Star Wars marketing man Charles Lippincott on the real force behind the franchise's success

The merchandising that accompanied the original Star Wars film transformed forever the way movies are marketed. Charles Lippincott, who was behind the promotion of the first in the franchise, gives us his take on how things have changed.

Star Wars is an undeniable global cinema phenomenon, touching the lives of generations of children (and big kids), transporting them to a galaxy far, far away. But the franchise is also legendary for the marketing lessons it taught Hollywood, paving the way for how blockbusters are promoted today.

The Drum recently spoke to Charles Lippincott, the man responsible for promoting the first movie (later retitled as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) back in 1977, as well as other science fiction classics such as Alien, Judge Dredd and Flash Gordon.

Lippincott tells us he was working with Alfred Hitchcock on Family Plot when he first heard of the movie, after running into director and writer George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz on the Universal lot.

“We chatted and they told me about this new picture they were working on called The Star Wars. They offered me a script which I read overnight and I was very excited because I’m a true fan boy, a die-hard science fiction fan and comic book collector. I thought they had a great project on their hands, so when George and I met we ended up having a long conversation about all the possibilities, including toys which would be sold in comic book stores.”

The merchandising of Star Wars (the royalties from which Lucas famously included in his contract, making him very rich very quickly) has been emulated ever since and was always part of the plan, Lippincott reveals. “From our initial conversation this was something George had envisioned as kind of a blue-sky dream.

“To get me on board, George made a deal with 20th Century Fox to bring me on as a publicist, which would pay my salary, but my job was vice-president of advertising, publicity, promotion and merchandising. One of the first things I did was put together a slide show for the board of director’s year-end meeting to get the Star Wars production budget raised and the production green lit.

“I then went about copyrighting Star Wars intellectual property. I did this because Star Trek had a problem where the copyright wasn’t clearly owned, and this confusion created a void where fans began to manufacture goods or use Star Trek’s characters and ideas in their own works. To prevent this, I copyrighted everything I could think of. If it was possible to copyright a paper clip I would have. Folks at Fox thought I was crazy.”

Lippincott says his marketing strategy came from the perspective of being a fan himself; he considered what he would want, which helped him develop merchandise like-minded fans would love.

Upon release the movie was a surprise smash hit and made other studios sit up and take notice. With no major names to draw a crowd, instead they saw a quirky little film with robots, princesses and villains that appealed not only to kids, but to an older audience as well. And they saw effects the likes of which they had never seen before.

“While many studio execs assumed Star Wars, like other successful films, would lose its audience after Labor Day, this didn’t happen. The demand continued, in large part because I found new avenues of marketing to reach fresh audiences. Consequently, the crescendo studio execs had expected to wane continued because we licensed it to the Donnie & Marie Show, the Richard Pryor Show and the Star Wars Holiday special. These not only renewed interest but brought in new audiences. The word-of-mouth buzz kept it alive.”

Lippincott claims it was the merchandise deals and the tie-ins that were key to the movie’s success.

“Star Wars merchandise created new ways for us to engage the audience, which resulted in more fan fervor. Before the film opened we had Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation and the Marvel Star Wars comics. After it opened, we had posters, costumes and clothing.” The most important merchandise, though, according to Lippincott, were the toys from Kenner. He believes the toys and merchandise tie-in kept fans engaged with the film, resulting in box office domination and merchandise sales records.

“For Hollywood, the millions of dollars Star Wars was raking in set a clear pattern. If you wanted to make money (which is what Hollywood is all about) Star Wars had clearly pioneered a method of reaching its fans. First, pick a film aimed at a young audience who will buy merchandise. Then, use every possible marketing avenue to promote the film. I say every possible avenue, but in 1977, our ideas were fairly small and pedestrian compared to what is happening today.

“We merchandised toys, clothing, poster, books, Super 8mm clips, albums, costumes, fast food giveaways, but that is nothing compared to what is merchandised today. Today, everything from toothpaste to instant coffee creamers is being sold for the new movie. I’m sure if Star Wars wasn’t aimed at a PG audience we’d even have condoms and sex toys. We have barbecue utensils and high end furniture, such as Pottery Barn’s $3,999 kids’ beds. Everything under the sun that can be merchandised under the Star Wars brand is being merchandised.”

Lippincott believes there is now an imbalance between whether merchandise is used to promote a movie or, inversely, whether the movie is one big ad to promote the merchandise. “Merchandise and theme parks can be more lucrative than movies.”

Lippincott has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which led his wife to encourage him to put his history in order. He did this by posting images from his films and the merchandise he has collected on to Facebook, which has in turn built him a fan following of his own. This in turn has led him to consider modern marketing strategies, though he believes the “conventional” methods of the 70s are still applicable, but “secondary to social media”. There is, he says, still a place for newspaper and print advertising, as well as media interviews.

“They are important for a passé reason,” he says. “That’s how it’s always been done, because it’s a habit and one can’t imagine it being done otherwise. People still use these old-school methods of reaching a non-web audience, but the non-web audience tends to be older, and therefore less likely to spend dollars going out for entertainment. Consequently, social media becomes the key to reaching an audience.

“I say this because anything that goes viral on social media ends up being covered in the old-school mainstream media.”

He believes social media in today’s movie marketing strategies is the closest thing to emulating what he did, allowing direct engagement with fans. He points to the recent release of drawings by film director Neil Blomkamp which landed him a film deal to direct the next instalment of the Alien franchise, due to online acclaim.

“It was what the fans wanted. By getting Alien fans excited about his work on social media, Blomkamp brilliantly created a demand for his involvement with the Alien franchise.”

Another example was the campaign to ensure devoted fan Daniel Fleetwood was allowed to see the new movie before he died of cancer. He had weeks to live and so his wife campaigned through social media with #forcefordaniel which garnered the support of the community and led to the new director, JJ Abrams, calling him and showing him a four-hour cut of the film. Fleetwood died not long afterwards, but the use of social media gave him his final wish.

“These are probably the closest parallels to the Star Wars marketing campaign I did in 1976-77. Back then, I went to the fans to create an excitement and kindle their love for Star Wars. Today, social media can be used to reach the fans.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's 25 November issue.

Stephen Lepitak

Stephen Lepitak is editor of The Drum, with responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day running of the content produced for the various platforms run by the publication. Over the years he has interviewed agency network bosses such as Sir Martin Sorrell, Maurice Lévy and Arthur Sadoun, as well as Cindy Gallop, Kim Kardashian, film directors James Cameron, Spike Jonze, Richard Curtis and Lord David Puttnam. With a keen interest in media and breaking news, Lepitak has been with The Drum since 2005 and is based across its UK, US and Asia operations.

All by Stephen