The ''Star Wars'' marketing invasion -- ''The Phantom Menace'' product blitz promises to be an unstoppable Force

By Jeff Jensen and Daniel Fierman
Updated March 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Forget what you’ve been told: The galactic D-Day isn’t May 21. Yes, that is when George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace hits theaters. But the invasion of the Jedi will actually begin nearly three weeks earlier, May 3. That’s when a battalion of Phantom licensees will be unleashed on the public, marking the kickoff of the biggest, most overpowering merchandising and movie tie-in campaign in history. ”This is the surest thing we’ll see in our lifetime,” says Rob Felton, associate editor of License Magazine. ”Lucas has done a fantastic job of keeping the franchise in the public consciousness. Now he’s got a whole new product — and he will capitalize.”

Well, he certainly knows how. As every fan worth his or her lightsaber knows, back in the ’70s Lucas sold his rights to Star Wars to Fox in exchange for all licensing royalties. Fox saw a bargain; Lucas saw the future. Over the last 22 years, Wars products have generated an estimated $4 billion, four times as much as the movies. Now, with Phantom and two more films on the way, Lucas is set to reinvent the industry he created. ”The consensus is that the new toys alone will make more than a billion dollars in 1999,” says Jim Silver, editor of the trade publication Toy Book.

Not surprisingly, Lucas is tightly controlling all aspects of the merchandising campaign. At the Feb. 8-15 Toy Fair in New York City, news of Phantom products dominated the trade show, but virtually no one — retailers or press — was actually allowed to see the toys. And store owners who jump the gun on the May 3 date are going to be worked over by Imperial Stormtroopers — or they’ll wish they had been. Stephen Ramage, manager of Seattle’s Golden Age Collectibles, says he was told that ”Lucasfilm will have agents go to stores, and if you have Phantom merchandise out before May 3, you lose the right to sell any Star Wars merchandise again — ever. It’s like a military campaign.”

Lucasfilm, which won’t comment, has also issued an across-the-board gag for all its licensees. The implication is that the Jedi Master’s trying to keep a cap — somewhat futilely — on the hype. In fact, Lucas is so concerned about overexposure that retailers are restricted from advertising Phantom products until two days after the film opens. Some retailers also say Lucasfilm has quietly placed a moratorium on shipping items based on the old films to clear the way for prequel goods. ”That’s disappointing,” says George Scarlett, a VP at Tower Records. ”The old stuff [is still] blowing out of the stores.”

So what is this new stuff we’ll be seeing?

Hasbro was allowed to whet appetites by prereleasing three toys in November: the STAP with Battle Droid, the Gian Speeder and Theed Palace play set, and the four-inch figure of Mace Windu (the Jedi Knight played by Samuel L. Jackson). As for the rest, expect dolls with digital savvy. ”There will be a focus on interactivity — toys that re-create scenes from the movie,” says Hasbro’s Holly Ingram. Lego, the other major toy licensee, will release eight Phantom-themed construction sets and will follow up in October with a Droid Development Kit, letting kids build, among other things, their very own R2-D2.