When all of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise went on sale at midnight on Friday, September 4th, a.k.a. Force Friday, toy stores were overrun with superfans (and their kids). In the ensuing week, action figures and role-play toys accounted for 42% of all toy dollars spent in the United States. Local news reports were flooded with images of huddled, geeky masses fighting over the first Kylo Ren or Finn action figures, with many a soundbite from random guys in their thirties and forties acknowledging the obvious awkwardness of turning out at midnight to buy toys. The Force had clearly awakened the toy collector community.
This orgy of merchandising was seen as distasteful by some, and fodder for jokes by others, leading to this SNL sketch playing on the divide between kids who actually think Star Wars should be played with and adults who think they should be preserved and admired:
As argued in Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys, this need to collect Star Wars toys actually started when the Ohio-based toy company Kenner won the Star Wars contract from Fox after Hasbro and Mattel passed. Like the rest of the entertainment industry, they were ill-prepared for the cultural phenomenon to come. To work around their inability to get Star Wars action figures in stores in time for Christmas 1977, Kenner created the Early Bird Certificate Package. As DenOfGeek recently explained, “Advertised on television and in newspapers, the package retailed for around $10-15 and contained a Star Wars Space Club membership card, a cardboard display stand depicting 12 Star Wars characters, and a rather apologetic set of stickers. Most importantly of all, there was the certificate itself: a postcard which, when filled in and sent off, promised to send back a set of four Star Wars figures before the spring of 1978.”
The four figures would be mailed by late February 1978, and kids could set up the cardboard display and plan for their eventual arrival. However, that means kids spent two months staring at cardboard pictures of 12 characters. When their toys finally arrived, there would only be four of them, an instant reminder that their set was incomplete. You just got 4 Star Wars toys (yay!), but there are 8 other ones you should totally go buy too!
That’s not exactly what Kenner intended, as the Early Bird package was simply the greatest example in toy sale history of a company covering its own ass, but you can see where their creative workaround set kids on a lifelong journey of forever completing their Star Wars collection. Eventually, Kenner leaned into this and actually started putting pictures of all their available toys on the packages of each individual toy. There would be large print telling the kids to “Collect all 92!”, directing you to the back of the box to see which ones you had and which ones you desperately needed. As the years progressed and Lucas made more movies, the number of toys Kenner asked you to collect grew ever higher.
At the same time, the toy sales actually fed back into the movies. For Empire Strikes Back, Lucas financed the film himself, but eventually a loan from Bank of America was suspended after weekly payroll for LucasFilm grew too high. Then the ill-fated Star Wars Holiday Special took a huge dent out of profits, but the unexpectedly robust toy sales over Christmas 1978 gave Lucas the capital he desperately needed for Empire.
Lucas remembered the importance of those toy sales all too well, famously vetoing the suggestion to kill Han Solo in Return of the Jedi. To Lawrence Kasdan and Harrison Ford, it made sense for the story; to Lucas, it would needlessly torpedo Han Solo toy sales.
Eventually, the well ran dry. Kenner could no longer keep living off of Star Wars toy sales years after there’d been an actual new Star Wars movie. However, the company was forever changed. Prior to Star Wars, Kenner was mostly known as the home of the Easy Bake Oven. After Star Wars, it was the premiere spot for licensed movie toys throughout the late 80s before ultimately selling out to Hasbro in 1991. In the years since, Hasbro attempted to re-launch the Star Wars toys on multiple occasions, and they are the company behind Force Friday.
Much of that history is nicely realized in this infographic about the history of Luke Skywalker action figures, provided by Fun.com:
The Infograph – Fun.com