LIGHTING A FIRE
A long time ago, at a Comic-Con far, far away, the friendly gent in the picture above came to what was once a comic-book convention with a mission that even a Jedi might find daunting: to sell a seemingly unsellable movie. The year was 1976. Comic-Con was only six years old and not yet the hive of Hollywood hucksterism and tomfoolery that it is today. The movie was George Lucas? Star Wars. The man was Charley Lippincott (pictured). And 35 years ago this month, the modern era of Geek Pop — as well as the whole phenomenon of Fandom — was about to explode.
ALL ABOUT THE BASICS
Today, the Comic-Con floor is crowded with elaborate booths, flashy and noisy with attention-getting production values — video, music, hot-bodied models decked out in skimpy leather. But back in the day, Comic-Con used to be card tables and folding chairs, homemade signs, and fliers. The players: comic-book retailers, publishers, and assorted merchants of pop paraphernalia, from Star Trek toys to rock & roll T-shirts. It was a place to celebrate the marvelous now and excavate the pulpy past. But Lippincott, head of marketing, advertising, promotions, licensing, and a bunch of other things at Lucasfilm, bought space on the floor to plant seeds for the future.
Lippincott came to Comic-Con with a problem. ”Fox’s market research department had done tests,” explains Craig Miller, a former head of fan relations at Lucasfilm who helped Lippincott work Comic-Con ?76. ”What the market research department reported back was that no one was interested in science-fiction films. There hadn’t been a lot of them lately, and not a lot of good ones since 2001: A Space Odyssey. They also tested the title Star Wars, and the result they got was that people didn’t like it. This was right around Vietnam. People didn’t want to see a war movie. And yet, Fox decided to make it anyway!”
TALKING IT UP
So Lippincott hit the nascent comic-book and sci-fi convention circuit to generate grassroots buzz for Star Wars almost a full year before its release. ”The guy was brilliant enough — or desperate enough — to know what needed to be done to get Star Wars out there,” says Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm’s current head of fan relations. ”He was happy to sit there and talk to anyone who would listen.” He was also smart enough to let other people speak for him — people who could connect with comic-book fans. And so he tasked Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin (pictured) — the writer and artist of the Star Wars comic that was to launch in advance of the film — with narrating a slide-show presentation about the movie.
GETTING A GOOD LOOK
Comic-Con ?76 was held at the El Cortez Hotel; the Star Wars presentation, inside a small ballroom. There were many empty seats. Some attendees wore Star Wars T-shirts, though Sansweet speculates — perhaps half-jokingly — that those apparent early adopters may have been Industrial Light & Magic plants. Adds Miller: ”There weren’t a lot of people there. A few hundred, maybe? The reaction was mixed. At first, skepticism. When you have a group of fans devoted to any one genre, like science fiction, you tend to think Hollywood is going to do junky job and screw it up. But you started to see a change in the audience over the course of the presentation.”
Howard Chaykin drew a Comic-Con exclusive poster that Lippencott sold at his table for $1.75. The hope was to make enough to help subsidize the trip. Sansweet reports Lippencott sold only enough to cover the cost of printing. The poster was billed as the first in a series of posters to be illustrated by different artists. No more were ever made. Today, Chaykin’s rare poster sells on the collectible market for more than $1,000 — and, in mint condition, $3,000.
Lippincott visited other conventions during is barnstorm tour of the fanboy subculture in ?76, including a splashy Labor Day Weekend stop at The World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, where Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill (pictured), made an appearance. By the end of the tour, the Lucasfilm team felt they had accomplished … something. ”It got people talking about the movie,” says Miller, who worked for Lucasfilm through the release of The Empire Strikes Back and now works as an animation writer. ”We felt we had a chance to be a successful movie, but no one thought we?d be in the number one movie in the country opening weekend. But we were.” Adds Sansweet: ”On opening day, people were lined up around the block — and that was due in large part to the work Charley did a year before.”
THE GROWTH OF THE SW NATION
In 1979, Lucasfilm went to Comic-Con to promote The Empire Strikes Back. Where only a couple hundred people were on hand for the Star Wars presentation in ?76, more than 4,000 people attended the Empire showcase. Lucasfilm remains a vital part of Comic-Con culture today. The company commands the largest dedicated area on the floor. This year, it will also have a separate space — a small black-box theater that will show a preview of Star Wars on Blu-ray, hitting stores this fall.
THE SAGA CONTINUES