‘Star Wars’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ as money machines


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Rachel Abramowitz covers the film industry here at the Los Angeles Times, and in July she did a sublime job on an article about the egregious Hollywood treatment of the heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien. In essence, the family of the man who conceived ‘Lord of the Rings’ hasn’t been given a cent for the film franchise that has made a mountain of gold. It’s one of the best articles I’ve read anywhere this summer. Here’s the beginning of it:

So ‘The Lord of the Rings’ made no money. Let me amend that. The film trilogy, which grossed $2.96 billion worldwide at the box office and $3 billion or so more in DVD and ancillary markets, has not made any money for the heirs of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the famous books. Tolkien obviously isn’t Peter Jackson, who directed the franchise, or Liv Tyler or Viggo Mortensen, who starred in it, or New Line Cinema, the studio that financed it, or Miramax, which owned the film rights for a second but couldn’t get the movie made, or producer Saul Zaentz, who bought the rights in 1976. He’s just the guy who dreamed up the cosmology, the whole shebang of hobbits and dwarfs, orcs, ents, wargs, trolls, whatnot. ‘Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, Seven for the Dwarf-Lords in their halls of stone, Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne.’ Those were old John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s words.


Rachel goes on to dig into the sad history of Hollywood’s shabby strip-mining of author’s legacy and family. It’s a disheartening piece, frankly. In today’s paper, she turns her attention to a sunnier story (and one with more personal tocuhes) about money matters and George Lucas, the wizard of the Jedi universe whose family, I can assure you, is doing quite fine and will be for the next couple of hundred years. Here’s an excerpt:

Then this summer, my oldest son, Eli, discovered kiddie crack. That’s what I call the Lego Star Wars game he plays on his Nintendo DS, a hand-held computer device. I have to admit that the 2-inch-tall Lego versions of Darth Vader and Chewbacca are pretty darn cute, and I guess it’s fun to follow the plots of the six episodes. Still, the games’ drug-like grip on my children is a little disconcerting. They prefer Lego to food, even parental bribes like cookies or ice cream. Apparently, MY kids are not alone in jonesing for the Lego. Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing, told me that since 1999 they’ve sold a billion dollars’ worth of Lego Star Wars toys. Since 2005, 15 million units of Lego Star Wars computer games have entered the galaxy. Star Wars, in case you’ve been stranded in an asteroid field for the last 30 years, is ‘the most successful boys’ toy line in history.’ According to lore (and Roffman), Lucas initially sold the merchandising rights to his creations to Fox along with the original movie. There was such little anticipation for the title that no toys were actually available until a year after the original film premiered in the spring of 1977. That Christmas, the original toy manufacturer, Kenner, sold wrapped gift certificates for future action figures. When negotiating the sequel with Fox, Lucas demanded the rights back, and Fox reluctantly acquiesced, as they had to, or else they weren’t going to get any of ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ Roffman says the toy sales actually ‘fell off a cliff in 1985’ as the original audiences aged out of action-figure mania, and the company waited until the ‘90s to bring back the merchandise, initially for the rabid fans (now young men), which meant comics, books and ultimately video games in 1993. Now it’s a well-oiled Force factory, with 100 global licensees and 100 domestic ones, and some 80 million books in print (including 75 New York Times bestsellers). Lucas himself oversees the spinoffs in the movie and television arena. For everything else, the licensees get a lot of leeway to create products, though they need Lucas’ approval. ‘For fans to get immersed, there has to be integrity to the universe,’ adds Roffman. That’s why there’s a staff dedicated to maintaining continuity between all the different ‘Star Wars’ stories and one man, Leland Chee, charged with updating what’s called the ‘Star Wars Holocron.’ That’s the internal database containing every known fact about the ‘Star Wars’ universe. Printed out, it runs about 12,000 pages. Sometimes I feel as if my 9-year-old, Eli, is prepping for the day he too can run the Holocron. In the last month, the kids have finally seen all the ‘Star Wars’ movies, and I’ve gotten a little tired of debating the relative merits of Ewoks and Wookies, Luke versus Anakin. That’s not to say I wasn’t psyched for a mommy-sons night out in lovely Burbank. Chicken fingers at Bob’s Big Boy, then an advance screening on the Warner Bros. lot. So how is the new ‘Clone Wars’ movie? I’m not a film critic, and, more important, I adhere to the mom’s commandment of good faith -- that is, ‘Thou shalt not criticize any pop culture artifact beloved by children -- specifically your own children.’ Suffice it to say, it was loud, extremely loud.

Our ‘Clone Wars’ coverage will keep rolling today: I’ll be posting a profile I’ve written of ‘Clone’ director Dave Filoni later today and we’ll be getting the Los Angeles Times review of the film up tomorrow. And most of all, I’m looking forward to hearing what you readers think of the seventh ‘Star Wars’ theatrical release.

-- Geoff Boucher

‘The Clone Wars’ image courtesy of Lucasfilm Animation