In his fifth installment of this year-long series, LIMA Hall of Fame member Gary Caplan got to know Lucas
Licensing president Howard Roffman a little better. The pair’s discussion ranged from upcoming Star Wars franchise plans and new
entertainment to Roffman’s study of the Kennedy assassination.
Gary Caplan: Howard, thanks a lot for the interview. Even though we’ve known each other for a very long time, there are many things I’d like to know about you that I haven’t had the chance to ask. Why don’t we start at the beginning: Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Howard Roffman: Thanks, Gary. After graduating from law school, I worked for a big Washington, DC law firm and found it wasn’t really the life for me. But fate intervened and I got recruited by Lucasfilm after two years of law-firming. I had a good friend in Washington who was a very well-connected attorney. And a friend of his was the general counsel for Lucasfilm. She wanted to hire a young associate and said it didn’t matter if they had entertainment experience or not. She just wanted somebody who was smart and had a lot of potential, and my friend made the mistake of recommending me. I guess he didn’t know me very well! (laughs) So I moved to L.A. in 1980 and started with Lucasfilm.
Could you tell us a little bit about the areas of Lucasfilm you’re responsible for?
I’m involved in the general management of the company, and we’ve got an executive committee that is responsible for a lot of decisions that are made. I’m the president of Lucas Licensing, so I’m responsible for all the licensing business that we do. And I am also VP of business affairs, so all the attorneys in the company report to me.
How do you balance all those jobs?
Well, in terms of licensing, I moved into the senior role about 20 years ago. I know it really well now and I’ve got a great team. So licensing takes up less of my time because I can delegate so much to my team, and that frees me up to focus on other things, like business affairs.
Howard, looking back 20 years to when you first got started, what are the main ways that you feel the business has changed?
I think there’s been a tremendous consolidation on the property front, on the retail front and, in a lot of ways, on the licensee front. But definitely when I started, Wal-Mart was not the first name people thought of in retailing. Kmart was the king and Toys ‘R’ Us was still kind of coming up. There were a lot more retailers and there wasn’t this concentration of power, and that has fundamentally affected the business.
In the case of Star Wars, it does significant business in the specialty channel. So you are fortunate that the demand for your property extends beyond big box and mass market retail.
Star Wars is unusual in that respect because it’s such a growth property and such a long-lasting property, and there are markets it satisfies that wouldn’t be available to a lot of other IPs. But a new kids property that starts out today is probably not going to have a collectors segment. And to be honest, even though specialty stores are an important component of our business, the mass market still, by far, accounts for the lion’s share of sales.
Can we talk about George Lucas, your boss, for just a minute? George has received many honors over the years, and recently, he was inducted into the Toy Industry Association Hall of Fame. How did he feel about that?
I think he was very proud of that award and I was with him that night. He was genuinely touched by the tribute and the outpouring of affection from the toy industry in general. At the reception people were coming up to him for his autograph and telling him how much Star Wars has affected their lives.
Does he get involved in product design?
Well, with George, it’s always been that the creative process in making his films comes first. He has to do what he wants to do for the purpose of making a great film, and if it has licensing potential, that’s a great offshoot, but that’s not the motivating factor for him. But he does really love the products. He looks at every product when samples come through. And over the years, he’s developed a great trust of our licensing organization so he’s really delegated that responsibility to us. If there are big questions that come up about the appropriateness of the category or something that we know will be out of ordinary, I’ll go to him and make sure he’s comfortable with it. He was very involved in the creation of the Star Wars attractions at the Disney theme parks, and he’s got a book project that he’s working on right now.
In the years that you’ve spent with George, has he ever spoken to you about who his favorite characters were when he was a kid?
Somewhat. He was an avid comic reader and a film buff. He was really into Flash Gordon serials and was very influenced by Disney; he was at the opening of Disneyland in 1955. As he got older and started going to film school, he also was influenced by a wide range of filmmakers, including Kurosawa and John Ford.
How about you, Howard? When you were a kid growing up in Philadelphia, what were your pop culture influences?
I watched a lot of television and read a lot. I was always kind of the brainy kid and got interested in esoteric academic subjects. I even spent a good part of my teenage years researching the Kennedy assassination. I eventually wrote a book about it.
You wrote a book on it? Can tell me a bit about it?
