A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away called Hollywood, not even the Imperial Starmasters of the Studios dreamed billions of dollars could be made from Wookiee cookies, Ewok pajamas, or Jabba the Hutt bubble bath.
That was before filmmaker George Lucas blasted off with his ''Star Wars'' trilogy about the interplanetary battle between the forces of good (the Knights of the Jedi) and the forces of evil (the Galactic Empire). It resulted in over $ 2 billion in retail sales for the first two episodes even before ''Return of the Jedi'' was released in June. Now a massive Jedi merchandising campaign is rumbling out of the Tatooine Desert which threatens to crush all other movie merchandising records in its wake.
It could be called ''Returns from the Jedi,'' an intergalactic retailing thriller that is just beginning. For starters, there are 50 national licensees already distributing massed battalions of merchandise, from Princess Leia creme rinse to Yoda vases and $12 million worth of Kenner toys. Some of the biggest corporate names in the United States are involved, among them General Mills, which owns Kenner; Campbell's Soup, with its Pepperidge Farm Jedi cookies; and Coca-Cola with its Jedi glasses promotion at Burger Kings across the country. Montgomery Ward's 339 stores nationwide have opened ''Jedi Outposts'' where only Star Wars-Jedi merchandise is sold to Ward's 10 million annual customers.
But the Force will really be with the Jedi merchandisers starting July 1, when a campaign begins that even the lizard-faced Admiral Ackbar would envy. That's when Jedi Adventure Centers will open at 350 major shopping malls across the nation, through July 17. Each of the malls has paid $2,500 for the centers, which are billed as ''modular environments'' to be set up in the malls themselves, not in the stores. Each will include a Jedi Hall of Fame, with original artwork; a wraparound photo center that will frame customers against a fantasy from the movie (such as the Ewok village); and a communications center for phone conversations with Darth Vader or See Threepio. The Jedi Adventure Center promotional package includes 1,400 prizes contributed by licensees and valued at $4,800, plus posters and a 60-page marketing guide. Adventure Centers have also been sent out to 20 foreign countries, including most of the English-speaking world, plus Japan and South America.
But at Lucasfilm, which financed, produced, and owns ''Return of the Jedi,'' they are reluctant to talk about anything so crass as merchandising sales and licensees. An industry source, however, says it's widely believed in Hollywood that Lucasfilm makes more from the merchandising of the films than from the films themselves.
''We don't feel it's appropriate to the film to talk about merchandising,'' says Lucasfilm's Sid Gannis, vice-president in charge of marketing. ''So I'm not going to talk about that. . . . It would look like we're making films to make merchandise, when in fact we're making films. Our (film) marketing strategy supports the idea that merchandising is a kind of negative. The feeling then is we're in it for the bucks, when in fact we're not. What comes first is the movie. So we've decided to keep a low profile.'' He does, however, refer me to William Minot, director of national promotions for Twentieth Century-Fox, which is distributing the movie.
Mr. Minot says, ''It is clearly the largest movie promotion and possibly the largest retail promotion in the US.'' But he declines to estimate what possible merchandising profits might be, whether it will outstrip the previous ''Star Wars'' films or ''E.T.'' ''It's relative to the success of the film, and if you extrapolate the figures . . . ,'' he trails off, hinting that it may out-merchandise them all. ''The largest single week in box office movie history was with E.T.'s third week, which took in $25 million; 'Jedi' did $45.3 million in its first week and broke existing records. So there are strong indications sales will go well.'' The film has surpassed all box office records, having taken in $117 million as of last week.
Until the $2 billion in merchandising for the first two ''Star Wars'' films first began to pile up, Lucasfilm hadn't realized it was sitting on a gold mine in the sky. Although neither Lucasfilm nor Twentieth Century-Fox will discuss how much Lucasfilm reaps from the merchandising, a standard agreement is a percentage royalty on the sale of merchandise of anywhere from 5 to 15 percent.
David De Mala, director of communications at Kenner Toys, says: ''When Lucas and his people originally brought the first movie, 'Star Wars,' to us, they had been turned down by three other companies. Space had never been a really big toy seller. Even though there had been the Flash Gordon gun and 'Star Trek' as a successful TV show, there had never been a (space) movie successfully licensed before. But when they brought the movie to us, we felt even if the movie is not successful, everything in the movie is a toy, like the X-wing fighter, everything in the Tatooine Desert.''
