The Not-So-Phantom Marketing – The Journey To The Phantom Menace

by Michael Harris

Grab your double-bladed lightsabers and your seat at the Boonta Eve Classic, it’s the 20th Anniversary of The Phantom Menace!

Without the prequels, simply put, there would be no Star Wars today. At least not like how it is now in the year 2019. After 16 years away Star Wars, with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, was back! This film brought back a franchise that had slipped to the back of the minds of many and ushered in a whole new generation of fans to the fold. Despite the undeserved flak it’s received over the years it’s the equivalent of the Big Bang for the modern Star Wars era. There just would not be the content enjoyed today without The Phantom Menace. Full stop. Even the Disney acquisition and the resurgence of new films would not be possible without this cinematically extraordinary film that kicked it all off again. As it basks in the glow of its 20th birthday lets take a look back at the marketing lead-up that came before that epic day; May 19th, 1999!

The Phantom Menace - Darth Maul

All Aboard The Hype Train

The lead-up to 1999’s The Phantom Menace started, believe it or not, way back in 1995 with the return of Star Wars action figures in the Hasbro/Kenner Power of the Force line. Not tied to The Phantom Menace at all, only featuring original trilogy characters, it was basically Lucasfilm brushing the dust off their licensing arm and getting back in the game. After all, this was the first major merchandising push from them since Kenner’s 1985 Power of the Force line. By this time, 1995 that is, the prequels had already been announced the previous year and were currently being written. Bringing back the toys brought back the interest of collectors who had given up on the line after a decade long drought and generated hype among the next generation of fans. That thing your parents like is cool again! The toys themselves were a tad different than previous iterations, and reflected the styling of other toys of the mid-90’s, but brought back interest nonetheless and were a massive sales success.

The Phantom Menace - The Power of the Force

This paved the way the following year to go even further. Piggybacking off the momentum that the new Power of the Force line created, Lucasfilm developed an enormous multimedia event; Shadows of the Empire. Spanning books, comics, video games, toy lines….almost everything you could possibly imagine. Similar to a movie release, it was marketed across all platforms and debuted a brand-new story featuring new and returning characters. Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Shadows of the Empire created a new story while staying relatively safe as audiences knew full well that these characters live on after. What this crossover did do was assure Lucasfilm, and other licences, that Star Wars could still dominate the market just as well as they had done in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

The final “test” was the re-release of the original trilogy back into theaters in 1997 with the new and improved Star Wars Trilogy Special Editions.

Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope, the three films released January, February and March of that year. Despite the ongoing controversy around George’s decision to add, subtract or alter moments from all three movies the re-release accomplished so much. First, Star Wars was back. For many, many fans this would be the first time they would be able to see them on the big screen. Just as they were intended to be seen. It also was an opportunity to restore the originals as they had severely degraded over the years and risked being lost forever. Most importantly however it allowed Lucas to experiment with the CGI that he wished he had at his disposal originally and test it out in preparation for his upcoming prequel trilogy.

The Phantom Menace - Special Editions

Every Generation Has A Legend

For hardcore fans of the saga, Star Wars Insider Magazine was the place to go in the mid-to-late 90’s for first glimpses of The Phantom Menace. The Prequel Update features offered top-notch content from producer Rick McCallum himself. But the real magic came on November 18th, 1998 and the Star Wars universe was forever changed.

Debuting in a relatively limited number of theaters across North America, the very first trailer for The Phantom Menace accompanied the film Meet Joe Black and a few others that winter. Fans who managed to catch wind of this, the internet was still an infant, were known to pay admission into the theater and leave before the film even started. Literally just paying to watch a two-minute teaser. Some multiple times a day.

But what a teaser it was. It is one of the most powerful trailers of all time, announcing to the world that Star Wars was back and a force, pun intended, to be reckoned with. It is iconic in its own right, a fantastic trailer, people still talk about where they were when they first saw it. It quenched the thirst of millions who had waited years for this and left them wanting more. Along with a second trailer in March of 1999 these would go on to rank among the most downloaded items of all time, notoriously taking forever with a dial-up connection, but fans would endure the grueling wait for these short glimpses of the upcoming cinematic event.

Midnight Madness

The fully armed and operational merchandising wing of Lucasfilm unleashed their opening salvo on consumers on May 3rd, 1999. That day you could stroll into your local toy store and shop the massive amount of new product for the upcoming film but if you were a die-hard, you got your hands on this stuff before the sun even rose that day.

In what would become a new Star Wars tradition, along with lining up for the films well in advance, Midnight Madness for The Phantom Menace took place at Toys ‘R’ Us locations nationwide. Turnout for these events exceeded all expectations, many local and national news organizations covered the events in some fashion, and have become a special place in the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to have lived in this dawning of the modern era of Star Wars fandom. Almost like a rite of passage.

