When the "Star Wars" phenomenon landed in 1977, it spawned a marketing bonanza that helped cement its status in pop culture history. Chief among the spin-off products, toys and similar retail items were a line of plastic action figures originally produced by Kenner toys which was eventually purchased by Hasbro. The figures became coveted collectors items and remain popular today, fueled by the release of the new movie trilogy in the first few years of the twenty-first century.
Kenner's line of action figures, subsequently emulated by Hasbro, stood 3 3/4 inches tall and were created by injection molding. They were fairly crude by contemporary standards--moving only at the shoulders, hips and neck, and sporting expressionless faces--but strove to emulate the look of the movie characters as closely as possible. They often came with tiny accessories such as blasters, vinyl capes and light sabers that could retract up the figures' arms and then pushed out to mimic the extending laser blade.
George Lucas very shrewdly secured the merchandizing rights to his films before they were released. No one anticipated that "Star Wars" would become the sensation that it did, however, and when it hit in the summer of 1977, Kenner was caught unprepared. Unable to meet the demand for the figures in time for Christmas, it instead began a "gift certificate" promotion, selling coupons that could be redeemed for the first four action figures as soon as they became available. Needless to say, they had a tough time selling the concept to a skeptical public.
Kenner quickly rebounded in 1978, however, and once the action figures finally arrived, they became a sensation. Originally, there were only four different kinds--Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca--but by the end of the run in 1985, the line had grown to 111 distinct figures. In 1978 alone, they sold more than $100 million worth of action figures, an unprecedented number at the time.
Sales dried up after the original trilogy ended, and Kenner was eventually sold to Hasbro in 1991. In 1995, they released new, more elaborate versions of the Star Wars action figures under the banner of "The Power of the Force." They did this both in anticipation of the re-issued movie trilogy in 1997 and to build interest in action figures corresponding to Episodes I through III. The line proved extremely successful and Star Wars action figures have been in production ever since.
Modern Toy Lines
The first line of action figures for "The Phantom Menace" hit stores on May 3, 1999--several weeks before the movie itself opened. Toys R Us reported sales in the millions per day and enthusiasm for the line didn't diminish despite the less-than-favorable reaction to Episodes I through III in certain quarters.
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