Ten years ago, on May 19, 1999, the first Star Wars film in 16 years was released. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opened in 2,970 theaters and made $105 million dollars over its first five days. It went on to hold the number one box office slot for four weeks and grossed over $431 million dollars in the United States. Today it still sits at number six for all time US box office.
The Phantom Marketing
The anticipation for The Phantom Menace was huge. After the release of the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy in 1997, the resurgence in the popularity of Star Wars had yet to reach its peak. Lucasfilm pulled out all the stops to promote the new film. Huge amounts of advertising was available from magazine articles to television spots to posters in subways and bus stops. George Lucas is as famous for his licensing deals as he is his films and The Phantom Menace was no exception.
The amount of licensed product was unprecedented. It ranged from toys to clothing, fast food to bath soap and everything in between; Star Wars was everywhere in 1999.
To really kick off the release of The Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm partnered with the Star Wars Fan Club to hold a convention. From April 30 through May 2, 1999, Denver, Colorado played host to the Star Wars Celebration. The three day event, though marred by rain, was a success and we have had three more Celebrations in the US while Europe and Japan have both had their first. Celebration I, as it's now known, played host to actors from The Phantom Menace, props, panels and vendors selling Star Wars collectibles.
Toys and Collectibles
The day after Celebration I, on May 3, 1999, we had our first Midnight Madness event. At 12:01AM the toys and collectibles for the new film were released at stores around the country. Toys-R-Us and Walmart stores were a big part of the event, with Toys-R-Us even handing out a certificate touting Toys-R-Us as "The Source for the Force."
That first night there were 18 action figures from Hasbro to go along with Pod Racers, Naboo Starfighters, lightsabers, puzzles, books, posters, Lego, bicycles, inflatable chairs and pool toys, candy, board games, and even wrapping paper in case you were buying gifts for someone.
People lined up hours in advance at some stores and the press covered events around the country to find out what the fans were looking forward to the most. I'm sure there were a lot of people that were late for work that next morning.
Many stores ran promotions to attract buyers. Borders Books had themed catalogs advertising the various books that were out in support of the new film. Barnes and Noble had displays of life-sized droids made from cardboard. You could enter to win one with the purchase of books from DK Publishing.
Toys-R-Us, Walmart and K-Mart all had sections devoted to Star Wars merchandise. They published Star Wars themed ads and offered coupons or free stickers with purchase of Star Wars merchandise. K-Mart and Walmart gave away posters with Pepsi products.
Lego ran the Galactic Challenge Building Contest where you were challenged to build a "creation that will help life on Earth or in a galaxy far, far away." The grand prize was a trip to Lego in Denmark.
Hallmark gave away a set of Topps widescreen Trivia Trading Cards.
No matter what type of product you were interested in owning or collecting, you could find a Star Wars themed version of it in 1999.
Everybody has to Eat
On May 12, 1999 the Tricon promotion kicked into high gear. Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. was the parent company for the KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut chains. Each store represented a different planet from the new movie. Taco Bell was Tatooine, KFC was Naboo and Pizza Hutt was Coruscant. Each store offered toys, cup toppers and special packaging and store displays. Taco Bell also offered posters while KFC had flying disks (Frisbees) and Pizza Hutt had stickers and Jedi Mind Tricks coasters.
If bigger prizes were more interesting, you could also play the Defeat the Dark Side and Win game by collecting tokens from the restaurants and adding them to a playing board. It was a very long and expansive promotion and while it may have been fun at the time, it was not a very successful promotion as far as Tricon was concerned.
The Tricon restaurants were not the only food companies involved with The Phantom Menace. Pepsi and Frito-Lay both had extensive campaigns as well. Pepsi offered a collection of 24 soda cans with graphics of characters from the films. There were also 16oz and 2 liter bottles with Star Wars wrappers.
Lays and Doritos chips had character graphics on select bags of potato chips. The bags included collectible game pieces with the chance to be one of two $1 million dollar winners.
On May 29th, Jeff Gordon raced in the CARQUEST 300 at Lowes Motor Speedway. His Pepsi sponsored car for that race sported a Star Wars Episode I paint scheme. The Force was not with Gordon, however, as his car suffered rear end problems after 102 laps of the race. Collectors, on the other hand, had dozens of different die-cast cars that they could collect with Star Wars graphics.
What about the rest of the world?
If you were a Star Wars fan but didn't live in the United States, you didn't have anything to worry about. The marketing for The Phantom Menace was worldwide.
Hasbro released action figures and toys to many countries around the world, even translating their CommTech chips into several languages. The UK had subway posters and cereal promotions.
Japan's Pepsi promotion put the US equivalent to shame, releasing bottles and cans, figural bottle tops, can holders and coolers. Some of their releases, such as the MTT cooler, are highly desired and priced collectible still today.
The Film We'd Been Waiting For
Finally on May 19, 1999 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace opened. There were midnight showings across the country and the theater that I attended had at least three screens showing the film.
As I mentioned, the film jumped to the number one box office spot for its opening weekend and stayed there for four weeks. It set records, that have since been broken, for opening day, weekend, and fastest to $100 million. The Phantom Menace was released in over 60 countries which added another $493 million to the film's box office total.
Critics and fans had differing opinions at the time with fan reaction initially high.
Unfortunately, the wait for Attack of the Clones in 2002 allowed many fans to sour on the film. Jar Jar was most often cited as a major factor, however many fans felt that the film lacked the heart of the Original Trilogy. Where we were expecting Rebels fighting for freedom, instead we had senate hearings and taxation.
Looking back now, many hard opinions on Jar Jar have softened and when looked at as part of the new trilogy, many fans have come back to find the better parts of The Phantom Menace.
At the time, the huge marketing push seemed fun and interesting but it was not necessarily successful on some levels and contributed to the downfall of some companies, notably Applause. The overabundance of merchandise at stores caused somewhat of a backlash from collectors. Many stores ended the year with stock that they were unable to sell and deep clearances were offered on many items. As recently as March 2009 I found several Episode I 12-inch Queen Amidala dolls at a Walmart in Pennsylvania, still on the shelf, still original retail price despite the red "clearance" price sticker.
Lucasfilm retreated for Attack of the Clones, tightening up on the number of licenses they offered. The Tricon restaurants, as I mentioned, found the promotion to be a flop. They didn't see a significant bump in store sales for the promotion, at least not for the amount of time and product involved.
Still, millions of dollars of merchandise was sold and today you can still take a trip down the action figure aisle of your local retailer and see plenty of Star Wars product. We now have Star Wars The Clone Wars and there's still the promise of a live action television series in the future.
Star Wars The Phantom Menace helped to reestablish the franchise in the mainstream American culture. It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since The Phantom Menace was released, but it has been fun and I'm looking forward to another 10 years of new books, games, television shows and, yes, even some more Hasbro toys.