The Phantom Menace - Toys R Us Promotions

It is because of the widespread success of Midnight Madness that today’s generation of films have been getting “Force Friday”, a reincarnation of the original idea, continuing the tradition of staying up way too late and shopping for toys.

There’s A Party In Denver

Not only does 2019 mark the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Mencace, but it also celebrates the 20th anniversary of the largest and best Star Wars party around; Star Wars Celebration.

Taking place between April 30th and May 2nd, 1999, Star Wars Celebration I kicked off at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. Dan Madsen, head of the Official Star Wars Fan Club, put on the event which was the first in a now long line of Celebration’s featured panels, actor appearances, vendors and props…everything. Con attendees were treated to the world premiere of the Duel of the Fates music video and also got to see some behind-the-scenes footage from The Phantom Menace, at the time still weeks away from theatrical release. If you were attending the convention, you probably did not need the extra encouragement to see the movie, but it made for a special gift to those who were willing to make the trip, and hang out in all that mud, and it set a precedent for the Celebrations in the years to come.

The Phantom Menace - Celebration Denver

Would You Like Toys With That?

Promotional tie-in’s for movies and cartoons have gone hand-in-hand for decades and nowhere is that more evident than the drive-thru of your local fast food establishment. With the arrival of a new Star Wars film in theaters Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken fell over themselves to get in on that sweet merchandising action. The offerings that year set the bar for future Star Wars tie-in’s at fast food hangouts, and while nothing can compete with Burger King’s Star Wars Glassware from 1977-1983, The Phantom Menace’s food promotion game was nothing to balk at.

Taco Bell, designated Tatooine for super tie-in promotional impact, had the most to offer with poster’s, toys and the now famous “cup toppers”. Posters included Anakin, Qui-Gon, Sebulba and the Darth Maul. The toys were the typical kids meal cheap plastic junk but were, and still are, highly sought after. More so for nostalgic reasons versus any actual financial worth. But the cup toppers are the real prize from Taco Bell, featuring Darth Maul, Sebulba, Anakin Skywalker and Watto. These things were just plain cool. There was also a Defeat the Dark Side game where you could win prizes by collecting all 20 medallions. That’s a lot of tacos to shovel down.

Pizza Hut, Coruscant, was not too far behind the competition and also offered toys for the kiddies and their own set of cup toppers. Theirs featuring Jar-Jar Binks, Mace Windu, Yoda and Nute Gunray. The standout for Pizza Hut was their take-out pizza boxes were done up with The Phantom Menace promotional art making them some greasy collectables.

Rounding them out was Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC, or Naboo here, had their own unique selection of toys featured in their kids meals like a Gungan Sub Squirter and Anakin Skywalker’s Naboo Fighter. They too had cup toppers, here featuring Queen Amidala, Boss Nass, Captain Tarpals and R2-D2. The claim to fame here was their flying bucket toppers with Jar-Jar and a Battle Droid on them. Spoilier alert: they’re Frisbees.

MTV Generation

The music of Star Wars, primarily that of the legendary composer John Williams, is as memorable and recognizable as Vader’s silhouette or the snap-hiss of a lightsaber. It’s hard to imagine George Lucas’ cinematic masterpieces without the accompanying score from Williams and thankfully nobody has to.

For The Phantom Menace a new palette of themes and motifs were needed and would go on to permeate the remainder of the trilogy and the saga as a whole from then on out. It wouldn’t be controversial to say that the main theme from The Phantom Menace, Duel of the Fates, has been the most successful and widely used and for good reason. It’s a beautiful piece that gets the adrenaline going and could easily play behind every lightsaber duel for the rest of eternity.

Duel of the Fates not only got the music video treatment, first debuting at the first ever Star Wars Celebration in Denver, CO on April 30th 1999 but would appear on the popular MTV shot Total Request Live. First appearing on the countdown on May 3rd it would remain for 11 days. It would also make the London Symphony Orchestra the only classical group to ever appear on the show. The video spread like wildfire and created a palpable excitement for this new era of Star Wars that would begin in only a few weeks time.

Celebrating The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace - Star Wars Celebration Chicago

It’s shaping up to be a banner year for The Phantom Menace and it’s only May. The spotlight shone down on the film during this years Star Wars Celebration Chicago during its very own 20th Anniversary Panel in the Wintrust Arena at McCormick Center. Guests there included Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Ian McDiarmid and Ray Park along with several from the design and production crew like Doug Chiang, Jean Bolte, John Knoll and Matthew Wood. Here the love for the film was palpable in the arena as fans and stars alike reminisced on this film and the phenomena it became.

Several books and comics this year have a The Phantom Menace and prequel era focus like Queen’s Shadow by E.K Johnston and Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray. Hasbro and other toy companies are also sharing in some of the love with exclusive releases that call-back to this golden era of Star Wars.

With the buzz now turning to the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker do not forget to reflect and celebrate this masterpiece of Star Wars storytelling! Trade disputes and all.

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