three "Star Wars" sequels more than two decades ago. He found that, adjusted for increases in ticket prices, the early films pulled in $1.6 billion domestically (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.
The original "Star Wars" in 1977 not only helped usher in the era of the summer blockbuster, but also "opened the door to the idea of a franchise that could be successful, even if a sequel doesn't do well," continued Dergarabedian. "It made viable the idea that, with sequels, the law of diminishing returns doesn't always apply."
The toy Jedi beats the ticket stub
What sends "Star Wars" into the stratosphere of film franchise fortune, however, are the merchandise sales. Jim Silver, a toy industry expert and publisher of Toy Wishes magazine, estimates that director Lucas has made more money from his cut of sales of the films' products than the movies themselves.
"There is no comparison," said Silver, between "Star Wars" and any other film franchise. "'Star Wars' is on an entirely different level."
"Star Wars" was one of the first movies to recognize the profit potential of movie merchandise, continued Silver. "In terms of action figures, 'Star Wars' has the biggest collector base of any brand," he said.
With each episode, license holders like Hasbro and the LEGO Group could bank on "Star Wars" buffs, no matter their age, snatching up the latest gadgets and gizmos.
Despite disappointing merchandise sales with the two most recent "Star Wars" films -- "Phantom Menace" in 1999 and "Attack of the Clones" in 2002 -- Silver thinks "Revenge of the Sith" will be a bonanza.
Why? Darth Vader, whose blackguard action figure has outsold his co-stars and rival scoundrels from other movies.
"The key to this movie is Darth Vader," said Silver. "He is the best-selling villain of all time."
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