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Image: Collector Steve Sansweet
Courtesy of Lucasfilm
Steve Sansweet, director of content management and head of fan relations at Lucasfilm, houses his massive “Star Wars” memorabilia collection on a former chicken ranch appropriately renamed Rancho Obi-Wan.
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TODAY.com
updated 6/23/2010 4:19:39 PM ET 2010-06-23T20:19:39

A long time ago — 33 years to be exact — in a theater not so far away, a movie named “Star Wars” filled captivated audiences’ imaginations with stories about rebel alliances, galactic empires and spacecraft that could travel at hyper drive.

Since then, original fans of that film have grown up to be (somewhat) mature adults with their own families.

Yet still today, millions of fans, many of whom weren't even born at the time the movie was released, snatch up everything from movie figurines to “Star Wars”-promotional dog food. Thanks to the universe surrounding the third-highest-grossing film series of all time, the franchise has the uncanny ability to maintain a loyal fan base decades after the initial release of the film.

“The fans are so invested in the universe that they’ll buy anything — literally,” said Jason Geyer, senior art director at The Promotion Network and creator of ActionFigureInsider.com.

The new hope
A study published in June 2010 by The Licensing Book, a trade magazine for toy manufacturers, asked boys aged 5 to 10 what their favorite movie-based toy was. The resounding No. 1 answer was “Star Wars,” beating out “Harry Potter,” “Transformers,” “G.I Joe,” “Avatar” and other recent blockbusters. Even more impressive? There hasn’t been a live-action “Star Wars” film in five years.

Image: "Star Wars" action figures
Courtesy of James Boryla
James Boryla sold 15 original “Star Wars” action figures from his own collection for over $3,000.

In the first quarter of 2009, “Star Wars” toys dominated licensed toy sales — more than 90 percent ahead of any other license — thanks in part to the new animated TV series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” according to Toy News online. The Christmas prior, the franchise moved 5.7 million units of toys, exceeding $450 million in toy sales for 2008.

This doesn’t surprise Steve Sansweet, director of content management and head of fan relations at Lucasfilm.

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“It's not just the movies,” Sansweet said. “It’s the fiction and the toys following the universe. We really let the fans play in new ways.”

And, it’s not just new items either. James Boryla, who runs SWseller.com, a website that specifically sells “Star Wars” memorabilia, said he makes a comfortable living off sales from his site and eBay. Growing up, Boryla worked at a local store that sold nothing but “Star Wars” collectibles. Realizing he could make money from his own collection, Boryla once pulled in more than $3,000 for a group of 15 action figures in their original packaging.

“Many remember seeing the original films when they were kids, and they remember having these items when they were growing up,” Boryla explained. “Quite a few collectors seek out these items from their childhood for nostalgia.”

The empire begins
It wasn’t so easy for the “Star Wars” franchise to take off. When George Lucas was negotiating with 20th Century Fox to make the first movie, the director opted for a meek salary while negotiating for final cut of the film, 40 percent of the net box-office gross, all rights to future sequels and ownership of all the merchandising rights for “Star Wars.” The studio thought it was getting a better deal since it didn’t have to put much money up front. Today, the sales for Lucasfilm entertainment properties, which include the “Indiana Jones” franchise, top $8 billion in consumer sales a year, according to the company.

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In the beginning, no toy manufacturer wanted to work with a science fiction movie since the genre had not done well at the box office in the 1970s, Sansweet said. One month before the first film’s release, Kenner Products gave Lucas’ dream a chance. When the holidays came around and children were clammoring for “Star Wars” merchandise, Kenner didn’t have time to produce any action figures. So, the company did the next best thing and sold approximately 600,000 I.O.U. coupons guaranteeing fans could be among the first to own some of the initial “Star Wars” merchandise coming out the next year.

“Unlike today, where the merchandise comes out six months before, the toys came out to a market that demanded it,” Sansweet said.

An ex-Los Angeles bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, Sansweet is the real fan deal. He quit his 26-year career with the newspaper to take his position with Lucasfilm in 1996. He attended the original film’s press screening on the FOX lot in Los Angeles and has been collecting “Star Wars” memorabilia since before the film was released. His first item was a promotional spiral notebook-like brochure used to convince theater owners to book “Star Wars.” A reporter at the Journal offices had tossed it away and Sansweet dug it out of the trash. In order to house his private museum — which has enough memorabilia to fill two warehouses — Sansweet bought a former chicken ranch appropriately renamed Rancho Obi-Wan.

“I was blown away by the movie,” he said, recalling the first time he saw “Star Wars.” “I remember going back to the VP of publicity (of 20th Century Fox) and asking, ‘Can I have that entry pass back? I’d like to keep it.’”

The alliance expands
Sansweet admits there have been some mistakes, especially around the time “Star Wars: Episode I” was released. The market was oversaturated with “Star Wars” products due to overly high estimations for demand. But over the years, Lucasfilm has remained receptive and attentive to fans, including offering licenses for unusual inside-joke type products.

These include ThinkGeek’s tauntaun sleeping bag straight from the iconic scene from “Empire Strikes Back” where Han Solo slits open one of the creatures and places a near-frozen Luke Skywalker inside its belly to prevent his pal from dying. Now, fans can recreate that moment in the comfort of their own homes — without the smell. Shane Peterman, PR manager of ThinkGeek, said they’ve sold about 10,000 units, placing it in the top 10 percent of their product sales.

Image: "Star Wars" TaunTaun sleeping bag
ThinkGeek.com
Looking for the warmth of a sliced open TaunTaun without the smell? Try a TaunTaun sleeping bag from ThinkGeek.

The sleeping bags were initially developed as an April Fools’ Joke because the company didn’t think Lucasfilm would actually give them the license. After fans attempted to order the product and sadly found out it was a hoax, Lucasfilm agreed to give ThinkGeek approval.

“We’re kind of at the point where a lot of the ‘Star Wars’ merchandise is stuff that’s been done,” Peterman said. “We’re taking new ideas and breathing new life into it.”

Lucasfilm has a couple more interesting items to add to its list, to be announced at “Star Wars Celebration V” in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 12-15. Sansweet’s favorite is a new plush wampa, complete with detachable Velcro arm. He’s been getting a kick out of asking people to pull the creature’s arm and seeing their face when it comes off — a reference to another Skywalker scene from “Empire Strikes Back.”

“It’s just, like, super cool!” Sansweet said with glee.

“Some items are surprising, but it keeps it interesting,” SWseller.com’s Boryla said. “Without (Lucas’) approvals of certain items, I wouldn’t be able to offer the variety I do today.”

The young Padawans
As for Sansweet, he’s passing on his love for the “Star Wars” universe to his great nephew. The 3-year-old recently called him and in his squeaky voice asked Sansweet to get him R2-D2. Ever the loving uncle, Sansweet obliged, but he bought a new toy instead of giving him one from his personal collection. He only buys or collects one of each item, and he’s not willing to part with any of it.

“I wanted Matthew to have something age-appropriate,” Sansweet reasoned. “I got him a licensed ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ R2-D2 plush backpack, which can be used to hold some of the other ‘Star Wars’ toys I'll be buying him!”

The saga continues.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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