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Free Minds & Free Markets

How Star Wars Conquered the Galaxy

The economic power of the greatest movie franchise ever.

Darth VaderOscar Wilson, debutart.com

At the end of 1954, the same year that the family of a youngster named George Lucas bought its first television set, Walt Disney Productions aired four one-hour films about a Tennessee congressman who lost his life at the Alamo.

The company was caught completely off guard when kids went wild for their new hero, pestering parents to buy Davy Crockett-themed toy guns, sheets, watches, lunch boxes, underwear, mugs, towels, rugs, and pajamas. Most especially, they bought his signature headgear, a coonskin cap, which sold at the reported rate of 5,000 units per day in 1955 alone (the price of raccoon fur jumped from 25 cents to $8 a pound). Within one calendar year, Davy Crockett would spin off an incredible $300 million worth of merchandise, the equivalent of about $2 billion today.

Most of that windfall went to independent sellers; licensing as we know it today simply didn't exist back then. But the young Lucas witnessed the results all around him in California's Central Valley and stored the example away in his memory, to be drawn on two decades later as he labored over his third feature film.

In 1976, after finishing principal photography on the movie that would create the modern blockbuster, Lucas cast his mind back to the mid-1950s. "Star Wars," he mused to Charles Lippincott, marketing director of the soon-to-be-released space opera, "could be a type of Davy Crockett phenomenon."

That, of course, turned out to be the understatement of the century.

Even before the December release of The Force Awakens, the Star Wars franchise pulled in an estimated $42 billion total in box office, DVD sales and rentals, video games, books, and related merchandise. And that's just the amount flowing into officially sanctioned channels; the unofficial, unlicensed Star Wars economy has generated untold billions more.

                                   See: Star Wars by the Numbers

Some $32 billion of that staggering revenue was derived from physical stuff rather than an audio-visual experience. Like Davy Crockett, the Star Wars universe made its biggest economic impact in the realm of merchandise—clothing, accessories, food and drink, housewares (Darth Vader toaster, anyone?), and especially toys. But unlike Walt Disney, George Lucas devised a way to pocket much of that money himself. That helped buy editorial freedom, which helped this obsessive creative make the rest of his movies how he saw fit, for good and ill, until Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 2012 for $4.06 billion. Lucas and Star Wars created a category of economic activity that previously did not exist, and in so doing forever changed the face of entertainment.

Action Figure Mecca

To understand the scale of Star Wars' physical presence in the modern world, you need to visit a former chicken ranch in the Northern California town of Petaluma—probably one of the few chicken ranches in the world where appointments are both desired and required.

The wrought-iron gate at the entrance of the property is adorned with a portrait of Alec Guinness. You park by flagpoles flying the banners of the rebellion and the Empire, and walk past a private home that says "Casa Kenobi." There used to be 20,000 chickens on this ranch; now there are fewer than six in a single coop, near the corner of Yoda Trail and Jedi Way. The others have been replaced, in a long former chicken barn, by what the Guinness World Records book has recognized as the largest Star Wars collection in the world. Welcome to Rancho Obi-Wan.

In the building, up a narrow stairway, Steve Sansweet greets you next to an alcove that has a talking head of Obi-Wan. The bust looks like actor Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan number one, but it has the prerecorded voice of James Arnold Taylor, Obi-Wan number three, from the Clone Wars cartoon. "Your visit may provoke feelings of intense jealousy," the voice warns. "But do not give into hate. That leads to the Dark Side. If you're lucky, you won't also give in to a spending spree. So get ready for a galactic, physical and spiritual reawakening...from a certain point of view."

Sansweet is snarky and avuncular, bursting with knowledge—he co-wrote the official Star Wars Encyclopedia, the Ultimate Guide to Star Wars Action Figures, and many more books besides. He's somewhere between a vaudeville comedian and a gossip, always ready with a quip and another collector's item to show you. With bushy black eyebrows framed by a silver beard, he looks like a mischievous Santa Claus. You might think him a retired TV host, which in fact he is: He helped QVC sell Star Wars gear during 60 hours of shows during the 1990s. "And I always bought one of whatever I was selling," he says. He's not kidding.

Sansweet was raised in Philadelphia, went to journalism school, and reported on the JFK assassination for the college paper. As a Wall Street Journal reporter in Los Angeles in 1976, he started collecting toy robots after writing a front-page story about a collector; the robots reignited a long-held passion for science fiction. Then one day at the office, he noticed another reporter toss an invitation in the trash. It was to the media preview of a new movie called Star Wars. Sansweet fished it out, and a few days later his life changed forever. That invite, and the movie program, are the first items in his collection. "I was already in my 30s," he wrote, "but realized this was what I had been waiting my whole life for."

Sansweet had to wait another 20 years until he could parlay his love of Star Wars into a job at Lucasfilm, as head of fan relations. By then his house in Los Angeles had gained an extra two floors and five storage lockers, all to hold his collection. And that was before the prequel movies, which saw by far the largest explosion in Star Wars merchandise in the franchise's history. Sansweet is a collecting machine: a scavenger of sets, a friend to every licensee and fan artist. He swoops on eBay offerings and divorce sales. There's a poster in his office, signed by George Lucas, which confers on Sansweet the title of "ultimate fan."

At first, Sansweet was determined to keep his collection private. His Petaluma chicken farm, the only place his real estate agent could find near Lucas' Skywalker Ranch (20 miles away in Nicasio) that was large enough to hold his stuff, was too remote to seriously consider turning into a museum. But after leaving Lucasfilm in 2011 (he's still a part-time adviser), Sansweet was convinced by friends that there was enough interest to convert the place into a nonprofit. It would offer regular tours for anyone who takes out a membership. With just two employees, Rancho Obi-Wan already has more than 1,000 members, who pay $40 a year.

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