I wrote it in my last year of high school. It looked at the way the Warren Commission investigated the assassination and the way it kind of presumed Oswald was guilty. It was actually called Presumed Guilty and was published during my first year of law school.
You should be very proud of that. Will you give me an autographed copy if you have an extra one lying around?
(laughing) If I can find it! It was long, long ago and far away.
Getting back to Lucasfilm for a minute. Howard, in our business, some properties come and go in what seems like the blink of an eye. Why do you think the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises have been so successful over the years?
Well, Stars Wars is definitely the one I can talk to in the most detail because that’s something that we manage day-in and day-out. It is – even with as much as I know about Star Wars – still a little bit humbling to think how deeply it has affected people for such a long time. I think a lot of it has to do with the way the story is structured; it’s built around classical mythology and resonates with people in terms of its fable-like quality. And it’s deep. There’s a complexity to the society, characters and relationships George has created.
What can we, as fans, look forward to in coming months from Lucasfilm and Star Wars?
There are a lot more stories to be told in the Star Wars universe. When George finished Episode III, he said, ‘I’m through making Star Wars movies,’ but he wasn’t through with Star Wars stories. And what he’s done is switch his attention to the medium of television. He’s working on a brand-new CGI series, The Clone Wars, which takes place between Episodes II and III. They’re expecting that to hit the market sometime in the second half of 2008. And all I can say is, it’s a very breakthrough series.
I’ve seen some of it. Amazing animation.
Where is it being produced?
It’s a collaboration between Lucasfilm Animation up at Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore and then another facility called CGCG in Taiwan. George is very excited about this program and actively involved in it; he’s the executive producer. And he’s also planning a live-action series to follow the animated series. It will be edgier and a little more adult-focused, but both of them are true to the Star Wars ethos, using all extensions of the Star Wars universe. The other area we’re working in, which is a very important one for us in terms of new ways to tell Star Wars stories, is video games. We’ve got some dramatic new technology for the next-generation consoles. We’ve got a game coming out in the first half of 2008 called The Force Unleashed that is actually set in between Episodes III and IV, so it’s that whole 20-year period that we’ve never explored before.
Speaking of extensions of the Star Wars universe, has anybody ever counted the number of products produced over the years?
(laughs) It would be like trying to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar.
OK, let me ask you a different question. What’s the biggest-selling Star Wars SKU of all time?
There are a couple of products that are sort of the motherlode in terms of sales volume. Action figures have been a staple of the Star Wars business – I would say they’re one of the bread-and-butter items that drives Star Wars. Role-play has been a really important category, and the Star Wars light saber is by far the most successful role-play product ever. We have sold tens of millions of them over the years. Video games have also become an immensely popular product; we’re selling several million copies of each title that comes out.
Do you have any favorite Lucasfilm characters, ones that you identify with?
It’s funny because these characters have become like my children. It’s like asking me who’s my favorite child. One thing that I love about the property is that you can find elements of yourself in so many of the characters. [For example], there’s something simple and pure about Luke Skywalker that’s very appealing; he’s such a dreamer, and the characterization of Luke in the first film is priceless. He’s one of the great archetypes that George has created. And Darth Vader was a great character in Episode IV, but all the other movies have developed him so much further. I now think he’s one of the most fascinating characters ever created.
When I saw Episode V, I was blown away by Yoda. I like to quote Yoda and I have a list of his quotes that I refer to all the time. He’s probably the character I associate with the most. Nothing wrong with that, is there?
I would agree with you; he is the most quotable. I use a lot of Yoda quotes, too.
Howard, getting back to the business, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing the licensing, promotions and merchandising businesses right now?
Boy, I think it really depends on whether you’re looking at being in a position of introducing a new property versus maintaining something that has more of a classic status. This is a really, really tough environment to launch new properties in because of the consolidation of retail. You can sign a million licensees, and if you can’t put product on the shelf, you’re not going to succeed.
I agree with you. Thanks so very much for seeing me today. It’s been such a great pleasure speaking with you, and please, don’t forget to try and arrange to have two seats reserved for me at the world premiere of the Indiana Jones movie in 2008.
Consider it done, Gary.
Gary Caplan is known in industry circles as ‘The
Godfather of Licensing’ and is president of Gary Caplan Inc., a Studio City, California-based consultancy
specializing in the marketing and management of licensing programs. For further information, check out www.garycaplaninc.com.