via io9:When Star Wars released in 1977, the face of science fiction in popular culture was changed forever — but a year later, the movie helped transform the toy industry as well. Since then, Star Wars and the toys it inspired have been forever linked, a story that can just as easily be told through figures as it can the films.
An Unexpected Alliance: When George Lucas and 20th Century Fox were trying to market Star Wars, they planned for something almost entirely unprecedented at the time — a marketing deluge, and a full scale licensing project that would see t-shirts, posters, lunchboxes and yes, toys, covered in the movie’s characters, hit shelves. In a move that, in hindsight, was incredibly shrewd, Lucas negotiated with Fox to take the bulk of revenue from merchandise sales, with neither side believing that the movie’s tepid response before release could lead to much in terms of profit. The lukewarm reaction spread to licensees too. Lucasfilm and Fox first offered the Mego Corporation — whose 8” licensed dolls of DC superheroes, Star Trek and more had made them one of the most powerful toy makers of the 1970’s — the deal to create Star Wars dolls, but the company passed, unimpressed by the movie. After attempting to shop the license around to other toy makers, in 1976 it fell to Kenner, then a subsidiary of General Mills. Kenner President Bernie Loomis saw an opportunity to make good toys with the license (especially in the then relatively new space of 3.75” scaled action figures, cheaper to produce than the larger toys), but expected Star Wars to be a fleeting venture for the company. Little did anyone involved know how wrong they would be.
The Early Bird Gets The Gift Certificate: Star Wars released in May 1977 to rapturous approval, becoming an overnight sensation — and kids didn’t just want to see the movie; they wanted toys. Kenner were caught flat-footed at the demand, finding that they wouldn’t even have figures out for the lucrative Christmas period of that year. To do nothing would have meant losing out on millions of dollars. So they made a decision that was, by all accounts at the time, completely ludicrous: They sold people an empty box. The Early Bird Certificate was a box containing a cardboard display stand featuring the characters from the film, stickers, and a certificate for kids to mail away to Kenner to receive four figures in 1978: Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Princess Leia and Chewbacca. The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public’s mind, ready for their 1978 release.
Your First Step Into A Larger World: When the Star Wars line first hit in 1978, any damage that criticism of the Early Bird Certificate could have done was wiped out almost instantaneously. Joined by another eight figures, and with playsets and vehicles following later in the year, Kenner’s toyline was a smash success, making over $100 million in its first year alone — with demand often outstripping supply. Kenner’s toy line became the icon of the new era of 3.75” figures. The following year, the company capitalised on the announcement of a sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, with another mail-away campaign: one that proved to be far more controversial than the Early Bird Cerificate. In the new promotion, kids could mail four proofs of purchase from any Star Wars figure and get a sneak peek of a new Empire toy, the mysterious bounty hunter Boba Fett, who had made his first appearance the year prior in the infamously atrocious Star Wars Holiday Special. The figure came with a heavily advertised rocket-firing jetpack feature, but shortly before Boba Fett went to market, a rash of health-and-safety fears caused Kenner to make a late decision to glue the rocket into the backpack securely. Kenner has always maintained that they never released a rocket-firing Fett into the wild, but several such figures (as well as early production prototypes) have made their way into the hands of collectors over the years, making it one of the most valuable Star Wars toys ever made, selling for upwards of $2000 when one appears at auction.
By the release of Return of the Jedi,
the line had expanded to contain 79 figures, with oodles of playsets,
vehicles and creatures released. But without movies to support them,
sales slowly began to dwindle. Kenner attempted to offset the decline
with brief lines based on the animated Droids and Ewok cartoons, the first non-movie Star Wars toys ever made, but it was too late. In 1985, after 250 million Star Wars figures had been shipped over the world, Kenner ended the toyline. Plans were even made for a spinoff line the following year, The Epic Continues,
featuring new characters based on a storyline created by Kenner in an
attempt to reignite interest in the toys, but Lucasfilm rejected the
move. For now, Star Wars as a toyline was over.