Netflix is a force to be reckon with, we all have to face it, creative control over content, original content, and seemingly something new coming at all times, even during droughts of regular slotted Television shows. I find myself with a drought just floating around which led me to the documentary series, The Toys that made us. The first episode started with Star Wars, which, well I can easily state I have very little interest in coming into the episode, but I sure did learn a lot and I figured I would share this with you.
Star Wars has grossed seven billion dollars at the box office, however the toys in that time frame has made fourteen billion dollars. Toys have been purchased by collectors for money, memories along with people who buy them to play with. George Lucas had a strong belief in his new movie script for Star Wars, for the movie itself and the ability for toys. Lucas films decided it wanted to have toys for the movie, something relatively new as toys accompanied television shows on the small screen but not as much with movies. The toy makers said it typically took two years before a toy could be launched, Lucas Films decided they wanted to get into the toy market sixth months before the movie launch.
Mattel said no, Hasbro said no, Parker Bros said no. All sorts of large established toy brands wanted no part of it, it took them to Cincinati Ohio to a smaller toy brand called Kenner. It was located in a floor of the Kroger building, Jim Swearingen, at the time the Sr. Product Designer looked at the script for Star Wars and wanted in, he took it to his superiors telling them they needed to do this project and to just go and read the script. They agreed it was something they needed to do, so they needed to work on prototypes in a hurry. At the time a lot of toys were very large, so Kenner had to do something that set it apart, and the team realized that Luke had to set the “scale” for all of the toys size. It was decided to make him 3 and 3/4″ high.
With a deadline for a pitch coming fast and furious, Kenner didn’t have time to make proper prototypes, so what they did is take truck drivers from the Fisher Price line of toys and molded, repainted, made them into the designs they wanted. Right before the presentation someone on the team realized they needed to make a Jawa, so they got a truck driver as the starting base, cut the legs down, and got him set up, but the person in charge knew it had to have some sort of desert like clothing. Not being able to find anything in the building, he realized he was wearing brown socks, so he cut up one of his socks and put it on as desert garb, he laughs that the prototype for that was going around presentations for a number of weeks with his smelly sock as the outfit.
The presentation is a success and the Lucas group agrees to a deal a month before the movie premiers. It still is one of the most amazing deals in any sector I have ever heard of. For every dollar Kenner toys makes in a sale, 95 cents of that goes to Kenner, 2.5 cents goes to Fox, while 2.5 cents goes to Lucas. That still just boggles my mind, that is a sweet deal for Kenner and they had the ability to make whatever they wanted. With the excitement of a deal in place, the fear came into play very quickly. Kenner knew they had no Star Wars toys to put out for Christmas. So they had to devise a plan, and they came up with this two part plan.
Part one, was to pump out anything that could be made quickly, things that were picture based, easy to make, didn’t have to go through as many safety checks. This included things like, puzzles, board games, paint sets things of that nature. They also utilized a technique called label slapping. They had some toys that weren’t very popular but felt might work in a Star Wars setting, so they changed the plastic color to black, slapped the Star Wars stickers on it, and it became a brand new fresh Star Wars product.
Phase two, was very ballsy, let’s call it as it is, they offered a “Star Wars early days certificate package”, it included an empty box. An empty display box, with a certificate that promised you in spring to summer you would get the first four characters in the line from a mail in program. You would get Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2. It was a huge risk, but turned out to be a great game plan for Kenner, it got sales for the Holiday rush, and made sure people were invested in it for months down the road.
In the spring of 1978, the toys were ready for retailers shelves, though some never made it to the shelves, people were so into the Star Wars series once they would be seen being wheeled to a shelf the customers would swarm and buy them right up. Meanwhile, the deal between Lucas Films and Kenner was going for around two years, but it’s possible it was never officially signed, as part of the finalized agreement, Kenner had to generate enough money in toys in each year that Lucas Films would get $10,000 in royalties. Kenner ate that deal up, it was such an easy decision they were willing to just cut the check every year.
In each line of collecting, you will find one ultimate unicorn rare piece that people talk about, the holy grail if you will, in the line of Star Wars that falls to a rocket fire Bobba Fett. Bobba Fett was a mail in rebate promotion if you bought a certain amount of action figures. Nothing was known about Fett, he was a new character that was going to show in the second movie, and only had a brief appearance in a holiday special that was ran only once. In the video it had a rocket that fired. However, when it finally did get into the hands of the public, the rocket was just a stationary item for show. In the meantime, Mattel had a couple items that show projectiles in the Battlestar Galatica line, and a small item got stuck in a boy’s throat, so Kenner pulled the plug in the name of safety. Years later some people made a aftermarket version of the figure, and if you can find one of the original remakes in good condition it can fetch around $20,000.
Back in 1979, the Star Wars line had a number of smaller cheaper figures, the price point is unknown to me, and on the high end was the Millenium Falcon, which had lights and sounds and retailed for $24.77 which was considered very expensive. With a huge price gap in the toys, Kenner decided they would start making their own Star Wars figures, calling them mini rigs, and saying that off camera, these were the type of things that were fighting. Essentially Kenner went off the rails and started doing whatever they wanted, but to the surprise of everyone, George Lucas loved the idea and it helped fill story in his larger scale story. These days something like this is not uncommon, we have spin offs in the book series that follows side characters like side quests but in the past this was a fresh idea.
Kenner, already having success with making “mini rigs” off camera, decided to go back to the well again by creating something called micro collection. It was just smaller version, think micro machines(if you know what those are) versions of the toys, they spent millions on advertising and making the line, however it never really took off and they cancelled it around a year later.
In 1985 George Lucas wanted a break from the Star Wars brand, not committing to any new movies, and nothing new could really be made with the Star Wars brand that Kenner really started to struggle. With that came Hasbro to come and buy Kenner to save them from debt, but Hasbro wanted to get the rights to what they saw as money makers like Playdoh, spirograph and the easy bake oven. Taking on Star Wars was part of the overall package.
In what has to be an all time blunder, Hasbro didn’t read the fine print with it’s new acquisition of Star Wars, from 1986 to 1995 Hasbro didn’t make any new Star Wars toys, and also didn’t send the Lucas group a check in any of those years. With the agreement being broken, it became expired and no longer valid. This gave Lucas Films the right to negotiate. With that new place for leverage a number of things occurred, starting with George announcing that Star Wars prequels were going to be made. A coincidence? I think not, next George Lucas took the open contract to bid on the open market. A number of companies vied for it, but Hasbro won the rights to negotiate after fighting off, or paying depending how you view it, the other toy companies, however they seemingly took whatever deal they would get. They now had to pass on 18 cents on every dollar, making people wonder if they had ability to make money at all.
Episode 1 was trash, the movie itself was trash, the characters and toys were hard to get behind. During the first wave of toys to hit retail shelves before the movie, were all wiped out by collectors in no time. However months after the movie was out, the toys sat dormant to the point they went to the dreaded, discount bins. Phantam Menance, with Jar Jar specifically did not go over well.
George continued to find ways to expand his Star Wars world, alongside monetary wise with Clone Wars the cartoon series, which was a hit. In 2012 George sold the rights to Lucas Films to Disney for $4.05 billion dollars. George Lucas declined to be interviewed for this documentary.
Synopsis, it’s pretty difficult to take notes on a show like this where you are learning so much without a backstory. I did learn a number of interesting things about the whole process, you have to hand it to Kenner for having the vision early on. I didn’t really have many Star Wars pieces while I was younger, I know I don’t own anything Star Wars related now, how about you, I know I had a number of Gi Joe’s, He-Man, and Transformers, with I know two of the three for sure are covered in other episodes.