Origins of a Hobby: How the Star Wars Toy Universe Began

It began a short time ago … at a toy maker not so far, far away.

Movie-related toys had virtually died as an industry when “Star Wars” hit the big screen in 1977 and captivated audiences the world over. Moviemakers and licenced toymakers found themselves scrambling to meet an unexpected, indeed unprecedented, demand for Star Wars toys.

Their initial response was somewhat lame. A few Star Wars puzzles were hastily put together using still images from the film. That’s when the marketing team at Kenner, which gained the lucrative LucasFilm license for toys, came up with a novel approach. Critics called it the “empty box” campaign. In time for Christmas 1977 Kenner produced the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package, which consisted of an empty box and a coupon for the first four action figures, which would ship in early 1978.

The first four Star Wars action figures to be released were Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Chewbacca and R2-D2. From these four figures the Star Wars 3 3/4 action figure line would eventually grow to include 111 figures by 1985.

The Early Bird Kit, while highly sought by Star Wars collectors today, was not a major success. It took a hit from the critics who called it an “empty box” campaign, and large numbers of the packages were returned to Kenner by merchants who couldn’t sell them.

Star Wars fans and toy collectors didn’t have to wait long for the Star Wars line of toys to hit stores. Kenner may have underestimated the potential of Star Wars toys before the film opened, but once the film took the world by storm the toy maker went into high gear, planning the most ambitious toy line the industry had ever seen. It has been suggested that toy marketing, particularly movie merchandising, came of age with Star Wars. Kenner’s bottom line did little to disprove this. In 1978, the toy maker sold more than 42 million Star Wars toys in all, earning an unprecendented $100 million.

The demand for Star Wars toys continued unabated through 1983 and the release of “Return of the Jedi.” By 1985, however, momentum slowed, interest waned, and the line became frozen in time. The Star Wars line didn’t really pick up again until 1995 with the arrival of the “Power of the Force 2″ line of action figures. Collectors were treated to a buffer, less gentle verson of Luke Skywalker and friends. From there, the line took off again, spurred first by the theatrical re-release of the original, re-mastered trilogy (the so-called Special Editions). From that moment on, the flow of new Star Wars action figures and toys has continued unabated through two prequels and is already building up for the upcoming “Revenge of the Sith,” which will mark the end of the prequel trilogy.

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