Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Common Misconception

Ron writes:

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."

He continues:
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.


  1. This is a really interesting article and to think that a small group of individuals at Kenner helped build a legacy... I wonder if the other major toy manufacturers, who had earlier rejected the brand, tried to muscle in? I'd be surprised if investigations into either legally dissolving the partnership or buying out Kenner weren't considered seeing that they were such a small player. Mego, for example, must have been kicking themselves (I wonder what those guys thought of the missed opportunity) and I would have thought they were desperate to get in contact with LFL to renegotiate a deal? Kenner - one of the great American success stories.

    1. I don't think there was much other companies (or Lucasfilm) could do once the deal was signed. It was legally binding, and Kenner sure wasn't going to let it go.

      Actually, I guess the deal was signed with General Mills Fun Group, as a bunch of their subsidiaries ended up doing SW product -- MPC, Craft Master, etc.

      I believe there's an interview with the head of Mego in an old Tomart that gets into the SW license.

      Ultimately, the LFL-Kenner relationship was pretty fruitful. And I'm sure Lucas got better terms when he re-signed with Hasbro in the '90s.

  2. Ideal tried to get Fox to drop Kenner and go with them almost immediately. In fact, the deal was offered to Ideal first, they refused and Kenner signed instead. Once the movie opened, Ideal saw what a mistake they had made and tried to get Fox to offer them a license as well, but Fox refused. Ideal's solution was to market the Star Team line of figures, which are borderline SW knock-offs, but still sold okay because Kenner's licensed figures weren't released yet.

    1. That's what I was thinking of. So, interesting to see that Fox refused a deal. Did they have any indication as to what Kenner had planned up to that point, or were they possibly afraid of any kind of breach of contract? Possibly even simpler than that did Fox just think it'd be a 12-18 month fad that would phase out and wasn't worth the hassle?

  3. At the time, Kenner had nothing on the shelves. The Early Bird Kit was on its way and a couple of puzzles and a boardgame were being released, but none of the toys were in production. Fox knew about Kenner's plans though and backing out of the deal would have resulted in a lawsuit. Besides, if Fox switched companies, that would have started the whole development process over again, and the toys would have taken even longer to get to the shelves since Ideal would have had to start designing the line from scratch. Kenner was already working on the toys, so from Fox's perspective, they not only had to go with Kenner because they had a signed contract with them, but also because it was the smarter move from a business standpoint, since it got product to store shelves faster. Fox doesn't really care who's making the toys, it only cares about the number of people who are buying them.

    1. Makes total sense. Interesting to note that from the very start Kenner were going to make Toys AND Games. I don't know a lot about the $6m range but I'm assuming that ideas for games from that line were ported over to quickly get SW items out to fill the early gap? A bit like the painting sets? Although I'd imagine it'd be a lot easier to release a board game or puzzle in a short space of time than a plastic moulded item.

  4. Yeah, I think the turnaround time on a game is a lot quicker than for something like an action figure. I don't think Kenner had a whole lot of experience designing games before SW either though, which meant that a lot of their games weren't really the best, especially in those early years. But they got them out quickly, which was more important for their contractual obligations than designing award winning games. I think they were also concerned with someone else coming in to fill the void. In those early months, there was a lot of unlicensed stuff coming out. Kenner wanted to make certain that they got their hand in the cookie jar while the getting was good, before the SW fad was completely spent. I think Fox was concerned about it as well, which is why they made certain that Kenner was contractually obligated to make certain items in that first year.

  5. Good article, Ron.