''It is,'' he says, ''a very 'toy-ectic' concept. It translates from film into a toy with the same magic, excitement, and fun. . . .'' Also money. Mr. De Mala says that ''Star Wars'' toys have been a $100 million line annually for Kenner since they began in 1977, ''and we expect another $100 million this year from 'Return of the Jedi.' '' The Ewok toys alone will result in $1 million in sales, he estimates. The Jabba the Hutt play set (in which a monster gobbles up toy figures that have plummeted through a trapdoor) should do close to three-quarters of a million dollars, he says. The most successful figures in terms of unit quantity will be the piglike Gamorrean guards, because you need to buy several at once, he suggests.
In the original ''Star Wars,'' the most popular toy was the Millennium Falcon , Han Solo's spaceship; in ''The Empire Strikes Back,'' it was the AT-AT Imperial walker, the elephantine fighting machine. So far, Kenner has sold ''in excess of 185 million toys'' from the space trilogy it took a gamble on in 1977. Over 80 Jedi toys are in the current line.
With the latest film, the mind boggles over the variety of items apart from toys being merchandised. Looking at a list of the licensees and their wares it seems everything but Jedi dental floss is being pushed. Among the products in the Jedi line: slumber bags, rubber masks, watches, roller skates, ''activity desks,'' wastebaskets, toothbrushes, wallpaper, curtains, plastic mugs, lunch boxes (with thermoses), belt buckles, cork boards, comic books, soap, kit bags, combs, bubble bath, video games, 3-D board games, a record album, shoelaces, posters, pencil cases, bubble gum, underwear, T-shirts, and pajamas.
The books alone are a sales bonanza. Ballantine Books is already publishing five Jedi paperbacks, with three more yet to be released. They include James Kahn's vivid novelization of the flim, extraordinarily well written for this often scoffed-at genre; in its 12th printing (more than 2.5 million copies sold so far), it heads the New York Times paperback best-seller list.
Among the other ''Jedi'' books: ''Return of the Jedi Portfolio,'' with 20 full-color paintings; an illustrated edition of James Kahn's novelization, '' 'Return of the Jedi' Sketchbook,'' with sketches used in the film; and ''My Jedi Journal,'' full of blank pages for incipient Luke Skywalkers or Princess Leias. Random House also publishes a best-selling hard-cover adaptation of the screenplay, with illustrations.
''Return of the Jedi'' may bring back literacy to the media generation. And that's fine with merchandising baron Bill Minot of Twentieth Century-Fox. He points out that the games and contests that are part of the Jedi Adventure Centers were planned ''so they shouldn't be sort of 'no-brainers,' not that sort of rub-and-smell children's game stuff. That's not George Lucas's style.'' Prizes at the center will be awarded for a Star Wars quiz (with questions such as ''Name the bounty hunter who takes the carbonite-frozen Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt''), for a space vehicle-spotting contest, a Jedi coloring contest, and a ''crisscross'' puzzle (''Name the mammothlike creatures ridden by Tusken Raiders'').
There are some extremely grotesque creatures in the first section of ''Return of the Jedi,'' chief among them the slobbering monster Jabba the Hutt. He's known as a space gangster, and looks like a mountainous, slimy oyster with red snake eyes. But off the 70-mm screen, less fearsome depictions of Jabba are selling briskly on drink glasses and other merchandise. Plush Ewoks, the furry little tribesmen that look like militant teddy bears, are expected to be hot items when they hit the stores later this summer.
And the ovens at Pepperidge Farm's three cookie factories are busy baking up a Jedi storm. Although they've never been in the children's cookie market before , the line represents a ''significant'' part of the company's business right now , says vice-president Thomas Fey. The ''Star Wars'' cookies, which come in vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter flavors, are made from a crisp shortbread dough in a total of 17 characters. Jabba the Hutt, for instance, is chocolate; Chewbacca the Wookiee is peanut butter; and Wicket, the leader of the Ewoks, is vanilla. (Jabba's cackling little sidekick, Salacious Crumb, is not included.) At Pepperidge Farm, which last year sold $450 million worth of cookies and other food items, all these Wookiee cookies are good news. ''They're going to do sweet things for the company,'' says Mr. Fey.
How sweet it is for retailers, too. As a spokesman for a department store chain said, ''The Jedi line promotes itself.''