Force Friday: As Star Wars guns for Christmas, tomorrow is the biggest-ever for movie merchandise

With a spectacular roll-out of merchandise heralding a new film this Christmas, the force has been awakened in fans of Star Wars (and in Disney's bank balance)

David Barnett
Thursday 03 September 2015 20:32

If you're a hardcore Star Wars fan, the chances are you were queueing at midnight to bag the latest toys in the science fiction movie franchise ahead of the release of the seventh movie in the series, The Force Awakens, in December.

For the rest of us, welcome to what's been billed as "Force Friday"… the day when the world gets really, really excited about posable action figures and pretend light-sabres.

In a military-style operation worthy of the rebel attack on Darth Vader's Death Star, the hotly anticipated toys have been rolled out over 18 hours in 15 cities across a dozen countries, in what Lucasfilm calls "the world's first ever global live toy unboxing event" (presumably they haven't heard of Christmas Day).

Starting in Sydney, toys were unboxed live on YouTube to whet fans' appetites and send them rushing to their nearest toy store, staging a midnight opening, with two show anchors in LA – Anthony Carboni and Andi Gutierrez – reaching almost frenzied levels of excitement as they introduced each new unveiling.

And what a treat for fans. Seoul got a Lego X-Wing Fighter. Hong Kong unwrapped an assortment of Hot Wheels vehicles. Paris saw the wielding of a life-sized triple lightsabre, as used by the new baddie Kylo Ren, a gleaming red recreation of the traditional Jedi weapon, with three plastic light beams. (Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, has earned himself toy immortality in the form of a 31in doll with leather costume and sinister hooded cape.) And London got to unbox the undoubted stars of the show for many collectors: intricately detailed, die-cast, articulated action figures of the new characters and old favourites such as the white-armoured Imperial Stormtroopers.

It seems difficult to believe now, when every movie is accompanied by an onslaught of plastic – did you get through summer without tripping over a little yellow Minion? – but prior to the first Star Wars movie in 1977, film merchandising wasn't really a thing. Yes, there were Bond cars and Disney spin-offs, but it was only when Star Wars creator George Lucas said he'd take pretty much a pittance in fees (by Hollywood standards) but would instead retain merchandise rights and profits, that the game changed.

Anyone who grew up in the Seventies or Eighties and now laments the fact that their parents threw out their Darth Vader and Chewbacca action figures (yes, I'm looking at YOU, Mum) will realise just how shrewd a decision that was on the part of Lucas. Not only did the movie capture the imagination, but the toys went ballistic. Between 1977 and 1978, Star Wars toys brought in $100m (£73m) in revenue. By last year, the total was nearer $12bn.

As Danie Ware, of the comic book and toy chain Forbidden Planet, says: "Star Wars merchandising allowed fans to take a piece of history home and to create the story for themselves. With the arrival of The Force Awakens we've seen a new high in how different strands of merchandising all weave together to make a film release a three-dimensional experience."

Newcastle-based gamer James Beavers, who has a YouTube channel (TheGamingBeaver), was the star of the UK leg of yesterday's "unboxing", unwrapping and discussing in detail a selection of articulated figures, QVC shopping channel-style.

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As thousands tuned in, comments scrolled up almost too fast too read, largely comprising "OMG!!!" and raving over the figures of new characters Kylo Ren, Rey and your new favourite cutesy-droid, BB8.

But Beavers' lone performance, delivered with typical British reserve, was a universe away from the frenzy in New York, as Evan (a young YouTube star, with his own channel on the platform. EvanTubeHD) appeared live on the TV show Good Morning America amid hordes of children in fancy dress, and got to be the first on the planet to play with a new 1,300-piece Lego recreation of Han Solo's Millennium Falcon, and a BB8 droid that whizzed around controlled by a smartphone app.

Of course, these days, the profits go to Disney – not Lucas, who sold them the rights for $4bn – and to collectors. (Still in their boxes, an original action figure of bounty-hunter Boba Fett sold in January for an interstellar £18,000 at auction, while in May an original Death Star model fetched £5,280.)

But the new generation of merch is unlikely to be as valuable in 40 years. The collectors' market has been spoiled by too many collectors, too many toys. Now, looking back – before global unboxing events and midnight openings – the Seventies seem like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… µ


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