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In 1977, Howard Roffman took his seat in a cinema to watch Star Wars, the first chapter in the intergalactic science-fiction epic. He was utterly baffled. "I was in a theatre with so many screaming kids that I could barely even understand the movie and I was scratching my head [thinking]: 'What's this all about?' ... I was mystified."
More than 30 years on, he now believes the film is a work of "genius". Which is just as well. For the past 25 years, he has overseen the expansion of the division that creates and markets Star Wars toys, clothing and games - from Yoda Lego clocks to Darth Vader helmets to online multiplayer games set in the Sith Republic. It is one of the most successful licensing brands of all time. Star Wars consumer products have sold Dollar23bn worth of merchandise. And the film series alone has generated revenues of Dollar4bn since the first was released. According to Box Office Mojo, which tracks film performance, Star Wars is the second highest grossing film series behind the Harry Potter franchise and ahead of James Bond.
The Philadelphian, who has neatly clipped white hair and a matching goatee, started in the legal department of Lucasfilms, the production empire founded and overseen by director George Lucas. Then it was a relatively small affair with fewer than 100 employees, which meant Mr Roffman got a chance to experience different parts of the business. Today, as president of Lucasfilm's licensing division, he is the star of the show, speaking at the Brand Licensing Europe trade fair in Olympia, west London - which is packed with cartoon heroines on mugs and jewellery boxes, and action heroes on posters and duvet covers. People in padded Smurf and Bob the Builder costumes hand out sweets and lollipops.
The soft-spoken 58-year-old plays down his own input into the company's licensing success. To hear him discuss his job, it would be easy to think there was next to no skill involved. Instead, he attributes the merchandising achievement to the "genius" of Star Wars (he repeatedly refers to Lucas as a genius).
"It operates on so many different levels. It has this level of pure entertainment; it's just a rollicking good time, it's adventure, it's excitement, it's humour," he says breathlessly. "But it's also playing with classic mythology; classic archetypes. George Lucas was very influenced by the mythological structure and also the psychological impact of myths. He wove the mythological structure into this very accessible, popular story. Nobody's really duplicated that since."
The cultural resonance of Star Wars is wide and deep. In 2006, US vice-president Dick Cheney referred to himself as the Darth Vader - shorthand for evil - of the Bush administration. Facebook forums, Twitter accounts and online discussion groups dissect the films' meanings.
No group is more devoted than the 501st Legion. Established in 1997, it boasts 5,000 members in 40 countries who make and wear accurate replicas of imperial stormtrooper armour and imperial officer uniforms. Lucasfilms hosts a Star Wars celebration - 40,000 came to the last one, held in Orlando, Florida, in 2010. There was even a speed dating event inviting fans to make a love match.
Star Wars merchandising was help¬ed by a new type of consumer - the male film toy collectors. "By the early 1990s, [men who watched Star Wars as children] were either in college or graduate school or beginning their careers, [and] they were starting to have disposable income," says Mr Roffman. "It had nostalgia, it had significance to them and it just became cool to collect figures."
Collectables continue to be vital for the company's revenues. "There is a very high-end market with prop replicas and resin statues. We've had a couple of full-scale character reproductions that have been in the Dollar7,500 to Dollar10,000 range ... And Then there is also the broad collector market. It's the guy who's going into Tesco or Asda and buying action figures, and buying two - one that he can take out of the package and one that he keeps in the package, and that's a much less expensive purchase. And there are even a few completists that just have to have everything [in a category]."
Adult enthusiasts convey their passion to their children, which in turn sells Star Wars to new generations. "Dads that love Star Wars want their kids to have that experience", he says.
While Mr Roffman likes to attribute the success of the merchandising to the films' enduring appeal, he is underplaying the commercial savviness behind the films' longevity. There is a great deal more effort in¬volved in ensuring Star Wars' shelf-life than he likes to admit. New cinema releases, such as this year's 3D edition of the first instalment of Star Wars, or anniversary DVDs and Blu-ray special packs promising special features, help generate new audiences and new toy consumers.
Moreover, he is also understating the importance of the "expanded universe" - the umbrella term for lic¬ensed material beyond the six feature films, including books, comics or spin-off series that expand the stories told in the films, taking place anywhere from 25,000 years before The Phantom Menace to 140 years after Return of the Jedi. The cartoon series Clone Wars has kept the brand alive, introducing an ever-growing array of new characters, creatures and vehicles into the intergalactic lexicon. All storylines must be passed by Mr Lucas.
The toy market now is very different to that of 1977. "The choices that kids have today are so astronomically greater than what they had when Star Wars first came out. It's daunting to be a kid today," he says. To keep up with children's more sophisticated tastes, Mr Roffman has overseen the adaptation of stories and characters to multiplayer computer games, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, which tells the story of the heyday of the Sith, a storyline undev¬eloped in the films.
"What we've seen over the past 34 years is that it's a story and a property that has stood the test of time. It is something that is passed down from one generation to another. And that it's a very renewable resource," he says.
He adds: "There are many, many, many amazing films, but there are very few that make a successful transition into consumer products... The overlap of those two things is like lightning in a bottle - it doesn't happen very often and it's probably not a great idea to start out with that aim."