May the Cash be With You

Jeff Ayers likes to tell people exactly where he was when the first "Star Wars" film hit movie theaters 30 years ago.

"I was still in mom the day 'Star Wars' came out," he jokes.

A manager at New York's world-famous comic book store Forbidden Planet where's he's worked for 12 years, the womb didn't stop Ayers from becoming a diehard fan of George Lucas' intergalactic opus ... after birth, of course.

Like any good fan, over the years Ayers has collected more than a few "Star Wars" knickknacks -- a Yoda hand puppet adorns the top of his TV set, a fact he proudly shares. He's made his modest contribution to the multibillion-dollar empire that the movies have spawned over the last three decades, but at the Planet, he's also been witness to the voracious appetite the public has for anything "Star Wars."

"They're rabid to the extent that people have to buy $1,000 glass cases just to house the stuff they buy," Ayers said.

From the series' iconic action figures and groundbreaking toy line, to clothes, video games, jewelry, books, comics, art, foodstuffs, lawn sprinklers and almost every other conceivable product, the power of the Force is nothing compared to the power of "Star Wars" merchandise to reel in the bucks.

When a Brand Is Born

Because Lucas Films is a privately held company, it doesn't disclose revenue figures, but estimates suggest that between all six films, they've generated roughly $4.5 billion at the box office alone.

But while the movies themselves represent the entirety of Lucas' epic, they represent only a sliver of the financial might of the "Star Wars" brand.

At the forefront of the sci-fi franchise's merchandise juggernaut is the series' pioneering toy line originally made by the now defunct Kenner Products, and now by Hasbro, which acquired Kenner in the early '90s.

"They were different than anything the industry had ever seen before because they encouraged kids to make their own plays and continue the story themselves," Bob Friedland, a spokesman for Toys' R' Us told ABC News. "It was one of the first movies that really broke out on toy shelves."

Though Friedland said Toys 'R' Us doesn't share sales figures on individual product lines, an analyst at the investment bank and institutional securities firm Piper Jaffray Co. estimated that since 1999, when Hasbro acquired the "Star Wars" license, retail sales have hit a whopping $2.4 billion.

Hasbro's take is a paltry $1.9 billion, according to the firm. That's a lot of Han Solo figures.

"I can't think of any other property that has done that well in sales," explained Anthony Gikas, a managing director and senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray.

Not bad considering the first "Star Wars" toys were just slips of paper.

"The very first 'Star Wars' toy that was put out on the shelf was an empty box with the promise you'd get a toy down the road," explained Derryl Depriest, senior director of marketing for boys toys at Hasbro.

Because Kenner wasn't able to get "Star Wars" toys into stores in time for the all-important Christmas shopping season following the first film's release in 1977, it issued "early bird kits," which amounted to an IOU promising four action figures -- Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2 -- some time after the holiday.

"That just underscores how revolutionary not only the film was, but the demand for merchandise related to the movies," Depriest said. "When 'Star Wars' came out in 1977, it triggered a very sentimental response in a whole generation of kids, because it was not only unlike anything that had come before it, but the storytelling was so intrinsically linked to what it means to be a hero, rising up against an overwhelming foe, and just a great story of human will, that it touched people in a very significant way."

A Juggernaut's 'Je Ne Sais Quoi'

Since the release of "Star Wars" there have been numerous film and television franchises that have followed Lucas' lead in turning a work of art, into a work of cash.

Merchandising for the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy and a slew of comic-book-inspired movies in recent years for example, mimics the product blitz surrounding "Star Wars." But it's a tough act to follow.

"'Star Wars' spawned a whole generation of sci-fi properties, but it is still the unassailable dominant property," said Depriest. "The best example we have for the continued demand for 'Star Wars' action figures is that to date we have produced somewhere around 25 different Luke Skywalker figures over the years."

The company continues to refine the process of making the toys by adding detail, plus new and old costumes.

But what is it about the "Star Wars" universe that keeps adults buying toys for themselves and has inspired a new generation of fans to collect, acquire and enjoy this merchandise?

"The million-dollar question," said Anita Frazier, industry analyst for toys and games with the NPD Group, via e-mail. "These questions are impossible for me to answer, because while you can identify elements that can lead to a successful toy line, there are plenty of examples of properties that have those elements yet don't achieve the same level of success."

Frazier continued: "I do think the nature of entertainment is elusive -- and if we could really pinpoint why it is that one succeeds where another one fails, I'd take those skills to Vegas and make myself rich!"

Beyond the Force of Film

While battery-powered light sabers and whirring plastic spaceships may bring back memories for those who've grown up with the "Star Wars" franchise, they're just the tip of the iceberg.

Aside from merchandise, the films' unparalleled success has spawned parodies like Mel Brooks' "Spaceballs" and fan favorite "Hardware Wars," not to mention hours worth of "Saturday Night Live" skits. Even George Lucas, who would be a very rich man from the movies alone, has seen his Skywalker Sound and Industrial Light and Magic businesses boom into multimillion-dollar companies since they were created to produce the first film.

And the saga has continued with book publisher Del Rey, a subsidiary of Random House, which has produced almost 250 "Star Wars" novels based on both the films' iconic main characters, as well as additional ones invented by the books' authors.

"We publish about five or six ['Star Wars' books] a year," explained Scott Shannon, vice president and deputy publisher for Del Rey. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us and it's tons of fun."

As if that weren't enough, Del Rey recently released what they're calling the definitive behind-the-scenes book on "Star Wars," titled "The Making of Star Wars."

Dark Horse Comics continues to produce comic books based on the movie, and George Lucas is hard at work on an animated "Star Wars" TV series and TV movie based on the universe.

"Looking forward, to the things that Lucas Films and Lucas Arts [Lucas' video game company] are doing to tell new 'Star Wars' stories to kids, the future for 'Star Wars' looks just as bright as it ever has," said Depriest. "'Star Wars' is forever."

For fans, it's hoped that's true. For consumers, it's almost a certainty.