Magazines Seek the Force, Cash In on George Lucas’ New Star Wars Bonanza

The new Star Wars movie is coming. Perhaps you’ve heard.

In little more than a month, George Lucas’ vast, digitally rendered sci-fi fantasy will hit the screens to the kind of unblinking hosannas never before accorded a movie made essentially for kids. And like some fin de siècle sci-fi-pics-that-would-be- Star Wars (see–better yet, don’t– Godzilla , Antz , A Bug’s Life , Batman & Robin , Jurassic Park , etc.), anything having anything to do with the new film is suddenly, fetishistically “collectible.” The press, in its infinite ambivalence, has dutifully lined up to “cover” the event, running the same carefully respectful interview with writer-director, visionary-businessman, all-around pleasant family guy George Lucas over and over and dutifully printing the same photos of the actors and the computer-generated galaxy where the action takes place.

All of which should lead to a soul-searching philosophical question for editors and reporters: In the competitive rush to cover The Phantom Menace as a legitimate pop cultural phenomenon, has the media become little more than merchandising enablers–in a word, shills–for the film?

By now, it’s pretty much a moot point. Everyone wants a piece of the action: Vanity Fair (Annie Leibovitz photo spread in February; Natalie Portman profile in May), Entertainment Weekly (preview article and photo spread), Wired (interview with Mr. Lucas in February 1997 and May 1999, along with an article on the computer geeks behind the film), GQ (Ewan McGregor profile), Premiere (a “special collector’s issue”), The New York Times (profile of Mr. Lucas and separate Q.&A. session with same in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section), The New Yorker (profile of Mr. Lucas), 60 Minutes (profile of Mr. Lucas). The New York Post , copying USA Today , does a daily Star Wars countdown feature. Vogue has a “fashion spread” in its May issue featuring the outfits Natalie Portman wears as Amidala, the teenage queen from the planet Naboo (“an intergalactic fantasy of otherworldly beauty”). Even Metropolitan Home is running a photo illustrating the inside of a luxury box from the “pod races” scene in the movie. It was Lucasfilm’s idea.

Yes, it’s the selling of Star Wars. But the new movie will probably be successful, anyway. So, it basically amounts to the selling of Vanity Fair , Premiere , The New York Times , 60 Minutes , etc.–all of them riding the great Phantom Menace behemoth to the bank.

“What we’re seeing is the publicity machine trying to develop something that’s commensurate to the anticipation for the movie,” said Neal Gabler, author most recently of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality . “So what do you do? You kind of lift a little corner of the sheet over the statue … But really, more than the media generating this, they’re in a sense catching up to it.”

“I think that, obviously, George Lucas holds all the cards here,” said Premiere editor in chief Jim Meigs, who gave over almost his May “Special Collector’s Issue” to the movie, with four separate covers to appeal to Star Wars obsessives. Mr. Meigs had been negotiating for two years, he said, to allow for the many pages of coverage Premiere heaped on the movie, including a few odd-looking “exclusive” computer-generated photographs. But he was beaten by Vanity Fair , which was given first dibs at shooting the set by George Lucas, in part because the director knew Ms. Leibovitz. “It was pretty clear that we’d be the most prominent of the second wave,” said a somewhat humbled Mr. Meigs. He thinks Lucasfilm released the information so that it ended up in “reasonably classy” magazines before the movie opens and, presumably, all hell breaks loose.

To hear some journalists tell it, getting in on the hype was not as fun as it looks. “They are the most micro-managing, fascistic, incredibly controlling organization,” said one magazine writer who had to deal with Lucasfilm. “It was a slow and highly negotiated process,” said John Seabrook, who wrote about George Lucas in The New Yorker in 1997. “They are just very controlling.”

Which is why in interviews Mr. Lucas gives the same pat statements about the faults of the studio system, the future of digital filmmaking, how he’s just “telling stories” in his films and how fulfilling his family life is with his adopted children. Indeed, Mr. Lucas gets testy about anything else and is quick to dismiss “the media” and “the Internet” in the same breath. After his piece came out, Mr. Seabrook received a call from Lucasfilm informing him that an obscure English newspaper had plagiarized some of his piece. The New Yorker hadn’t noticed, but the folks at Lucasfilm were watching … closely.

Out in the paternalistic 3,000-acre archipelago of Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., where Lucasfilm is headquartered, things presumably look a bit different. As everyone contacted by Off the Record pointed out, they control all access to the movie–to the point of digitally manipulating photos to add fictional characters to the magazine portraits and sending along Lucasfilm handlers to make sure the actors were presented in costume correctly.

“I think that Star Wars has something for everybody,” said Lynne Hale, the director of communications at Lucasfilm who has orchestrated the media placement. “There’s so much artistry in Star Wars that when we were thinking about” where articles should be written, she said, Lucasfilm didn’t just go to the movie magazines. And because “there’s tremendous interest from publications in Star Wars ,” Ms. Hale said, Lucasfilm had its hand on the spigot, regulating which media outlet got what and when.

“A lot of these guys from the 70′s are sort of legends now,” said Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood . “If you made Star Wars , you’re going to be treated like an emperor … It’s more intense because this is the Holy Grail, so they get anything they ask for.”

