|Hey, where are the freakin' toys?|
I sometimes hear comments to the effect that Kenner dropped the ball on the Star Wars license by not releasing any action figure toys in 1977. I suspect the folks making those comments don't realize just how tight the timeline was.
According to reports, Kenner wasn't even pitched the license until January of 1977, and they didn't seriously negotiate with Lucasfilm and Fox until February. The deal they made to market toys wasn't inked until April. That's right, April -- the month before the movie premiered. That's the sort of timeline that virtually guarantees no products being on the shelves at the time of release.
In their licensing agreement Kenner allegedly promised to produce only one Star Wars item in the year of the film's debut: a board game. Presumably, had the film failed to find success, that's about all that would have been produced, as, like most companies, Kenner wasn't in the business of losing money.
Remember: No one knew Star Wars would turn out to be Star Wars. Most thought it would be a minor success at best.
All of this information is in Steve Sansweet's From Concept to Screen to Collectible, an essential collecting book that has been widely available since the early '90s.
Steve reports that the designers at Kenner were hot to work on the film right from the start. And given all the cool stuff that's in the movie, I believe it. But designer enthusiasm doesn't necessarily translate into sales, and I think it's pretty likely the powers that be at Kenner would have had those designers drop their plans in a hurry had the movie been a bomb. Obviously, that didn't happen. Star Wars was about the biggest hit of all time, and its success sent the folks at Kenner into overdrive.
Ultimately, the company managed to get 12 figures, three vehicles, a large playset, and a host of other products to market by the middle of '78. A bang-up job, all things considered.
Here's an interesting question to ask yourself: What would have happened had Lucasfilm and Fox failed to work out a deal with a toy licensee prior to the movie's release?
I think you can be certain things would have gone much differently.
Once the enormous popularity of the movie became apparent, toy companies would have come running to Lucasfilm and Fox in hopes of working out a deal. Lucas and Fox would have been in the catbird's seat: They would have gotten more money for the toy rights, better terms, etc. Also, it's possible that a bigger, more prestigious company than Kenner would have acquired the license.
In other words, the history of Star Wars toy merchandising would be very different. Meaning, of course, that the history of merchandising boys toys would potentially be very different.
But no one could have predicted that. At the time the deal with Kenner was inked, it's a fair bet the folks associated with Star Wars were relieved to have guaranteed extra marketing opportunities and some additional bucks. They were looking for partners, and Kenner was the only interested party.
If you're interested in thinking further about such issues, and possibly even discussing them with a primary source, you might consider sending a friend request to Charles Lippincott on Facebook. Lippincott was intimately involved in the licensing and advertising of Star Wars, and he's been posting some fascinating background information on his Facebook page.
Touching on this very issue, Lippincott refers to Lucas' alleged displeasure with the terms of Kenner's toy license as "Monday morning quarterbacking."
George and other LFL people thought we should have gotten more money or waited until after the film had opened to make the toy deals but the reality was no one expected Star Wars' colossal success. George himself thought the film was not going to make it at the box office, so how could we have gotten more money for the toy license prior to the release of the film?Like I said: Fascinating.