When Star Wars: The Phantom Menace took a pot shot at Godzilla

jar jar binks and qui gon jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
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The promotional campaign for 1998’s Godzilla for some reason seemed to get under the skin of the Lucasfilm and Star Wars marketing team.

Few films in the 1990s had as infamous and brash a marketing campaign as that for Roland Emmerich’s take on Godzilla. The movie became something of priority for Sony’s TriStar Pictures in the wake of Jurassic Park’s success in 1993 – big CGI lizards seemed like a good business to get into – and having bought the rights to a proposed trilogy of films in 1992, it duly wanted to get cracking.

Originally, Jan De Bont was hired to direct in 1994, off the back of his success with Speed. The plan then was to have the film in cinemas for 1996, ahead of the Jurassic Park sequel. Eventually though, De Bont went off to do Twister and Speed 2: Cruise Control instead. And off the back of the huge success of Independence Day, writer/producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich took on the Godzilla job.

After a little bit of toing and froing, the greenlight was formally given, and the movie was to be Sony’s most expensive to date. The production budget was set somewhere in the region of $140m – Jurassic Park had cost $65m, by way of contrast – and the studio was keen to position the film as a huge summer tentpole movie. The must-see movie of that summer.

It also had no intention of hedging its bets when it came to the marketing campaign. Infamously a year before the film’s release, a teaser trailer was especially created and put into cinemas. In 1997, when the trailer landed, it was pretty much unheard of for a promo of its ilk to land a full calendar year in advance of the movie’s release (even the brilliant, specially-filmed Terminator 2 promo was only half a year in advance, as we talked about here), and this one came with a staggering $600,000 budget allocated to it.

It was scheduled to run before screenings of 1997’s Men In Black, and it’s pretty easy to see which film it’s taking a shot at, with The Lost World: Jurassic Park out that very summer…

The whole Godzilla campaign would then morph into a mantra of ‘Size Does Matter’, the tagline for the film that found itself plastered on billboards, on advertising, on trailers, on pretty much any tie-in possible.

But by taking a little pop at another movie in its first promotion, the Godzilla team had in turn opened the door for other movies to do the same to it. They didn’t need asking twice.

First up, then, was Michael Bay’s rival 1998 blockbuster, Armageddon. Never one to shy away from a subtle moment of nuance, here’s the little moment he wove into his movie…

But the biggest potshot was arguably yet to come.

At the time the summer schedules for 1998 were being clogged up with blockbusters, moviegoers had one eye on the following year’s enormous release. 1999 was the year that Star Wars came back to cinemas, and arguably no film had been more anticipated.

Yet Godzilla was making lots of noise, and for reasons that have never really come to light, Lucasfilm decided to have a pop. On the official Star Wars website, therefore, a poster appeared using the same visual style and font that the Godzilla marketing campaign had been deploying. And to this day, it’s something of an oddity.

Here’s the poster that was put online – and as you can see at the bottom, there’s no hiding where it came from…

The dig was clear. Reviews for Godzilla had not been on the kind side, with the suggestion put forward by many that Emmerich and Devlin were so interested in the spectacle, that they sold audiences really rather short on the story. Sure, the film opened to strong box office, but word of mouth soon had it slipping down the charts.

The film opened in May 1998 in the US, but its eventual American gross of $136m was well short of expectations. The film would make a profit though, given that its total worldwide gross was $379m. Yet Lucasfilm would post its poster just a week or two later. It’d create something of an internet uproar when internet uproars were something of a rarity. Halycon days.

The poster wouldn’t last long, though, and hours after appearing on the front of the Star Wars site, it was gone. What’s more, it wasn’t commented on, and came and went as quickly as it appeared. A post over at Ain’t It Cool, which at the time was the biggest movie site out there, stirred things a little and suggested that George Lucas wasn’t a fan of Emmerich and Devlin. But that was that. With no social media to amplify it, this one spread via word of mouth and emails.  Had it appeared in the current era? Well, you can just imagine.

It’d be the only veer off-piste for the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace marketing campaign, which otherwise played things far, well, classier.

And the irony, of course, was that a year later, when The Phantom Menace found itself in the spotlight, one of the key criticisms of that film was a plot that, well, could have used a bit of tuning itself. No rival movie, though, opted to do a spoof poster taking potshots at its and its trade disputes, though. Which makes the whole Godzilla mini-saga something of an anomaly in otherwise corporate-controlled modern movie marketing stories…

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