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In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as an energy that surrounds and penetrates all living things, binding the galaxy together. But the venerable Jedi Master could just as easily have been talking about the power of Star Wars itself. The cultural impact of George Lucas’ creation is so vast that it created generations of fans and changed how Hollywood approached blockbuster filmmaking.
But Star Wars also changed nearly everything within the toy industry. Whether those changes will continue to be told for thousands of years—like the tales of the Jedi and Sith of old—remains to be seen in the long arc of history. But one thing is for certain, for the following brands, Star Wars was a great disturbance in the Force of their business.
The Force Awakens: The First Star Wars Toys
The story of Kenner and Star Wars is so documented at this point that I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, before Star Wars, Kenner Products was the home of the Easy-Bake Oven, the Spirograph, and The Six Million Dollar Man toys coveted by Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (which he later sold on eBay). But Kenner’s gamble to make Star Wars toys before it was a proven hit—based only on a story breakdown and some drawings—and its gimmick of essentially selling empty-box Early Bird sets paid off. The gimmick wasn’t a huge success, but it worked well enough, and Kenner’s sales in 1978 and 1979 reached $100 million. By the franchise’s 30th Anniversary in 2007, Hasbro (which bought Kenner in 1991) reported they’d made nearly $9 billion from Star Wars toys.
G.I. Joe: Rebooted from Zero to Real American Hero
Even though they currently hold the master license for Star Wars toys, Hasbro initially turned down its chance. But long before Star Wars became part of their story, Hasbro had a hit on its hands with G.I. Joe. Introduced in 1964, the original G.I. Joe was a poseable 12-inch “action figure” (never marketed as a doll to parents of boys). The figure began as a traditional soldier before evolving into an “Adventure Team” and “Super Joe” with Kung-Fu Grip, due to sentiment surrounding the Vietnam War.
G.I. Joe’s foray into sci-fi (fighting super intelligent alien cavemen) happened too late. While Star Wars toys dominated the market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the 3 ¾ inch figure size became the industry standard, the immense popularity of G.I. Joe had waned, and the line was discontinued by 1978. But the world of Luke Skywalker also encouraged G.I. Joe’s rebirth.
G.I. Joe returned in 1982 (right between the releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) in the new, Star Wars style 3 ¾ inch scale figure size. Highly specialized and futuristic, the new G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero fought the villainous Cobra (led by Cobra Commander, a masked baddie aided by colorful henchmen and interchangeable Stormtrooper-esque grunts). The line of smaller figures—which featured 10 points of articulation as opposed to the five on Star Wars figures—and scale playsets meant a kid could collect them all at a lower price point compared to the earlier 12-inch figures.
A Larry Hama-written Marvel Comics series and then an animated TV show fleshed out a world created to sell toys. Hasbro sold $51 million in G.I. Joe toys in 1982, $100 million the following year, and that number grew to $185 million by 1986. While always somewhat overshadowed by Star Wars, the line was finally discontinued in 1994, though it did return in various forms as exclusive sets and convention collectibles.
Mattel’s He-Man Sized Failure
Before Prince Adam held the Sword of Power aloft and channeled the power of Grayskull to become He-Man (and before Adam was even the alter ego of He-Man), there was Mattel, the home of Barbie and Hot Wheels. Yet, the toy giant turned down the chance to become the home of Star Wars figures, and playsets.
The missed opportunity hurt the company, and they were left without a successful action figure line despite many failed attempts. But the space fantasy barbarian He-Man turned their Star Wars failure into a win. The 5 ½-inch Masters of the Universe toys with their rippling muscles and battle action features bucked the 3 ¾-inch industry trend popularized by Star Wars. While Hasbro created animated commercials to promote their G.I. Joe Marvel Comics (which were in turn used to sell the toys) before the animated series debuted, Masters of the Universe didn’t have a multimedia franchise to base its lore on, other than the mini-comics that were packaged with the toys. That all changed with the 1983 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe syndicated cartoon. As far as the story itself, let’s say a blond-haired chosen one with a special sword who goes up against a dark villain (who he ends up being related to) was familiar to kids of the ‘80s.
The formula worked so well that Mattel made $38 million on the line the first year, and a billion by 1984—before suffering a dramatic cratering from $400 million in 1986 to $7 million in 1987 due to the cartoon losing its popularity and toys being oversold.
Still, He-Man is one of the more successful toy stories, and it is a result of Mattel’s great Star Wars failure. The drama behind the creation of He-Man is additionally the stuff of toy legend, and covered nicely in the Netflix series The Toys That Made Us.
