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''Star Wars'' mauls store shelves

The ''Phantom Menace'' merchandising campaign kicks off with a bang

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''Star Wars'' mauls store shelves

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Darth Maul action figures were in short supply; the hyperbole wasn't.

On May 3, Phantom Menace mania was officially launched (as if the ''unofficial'' craze hadn't been overwhelming enough), as the biggest movie merchandising campaign in history got under way. Around the country, a flood of Phantom products hit store shelves — though they didn't stay there for long. In New York City, 24-year-old John Green was one of roughly 350 who lined up outside a Toys ''R'' Us Sunday night, May 2, waiting for the store to open its doors at 12:01 a.m. Green's sober assessment: ''This is bigger than Jesus. It's like the Beatles.'' Three and a half hours later, the perspective was no less warped at a Toys ''R'' Us in Long Beach, Calif. Surveying the remains of a ravaging that saw hundreds of adults shredding boxes and pawing shelves, 28-year-old John Gabel was stunned. ''I didn't think people would be such animals about it,'' said Gabel. ''That's disappointing.''

Well, not for Phantom licensees. That loud whoop you heard Monday morning was the collective cheering of retailers and marketers nationwide, celebrating the success of their midnight madness events. With typical military precision, George Lucas put a tight lid on the release of Phantom products and threatened harsh sanctions against store owners who jumped Monday's release date. Predictably, that turned May 3 into an event unto itself. Toys ''R'' Us sold 1.25 million units of Phantom product nationally on that day, including 50,000 Lego sets alone. FAO Schwarz reported more than 1,500 people at its New York City flagship in the first three and a half hours of May 3, and each customer purchased an average of $100 worth of merchandise (you do the math). When all is said and done, Phantom tie-ins ''will probably represent the single biggest event in the history of the toy business,'' says industry analyst John Taylor of Arcadia Investments, who predicts that sales will hit between $500 million and $1 billion by the end of the year.

As for early lessons, the most popular character is clearly the villainous Darth Maul: Action figures of the red-faced bandit flew off nearly every store's shelves, and by 12:30 a.m., Darth Maul dolls had been posted for sale at Yahoo! Auctions online. (The starting bid for a $6.99 figure was $15.) Ballantine, which hit bookstores with four different covers for its Phantom companion novel (first printing: 1.2 million), reported that the Darth Maul cover looked to be the hottest seller among kids and teens. And Hasbro, clearly aware of the horned one's popularity, decided to make you-know-who the central image of all its Phantom toy packaging. ''We looked at who was comparable to Darth Vader in terms of recognition and coolness,'' says Hasbro VP Tim Hall, ''and that was Darth Maul.''

Another important lesson from the May 3 crowds: The Phantom sales hyperdrive will be significantly fueled by nostalgic Gen-Xers who made Star Wars a toy phenomenon in the '70s. ''My father did the same thing with me the first night Star Wars toys came out 20 years ago,'' says 27-year-old David Horvath. ''It brings me back to my own childhood.'' Of course, slackers who went scurrying for those familiar toys found them boasting high-tech innovations: Hasbro's action figures feature computer chips that enable them to spout movie dialogue — when used with a special $30 CommTech Reader.

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