Dark Times 11 – 1996 – Part 3

While Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt were busy twisting box office receipts, a powerful new ally joined Lucasfilm in 1996: ‘Hmmm….powerful collector, he is.’

Every media has its fair share of legendary classics. They have in common a huge following regardless of time and age – and especially marketing muscle. For it is the consumer’s infatuation with a product that pencils popularity into the record books of the entertainment industry. The key to such voluntary commitment on the part of the public lies in deft, responsible management of franchise assets that ensures lively interest whilst planting the seeds for anticipation.

Lucasfilm had dedicated the latter half of the 90ies building a repertoire of product, strictly distanced from short-lived opportunism that throws all available content on the market in one senseless waste of potential. Star Wars was the only major motion picture property without new instalments in the near future and yet impressively went from strength to strength. To send this already stellar track record beyond the stars on the eve of the Star Wars Special Edition, Lucasfilm inducted a most versatile man into their fold. Trade paper Variety read on February 22nd, 1996: ‘Sweet Deal For Sansweet’.

‘It’s not just selling the license and then forgetting it’, Brad Weston, Licensing Manager at Lucasfilm stated once in the 80ies, and with Steve Sansweet, the company had the perfect man for the Specialty Marketing Division, a consummate fan and collector, the exemplary consumer who is fully enthused over the rapid and many-sided expansion of the Star Wars Saga.

Steve Sansweet would never ever forget about Star Wars. Born in 1945, Sansweet became fascinated with space as the United States and Russia fiercely competed in the race for the grand unknown lingering among celestial bodies. As time went on, his degree in journalism took him in other directions, namely the Wall Street Journal. Typing away on numerous stories and observations eventually introduced him to a collector of antique toys in late 1976: ‘[He] showed me some robots and said these were the new hot area of collecting. Seeing them brought back my childhood memories[.] I was hooked and started buying space toys.’ Half a year later, Steve Sansweet was invited by 20th Century Fox to a special screening. They were showing ‘this new science fiction film called Star Wars’, Sansweet explained in 1990 interview, ‘I remember going over there on a Saturday afternoon. As soon as that opening crawl came across the screen, I was blown away’ (Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine, Issue 11, p11). The actual invitation inadvertently turned into the first piece of what would later become the world’s largest collection of Star Wars merchandise.

Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine article about Steven Stanweet's incredible collection of Star Wars merchandise, 1991.
Lucasfilm Fan Club paid collector supremo Stephen Sansweet a visit in 1991, reducing readers to drooling masses at the sight of this gargantuan Star Wars collection.

Steve Sansweet revels in that miraculous moment of ‘tak[ing] something off the shelf and look[ing] at it again’, which always ‘brings a big smile to [his] face’ (Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine, Issue11, p11). Such unbridled enthusiasm would from then on aid Lucas in painting gleeful smiles on millions of faces. As George Lucas was preparing to put a new sheen to his legendary Saga, Sansweet was instantly faced with several sizeable tasks.

Shadows of the Empire had been strategically positioned as a sub-brand, supplying new content that simultaneously made the original trilogy palpable again. The THX video collection of 1995 was certainly still in stores and selling exceedingly well, but SOTE’s impressive production values considerably whetted the appetite for new additions to Luke’s and Leia’s world.

So at MarchCon32 in Columbus, Ohio, Steve Sansweet made one of his first appearances as the essential face of fandom. Although he would perform his professional duties for his employer Lucasfilm Ltd., Sansweet was every bit as giddy as the audience he was disclosing most exciting material to. Among them the infamous Shadows teaser that seemed so close to an actual motion picture trailer, Sansweet emphasised that SOTE was the ‘everything but a movie’-project. Speaking of Han Solo-understudy Dash Rendar and his trusty Outrider spacecraft, the presentation eventually segued into an introduction to the Star Wars Special Edition project.

Watch the Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire teaser on You Tube now!

Throughout the year, fan club publications had been releasing exciting images of a refurbished Star Wars. Dewbacks now appeared fully ambulatory, Mos Eisley finally deserved to be referred to as a huge space port of scum and villainy, and neither X-Wings nor Jabba ever seemed sleeker. In the course of the year, Lucasfilm also unravelled plans to release the sequels to ANH as special editions as well. While ANH was set to open on President’s Day 1997, TESB and ROTJ were respectively scheduled for release two and four weeks after the original Star Wars film. Of all the rumoured tweaks and improvements for these two films, the most highly anticipated addition certainly was the first visit ever to Coruscant, the centre of the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars conventions understandably grew in demand as Steve Sansweet would reliably bring with him amazing outlooks into the future of Lucas’ faraway galaxy. Until the middle of the year, Sansweet was indeed the first to reveal in public actual footage of those sparse glimpses published as stills in fanzines, namely the most elaborately expanded sequence for the ANH special edition, the heroes’ arrival at Mos Eisley Space Port, and Han’s run in with Jabba. ILM artist Steve Williams’ digital re-creation of the Tatooine gangster in particular drew universal praise on first sight and was considered veritably jaw-dropping in 1996. Snippets from Lucas’ discussions with his wizards at ILM, among them John Knoll, Paul Huston and John Berton, rounded off the impressive avant-premiere.

Later that year, motion picture history would carve 1996 in stone as the year that Roland Emmerich celebrated Independence Day, a large-scale throwback to the alien invasion flicks of the 50ies that instantly silenced all competition. One would nevertheless not veer too far from the truth in saying that it was also then that film projectors applied some Force to audiences worldwide for the first time in many years.

On the back of Independence Day’s staggering box office haul, 20th Century Fox had finally claimed the summer box office crown again. President Tom Sherak nevertheless readily rejected all laurels to till the fields of moving images in preparation for an even greater reward. One exciting summer night, lights dimmed in a packed Bay Area theatre as the audience expected to be blown away by Emmerich’s blockbuster. Among them a quaint bearded fellow, who had joined his friend Sherak to witness how the gleaming Lucasfilm insignia struck an unsuspecting audience before an X-Wing blasted through the screen and completely bowled them over, thus inaugurating the teaser for the following year’s Star Wars 20th anniversary re-release, the Star Wars Special Edition. The crowd went wild.

Since marketing had limited the year-long teaser campaign to authorised fan club magazines, the general public had not been aware of Lucasfilm’s effort to restore the Star Wars saga to its former glory, much less that new technology would be employed to add visual flourish to select sequences. The trailer featured first impressions of John Knoll’s marvellously enhanced space dogfights, the never-before-seen beast of burden called Ronto and one major selling point, the fully mobile, computer generated Jabba the Hutt.

In a cunning twist, the Special Edition teaser, for all its original material, nevertheless seemed strangely familiar in structure and intent. Lucasfilm had in fact for years pursued a supporting viral marketing strategy which sporadically reminded consumers of the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing Star Wars. This was naturally designed to promote particular products (widescreen, remastered widescreen and ultimately THX-certified editions) but in the long run, consumers had been driven to a point where in 1996 one could not help agreeing with Lucasfilm, regardless of the umpteenth video re-release: what began in 1992 as “If you think you have seen the whole of the Star Wars Saga – think again” and introduced a strong sentimental element with “The Original for the Last Time” in 1995, resoundingly transformed into a most convincing assertion just one year later: “For an entire generation, people have experienced Star Wars the only way it has been possible – on the TV screen. But if you’ve only seen it this way, you haven’t seen it at all”.

Hmmm…see it again, for the first time, I must.


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