Mego, Marvel, DC, and The World’s Greatest Super Heroes
During the 1970s, the Mego Corporation was sitting pretty. In 1972, the company picked up the license to make 8-inch action dolls for both Marvel and DC Comics characters—which was sold in a lined billed as “The World’s Greatest Super Heroes.” The company then filled their coffers with franchise tie-in dolls from Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Wizard of Oz, and even celebrities such as Sonny & Cher and Farah Fawcett! Mego likewise enjoyed success in 1976 with their Micronauts line, based on the 3 ¾ inch Microman toys from the Japanese toymaker Takara (one of the first to use this size). Neal Kublan, Vice President of R&D, was quoted as saying the late 1970s saw Mego pulling in around $110 million at its peak, with Micronauts making up a third of its sales.
But Mego wasn’t interested in an unproven (and unreleased) property like Star Wars at a time when toys were created in response to a franchise’s success—not in advance of it. One anecdote is that a Mego representative “literally pushed the Star Wars folks out the door at Toy Fair in New York” in February of 1977.
By 1982, the company had gone from the sixth biggest toy manufacturer in the United States to the 14th, and filed for bankruptcy in with more than $50 million in debt. The reasons for the end of the company in ’83 were numerous— mismanagement, lawsuits, a grand jury indictment charging bribery, lavish parties, even a rat infestation—but the final line in The New York Times obituary of Mego states simply, “they were outclassed by competing Star Wars toys.”
Interestingly, Mego’s demise led to the license for Marvel figures to land at Mattel, which led to the Secret Wars line, while Hasbro picked up the DC Comics license and created the Super Powers collection.
Judge Galoob Not By Its Size
In the late 1990s, Lewis Galoob Toys was the third largest American toymaker. While it had created toys for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Men In Black, Mr. T, the Spice Girls, and others, it was best known for the big hit of small-scale Micro Machines.
But it was Hasbro’s loss that led to Galoob’s galactic gain. After purchasing Kenner, Hasbro neglected to pay Lucas the agreed-upon licensing fee in 1991, during the Star Wars merchandising slowdown. A year later, reported Fortune, a Lucas rep encountered Galoob at a trade show, and offered up the Star Wars license for a toy line.
Jim Fong, design director at Galoob, told StarWars.com that morale was low at the company, due to low sales, and people leaving – but that changed when they landed the license. The new line launched in 1994 and, in addition to sets based around vehicles from the Original Trilogy, included toys inspired by the Expanded Universe sequel Heir to the Empire in 1995, and “interquel” Shadows of the Empire in 1996. Hasbro did get back in the good graces of Lucas, but the Force was strong for Galoob, and the company made about $120 million in small-scale Star Wars toys in 1997 (although their stock dropped precipitously that year due to a separate underperforming toy line).
An analyst interviewed by Fortune said he believed Galoob’s successful run, and its heavy marketing of such, convinced Lucas to release the Special Editions because it showed that Star Wars was still popular. By October 1997, both Hasbro and Galoob (Mattel was reportedly shut out) had nabbed rights to produce toys for the prequels that were due to begin in 1999.
Less than a year later Hasbro had closed a deal to buy Galoob for $220 million. But Galoob is making something of a comeback. Earlier this year, Hasbro announced it was teaming with Wicked Cool Toys to revive Micro Machines for a 2020 release.
Lego Mini-Figs Meet Stars Wars Mega Success
The Danish Lego Group was founded in 1932, with the first Lego bricks (inspired by Hilary Fisher Page’s Kiddicraft bricks) were released in 1949. And the first Lego minifigures (which included the iconic classic space astronaut) was introduced in 1978.
And yet, the marriage of Lego—arguably the most famous toy brand in the world—with Star Wars is a noteworthy part of Lego’s 87-year history. Before expanding their brand with licenses for Lord of the Rings, Marvel, and DC, the company released brick sets in 1999 based on first the Original Trilogy and then the prequels. Star Wars was the first intellectual property licensed by Lego, and the tie-in was negotiated after the company posted its first losses in 1998 after 50 years of unbroken growth, according to International Marketing Strategy: Analysis, Development and Implementation by Isobel Doole, and Robin Lowe. Along with Harry Potter toys, Star Wars helped Lego become profitable once more.
The company has since made toys for every subsequent Star Wars property, and even built their own corner of the universe with Lego Star Wars video games, and even a television series. Moreover, the marriage of Star Wars and Lego – in addition to contributing to $1.83 billion for 2018 profits—has led to hot collectibles, such as the Ultimate Collector Millennium Falcon set, which has sold at auction for more than $5,000.
The Rise of Darth Barbie
Barbie has been around since 1959 and remains one of the most famous toys in history. She has had something like 200 careers, and the character has been tied into franchises such as Star Trek, DC superheroes, The Munsters, and even Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. And this year, she entered the Star Wars galaxy in a very fashionable way, with costumes inspired by the original trilogy. According to Mattel, the collectible dolls “re-imagines iconic characters through a distinctive Barbie high-fashion filter,” such as with the Darth Vader x Barbie with a “Sith armor silhouette in a head-to-toe shiny-black ensemble,” dark sunglasses, and cape.
With these two iconic brands meeting, it feels as if the toy circle is complete. Without Star Wars, toy shelves across the galaxy would look very different.