Everyone loves star wars.
Everyone loves star wars toys.
But do you know the story behind the most successful toy franchise in movie history?
It all started in 1976 when George Lucas pitched the Star Wars movie merchandising rights to numerous toy companies. One being Mego corporation who were producing a very successful figure line for Marvel, DC and Star Trek. They were by far the league leaders in figures at the time but past on Star Wars because they believed it was a one off movie and Star Trek was more a long term license.
George finally got Cincinnatti company Kenner (a part of the General Mills group) on board. He had ideas of t shirts and posters but Kenner had bigger things planned.
Lucas was understandably eager to tie up a deal, as he'd offset a low fee for writing and directing the film (just £96,000) by negotiating ownership of the merchandising rights. These weren't thought to be worth much because back then nobody did movie merchandising bar the odd poster. Even Alex Guinness was sold on the idea as part of his salary for A New Hope.
Kenner can hardly be praised for any great amount of the foresight that George had. They were so unconvinced that the film would be a success that it was totally unprepared for the enormous toy demand in the Christmas period following the success of the movie.
As a result, Kenner took the infamous decision to sell kids a dubious 'Early Bird Certificate Package' an empty box containing a promise to ship 4 figures when they were ready. The delivery of these figures would occur almost a year after the film had come out in 1978.
The four initial figures under the offer were Luke Skywalker (with telescoping lightsaber), R2-D2 (clicking head), Princess Leia (blaster) and Chewbacca (green bowcaster). These are very sought after and even the certificate itself can be seen for around £1000. Eight more joined when the figures were ready: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo, C-3PO, Stormtrooper, Death Squad Commander, Jawa and Sand People.
Kenner went with 3.75 inch figures, which were much smaller than the usual 11.5 inch size. These were much cheaper to produce – an important factor during a time of the oil crises.
It is interesting to note that Mego turned to 3.75 inch with Star Trek, Black Hole and other lines in a failed attempt to catch up with Kenner. They never caught up and closed down in 1983.
3.75 inch is now the norm for toy figures.
Kenner went on to make (officially) 92 figures in the original line. They sold over 300 million toys including vehicles and playsets for their figures.
The figures were offered for sale in a number of countries outside of the US. These were usually sold through other companies, many of which were also subsidiaries of General Mills.
In the UK, the Star Wars licence was held by Palitoy, which imported the figures and packaged them in the UK on Palitoy branded cardbacks. Analogous arrangements were in place in Spain with the company PBP/Poch, in France with Meccano, in the Benelux countries with Clipper, in Germany with Parker, in Italy with Harbert and in Scandinavia with Brio/Playmix. In Japan, the line was first controlled by the company Takara, then by Popy and finally by Tsukuda.
As the number of figures in the range increased, the cardback design would be altered accordingly. Thus the earliest figures released for direct sale in shops were issued on a cardback, the rear of which illustrated the then full range of 12 figures, known as a 12-back. The 12-back was supplanted by the 20-back, and subsequently by the 21-back, the 31-back, the 32-back, the 41-back, the 45-back, the 47-back, the 48-back, the 65-back, the 77-back, the 79-back and the 92-back.
Variations exist for each of the cardback fronts. These range from differences in promotional offer stickers applied to the card to differences in photograph illustrating the character. Similarly variations exist for all of the cardback rear designs with the exceptions of the 47-back and 92-back designs that were only available in a single version.
Currently there are 57 different cardback front-rear combinations recognised but more are found regularly.
I will be looking at all the figures individually in coming blogs but here is a run down of all them;
FIRST 12 (1978)
Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi
Death Squad Commander
20 BACKS (1979)
Luke Skywalker (X-Wing Pilot)
Death Star Droid
Boba Fett (21 back)
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Leia Organa (Bespin Gown)
Imperial Stormtrooper (Hoth Battle Gear)
Rebel Soldier (Hoth Battle Gear)
Bossk (Bounty Hunter)
Luke Skywalker (Bespin Fatigues)
Han Solo (Hoth Outfit)
Bespin Security Guard
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1981)
Han Solo (Bespin Outfit)
Leia (Hoth Outfit)
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1982)
Artoo-Detoo (R2-D2) (with Sensorscope)
C-3PO (Removable Limbs)
Luke Skywalker (Hoth Battle Gear)
(Twin-Pod) Cloud Car Pilot
Bespin Security Guard
Imperial Tie Fighter Pilot
RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight Outfit)
Princess Leia Organa (Boushh Disguise)
Emperor's Royal Guard
Lando Calrissian (Skiff Guard Disguise)
Klaatu (Skiff guard)
RETURN OF THE JEDI(1984)
Han Solo (Trench coat)
Leia Organa (Combat Poncho)
LAST 17 POWER OF THE FORCE (1985)
R2D2 (Pop up lightsaber)
Han Solo (carbonite chamber)
Lando Calrissian (General)
Luke Skywalker(Stormtrooper outfit)
Luke Skywalker (battle poncho)
Honorable mentions to;
Sy Snootles and the Max Reebo Band
Jabba the Hutt
Other lines followed including Ewoks and Droid but as Return of the Jedi stopped playing in theatres and became a distant memory the figures sales declined. Many of the last 17 were drastically reduced in price. Little did anyone know what prices they would fetch later on for collectors.
Kenner was sold to Tonka in 1987 then to Hasbro in 1991. Hasbro still have the Star Wars licence.
If you are a collector or are thinking about starting, the best (and cheapest) way is to go the loose way. Beaters, as the played with figures are called can be found for as little as 50p on car boots but even a battered last 17 pop up r2d2 can still go for around £50.
For financial reasons many collectors have a focus, where they collect a certain character. This suits any budget as you could collect B-wing pilots (only 1 figure but many varients) or Luke himself who has 7 different vintage incarnations. It's all up to you and the thrill is in the chase.
Go out into the wild and find your focus.