Wired editor Katrina Heron went up to Lucasfilm headquarters twice in the process of putting together what became the magazine’s May cover–which featured a head shot of Mr. Lucas by Andres Serrano over the cover line “Believe the Hype” and a fold-out of a blurry, computer-generated picture of a 500 m.p.h. drag race across the desert floor that Wired wanted exclusively. ( Premiere ended up getting the same picture.) Ms. Heron said that because Wired was focusing on the computer-appreciation aspect of the movie in a “unique” way, and had written about Mr. Lucas in glowingly technical terms in February 1997, it wasn’t that hard to get Lucasfilm to cooperate this time. So, why did the magazine engage in such overt, if hackneyed, cheerleading on its cover, enjoining readers to “Believe the Hype”? Ms. Heron said it was both about the technology in the film and also how “my writer saw portions of the movie and we thought the movie was going to be really great.”

Ms. Hale said she couldn’t comment on why Vanity Fair got the first look at the Phantom Menace set. But judging from the meager riff tapped out by David Kamp, built upon a few sidelong musings from Mr. Lucas (“I’ve gotten much better performances out of my aliens this time”), the magazine didn’t get access to much else. The New York Times coverage was more substantive, if unsurprising: a 3,000-word feature, plus a 3,000-word Q.&A. session, on March 21, written by Orville Schell, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. And Lesley Stahl’s gushing, two-segment piece on 60 Minutes on March 28 was singularly dull. (Ms. Stahl to Mr. Lucas: “You remind me of my girlfriends who work and have children!”)

Substantive journalism doesn’t seem to be encouraged. CNN and Fortune are set to do a piece for the news network’s Newsstand show timed to the release of the movie, but according to one person interviewed for the piece, they aren’t getting much support from Lucasfilm because the company doesn’t want people delving into the money and marketing side of The Phantom Menace . (Spokesmen for Fortune and CNN’s Newsstand did not return calls for comment.) In the end, Vanity Fair polybagged its February issue like it was pornography. “People were buying two copies of it, one to open and one to keep for the future,” said Vanity Fair spokesman Beth Kseniak. Apparently, the polybag ploy worked; the magazine sold 541,000 copies on the newsstand, which, Ms. Kseniak said, was their fifth best-selling issue ever.

After it’s off the newsstand, Mr. Meigs said that Premiere is going to polybag and sell its four covers together “for pristine storage.” “Having four covers, on one level it’s a gimmick to appeal to the obsessive fan,” he said. “But it’s not just another movie. It’s more than that.”

Tell that to New York Post reporter Bill Hoffman, who’s been writing the countdown since March 28. “I’m not even a big fan,” he said. But as he struggles to come up with things to write about, he’s meeting the teeming multitudes who are. “These people are nuts .”

The music section in the April 13 Village Voice features three articles pondering the phenomenon of Jo Jo Dancer, a.k.a. the Gay Rapper, the angry, self-appointed critic of rock critics who recently distributed “The Rock Critical List,” a samizdat rant targeting certain writers and some aspects of the rock crit profession in general. Two of the three pieces were first-person rock crit reactions, but the third, by Jeff Howe, claimed to have done a close textual analysis of “The Rock Critical List” and the writer whom Off the Record reported on March 17 was being thought of as the prime suspect among his peers: Spin senior editor Charles Aaron. However, a close textual analysis of Mr. Howe’s piece might bring to mind another writer–namely Vassar College professor Donald Foster, the Shakespeare scholar who analyzed the novel Primary Colors for New York magazine in 1996 and figured out Joe Klein wrote it. That’s because Mr. Foster did, in fact, do the textual analysis for the piece. Voice music editor Chuck Eddy told Off the Record that Mr. Foster’s “agent didn’t want him in there,” so his name was taken out of the piece. Mr. Eddy also said Mr. Foster wasn’t paid for his work. Mr. Foster didn’t return calls for comment, but his agent, Chris Calhoun of Sterling Lord Literistic, copped to his client’s identity. “Oh, O.K., you’ve caught us,” he said.

Somewhere, Jo Jo is smiling.

Not all of associate editor John Podhoretz’s innovations in the New York Post ‘s features pages have been appreciated by a certain crotchety segment of the tabloid’s staff. Exhibit 1: Back in December, he moved Susan Brady Konig (daughter of Page Six inventor-turned-novelist James Brady) out of the opinion section and gave her a twice-a-week column in the rechristened Living section, where she could discuss her vaguely upscale family and chat about the issues of the day. (April 12: “I’m pretty disappointed about Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi. I thought their marriage would last …”)

Ms. Konig works out of her home and would seem to be a part of Mr. Podhoretz’s ambitions to make the Post a less gritty read. Indeed, she even refers to things she’s read in The New York Times in her column–a form of class treason at the Post . So, several weeks ago, pro-grit (and thus, anti-Podhoretz) reporters pasted a makeshift Konig-watch thermometer on a wall in the city room, making a mark every time she refers to The Times in her column. “The whole column’s based on The Times !” complained one newsroom critic.

When reached by Off the Record, Ms. Konig hadn’t heard of her fan club back at the paper, perhaps because, as she put it, about the only time she ever leaves her house is to go get a copy of The Times . “I don’t think I’ve made any Times references in the last couple of weeks,” she said, before admitting, ” The Times is a fabulous source, I will say that.”

Mr. Podhoretz did not return a call for comment.