The week of December 20, 2015

How ‘Star Wars’ changed the way we think about toys

By Charlie Moss

Somewhere in a temperature-controlled storage unit not far from my house, stacked box upon box, lies the entire collection of Star Wars toy vehicles and play sets I collected with my cousin. We began sometime around the original theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. And like most young boys at the time, our toys were well-used; we managed to keep most of our collection in decent condition, along with most of the original boxes, but it never occurred to us not to play with them.

Now in our early 40s, neither one of us has seen the collection for years. It’s probably sitting in that storage unit under layers of dust, like a buried treasure. Those toys were a big part of my childhood, which makes it strange to think of them now as collectors’ items. But that’s exactly what they are, thanks to the massive success of Star Wars.

Just recently, a Japanese man sold a portion of his memorabilia collection for $500,000. And individually, some of the rarest action figures in the original Kenner product line are worth anywhere from $500 to as much as $18,000—still in their packages, of course.

As Star Wars has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s also transformed toy collecting from a niche hobby—typically among older folks familiar with toys from the bygone eras of the early to mid-20th century—to something else entirely: a mainstream business and entertainment open to people of all ages. Star Wars changed not only the way we play with toys but the way we collect them as well. But what makes Star Wars toys so special?

Star Wars changed not only the way we play with toys but the way we collect them as well.

Brian Stillman had the same question. He’s a filmmaker and a toy collector, with a collection of tin space toys such as flying saucers, rockets, and robots from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and the Major Matt Mason action figures from the ’60s. He’s also a huge Star Wars fan, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he began collecting Star Wars toys. Like millions of other kids, he collected them when he was young but eventually moved on to other things.

When he came back to collecting Star Wars toys as an adult, he was impressed by the number of websites, guides, and books about the topic. But he didn’t see much information about just how Star Wars toys became such a phenomenon. He’s the kind of collector who wants to know everything about what he collects—the stories and history behind the products. He assumed others felt the same way, and that someone must have done a documentary about Star Wars toys and the people who love them. No one had, so Stillman did it himself, with his 2014 film Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys.

I talked to Stillman on the phone the evening tickets became available for The Force Awakens—he’d just purchased his. As expected, he was excited.

His earliest Star Wars toy memories are of playing with the Imperial Troop Transporter. “It’s one of my favorite Star Wars toys—this toy was like having the actors in my living room, listening to the lines,” he says. “I mean, that’s how it was to me as a 4-year-old, you know, 5-year-old, whatever it was. I loved that toy. I remember sitting in my living room playing with that thing and just being fascinated by it.”

But he wasn’t a collector, not the way he is today. He makes a distinction between collecting toys and toy collecting. “One, you had kids who ‘collected’ toys,” he says. “Which for most kids, not every kid, but for most kids, it was probably more just amassing toys—hoarding my toys and playing with them. So I collected them and I was actively pursuing them, but I didn’t think about them in terms of value. I didn’t keep them in their packaging. It was just more like I wanted to get them all.”

“It’s one of my favorite Star Wars toys—this toy was like having the actors in my living room, listening to the lines.”

There were a lot of kids like him in the ’70s and ’80s, when the Star Wars films were dominating theaters. But it was far from certain that box-office success would translate into a successful toy line. In the 1970s, movie companies had no luck making money on toy merchandising. The thinking was that movies were in and out of theaters so quickly, by the time the toys hit store shelves, nobody would care. Television shows such as Star Trek, on the other hand, had been pretty successful at this game because for the most part, they lasted for several seasons.

Charley Lippincott changed that thinking. As the advertising publicity supervisor for the original Star Wars film, he pitched the idea of a Star Wars toy line to the relatively small Kenner, owned at the time by breakfast cereal company General Mills. Kenner’s only claim to fame in the toy industry was the Easy-Bake Oven, which was created in 1963, and its newest product, the 12-inch Six Million Dollar Man dolls. Lippincott and Kenner CEO Bernie Loomis signed a contract for four action figures and some sort of family-friendly game.

That contract, along with George Lucas’s shrewd dealing to retain merchandising rights to his films, forever changed toy collecting. But before they could become sought-after collectibles, the toys had to get made. As Stillman tells it in Plastic Galaxy, months before Star Wars was released in theaters in March 1977, Kenner’s toy designers attended a closed screening of the film. They took as many photos as they could, capturing the characters, costumes, and vehicles on screen. Not only were they amazed at the spectacle on display—special effects, costumes, and a galaxy of weird and wonderful creatures—but they were inspired to create toys to match the movie’s level of innovation and wonder.

Rather than, say, simply duplicating their Six Million Dollar Man dolls, Kenner’s designers chose to go smaller, making their figures 3 ¾ inches tall. “Star Wars was not the first 3 ¾ inch action figure, although it certainly helped to make that scale one of the most widespread and beloved in the toy industry,” says Mark Boudreaux, Hasbro’s senior principal designer. (Hasbro bought Kenner in 1991.) According to Boudreaux, the smaller figures meant Kenner’s designers could include iconic vehicles and location play sets, and kids would be able to collect the whole Star Wars universe, not just their favorite characters.

“The size of the figure struck the perfect balance: large enough to deliver on their likenesses—the most important aspect of the character—yet small enough to allow us to create all of the iconic vehicles and play-set locations.” That’s how Brian Stillman could feel like he was re-creating the movie on his living room floor.

The figures’ size struck the perfect balance: large enough to deliver on their likenesses, yet small enough to allow us to create all of the iconic vehicles and play-set locations.

The toys, as we know, were a hit. Kenner had trouble producing enough to stock Christmas shelves; with two sequels and various tie-ins, the Star Wars line grew to nearly 100 figures and made hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. The 3 ¾ inch action figure standard became the model for some of the most popular toys of the next decade, including G.I. Joe.

By 1985, though, sales had slowed and Kenner discontinued the line. The downtimes didn’t last for long, though. Gus Lopez is the creator of the Star Wars Collectors Archive, the first website devoted to collecting all things Star Wars, which he started in 1994. He says around that time, collecting started to pick up again. “In the early ’90s,” he says, “you have kids who grew up with Star Wars, now kinda in their 20s, have higher disposable income and they want to go, you know, re-create that experience. … That was really a burst of Star Wars collecting.”

And in 1995, Kenner, then owned by Hasbro, relaunched Star Wars toys for the first time in a decade. The new figures sported a more muscular look, which was uncharacteristic from a movie-accuracy standpoint. Lopez says that line, released under the logo “Power of the Force,” became the dividing line between new and older Star Wars collectors. “Some that would only buy the new stuff. Some that would only buy the old stuff. It started to kinda get different,” he says of the two.

That wasn’t surprising, given that nearly 40 years have passed since the original toys were released. “In 1977,” Boudreaux says, “Kenner obviously knew they had a hit on their hands and that there was demand for Star Wars toys, but with social media we’re able to learn so much from our fans. And that influences the toys that we make and how we celebrate the line.”

The toys, like the films, have become celebrations of themselves and the fans—and of the rare and special feelings Star Wars still provokes among its fans. For almost four decades, millions of people around the world have loved Star Wars, watching the films, collecting the toys, filling their lives with the trappings of George Lucas’s epic tale. And that doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon.

Illustration by J. Longo