Alright all you die-hard Star Wars fans I have a challenge for you. At which point in Return of the Jedi is the word "Ewok" first mentioned?
You can rack your brain all you want, and you may even swear you remember C-3PO giving their name at some point, but the simple fact is, there is no place in any of the Star Wars films where Ewoks are actually identified by their proper name.
Even more surprising (to me at least) is the fact that Emperor Palpatine is only ever referred to as "The Emperor" in the original trilogy. Boba Fett's name is uttered for the first time in Return of the Jedi during the skiff battle on Tatooine.
Just before he is knocked in the Sarlacc Pit, screaming like a total jackass, by a half-blind Han Solo.
So how is it that, in the age before the internet, millions of kids were familiar with these names? The answer is simple:
In 1973, when George Lucas was negotiating his contract for the first (and, at the time, the assumed only) Star Wars film, he turned down a 300% pay raise in favor of two stipulations. First, Lucas would retain rights to merchandising for the films. Second, he would retain the rights for sequels.
Fox Studios readily agreed Lucas' conditions since nobody at the time was making any money on movie merchandising, and there was not a single person involved who thought Star Wars would have any kind of success. So George Lucas walked away with $150,000 while the execs at Fox presumably laughed their asses off and twiddling their mustaches after screwing over this naive young film maker.
Fox Studios executive circa 1973.
Of course, as everybody knows, Star Wars did incredibly well, and while box-office sales were impressive, the movie's merchandising earned $100 million from 1977 to 1978. This massive success gave George Lucas a brilliant idea. Months before the film's sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, hit theaters the film's merchandise was on store shelves. Kids could buy the Boba Fett and Lando Calrissians action figures, long before they even knew what part they had to play in the story.
When working on the script for Return of the Jedi the Death Star was supposed to be above the planet Kashyyyk, home world of Chewbacca and the Wookies. George Lucas scrapped this idea in favor of a more cute, and therefore more marketable, alternative: the Ewok.
This was wise move from a merchandising point of view, even if Lucas had to sacrifice any kind of creative integrity he had left in the process. The marketing of Ewok toys was so effective, almost every child who saw the movie knew, on a mostly subconscious level, that the cute teddy bears they saw on the screen were called Ewoks. Meanwhile, the novelization of the film detailed how the ambitious senator Palpatine eventually became the emperor of the Galaxy.
Star Wars merchandise is a powerful industry, which generates over $3 billion in revenues every year. Lucas has become a multi-billionaire thanks to his brilliant decision in 1973, a feat that I will personally never achieve thanks to my obsession with amassing as much Star Wars merchandise as possible. Thanks George.