Star struck

Not just one of the mightiest franchises to ever flow through a projector, Star Wars is also a toy titan. With The Force Awakens nearing, ToyNews' own Billy Langsworthy looks at why the brand has endured in the toy space for so long.
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“There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?”

Chances are, if you work in the toy industry, you most certainly have.

Force Friday, back on September 4th, marked the grand unveiling of the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise, where retailers across the globe saw fans, many in fancy dress, line up at midnight to get a glimpse at the new toys.

I was in New York for Disney’s Force Friday and Times Square’s already impressive Toys R Us store had been kitted out with a whole host of classic Star Wars toys to serve as a reminder of the brand’s rich history in this space.

Plenty of fans poured into the store at midnight dressed up as characters. I found myself lending Yoda a chewing gum, chatting LEGO with Obi-Wan and crossing lightsabers with Darth Maul in the toilets.

I was eight when The Phantom Menace came out, so that was my first taste of Star Wars, both in terms of movies and merchandise.

I liked the film, loved the pod racing and played Star Wars: Super Bombad Racing on the PS2 far too much (the art work for the game remains brilliant, as seen below). Aside from that, I can’t remember playing with the toys or games all that much.

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It says a lot about the offering for this year’s new film that, at 24, I’m actually excited about a whole host of toys, and it has nothing to do with this job.

Jaws may have created the ‘summer blockbuster’ back in 1975, but Star Wars, released two years later, was the first one to really nail the potential of merchandising.

A long time ago, well from 1978 to 1985 to be specific, Kenner sold over 300 million Star Wars related toys. The firm was initially lukewarm on the property, and was taken aback by the success of the film and demand for products, so much so that it couldn’t fulfil orders directly after the film’s release in 1977.

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Instead, Kenner sold an Early Bird Certificate Package which could be redeemed the following year for four Star Wars action figures, a display stand, stickers and a Star Wars fan club membership card.

But Kenner wasn’t alone in prospering from the film’s ‘toyetic’ potential. Famously, Fox let Lucas pass on an additional $500,000 directing fee in return for keeping licensing and merchandising rights for himself. A move that made him very wealthy indeed.

Since then, Star Wars has been embraced by every medium going.

Video games have proved a great fit and while the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special first introduced the brand to the small screen (and viewers to Chewie’s son Lumpy – you can watch it in all its glory here), more recent TV adventures like The Clone Wars and Rebels have proved far more credible, and lucrative, licensing-wise.

Since the conclusion of the original trilogy, in the toy space we’ve had everything from Star Wars Bend-Ems to an elaborate Jar-Jar Binks electronic PEZ dispenser.

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Darth Vader has been a Transformer, there has been a Yoda Mr Potato Head (called Mashter Yoda of course) and most of the original cast have been given the Hot Wheels treatment at some stage.

Elsewhere, the partnership with LEGO has proved so popular that LEGO Star Wars has become a powerful brand unto itself.

Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Following Force Friday, and the excitement over the likes of Chewie’s Nerf Bowcaster, a Millennium Falcon quad-copter and of course, the droid everyone is looking for, Sphero’s BB-8.

While Star Wars never truly went away, with a slate of new movies and spin-offs on the horizon and a product offering for The Force Awakens that looks remarkable, it seems the Force is especially strong with this one.

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Disney's Mike Stagg on the success of Force Friday

Billy Langsworthy talks to Mike Stagg, vice president and general manager, retail UK and Ireland at The Walt Disney Company about the success of the Force Friday initiative, the future of Star Wars at retail and why the new wave of products can become as iconic as the original run of Kenner figures.

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