In 2010, sales of Star Wars toys topped $510 million, maintaining Lucasfilms’ position as the owner of the bestselling toy licence for boys in the US for the third consecutive year. Bear in mind that we’ve not seen a new, live-action Star Wars movie since 2005 – although the animated spin-off Clone Wars is doing the rounds on various satellite channels. Howard Roffman, president of Lucas Licensing, said, “Around the office, our mantra is ‘Star Wars is forever’.” After which, presumably, he gave himself the rest of the day off.
It seems glib to say that movie tie-in toys are big business. But with the latest, earplug-singeing Transformers instalment released in cinemas on 29 June – Dark of the Moon, completing the trilogy that began in 2007 with Transformers and continued in 2009 with Revenge of the Fallen (Saturday Sky Sci-Fi/Horror) – it’s clear that building a franchise around an existing range of plastic robots is a sound business model in an unpredictable marketplace.
And it was Star Wars, long ago in 1977, that changed the game. George Lucas famously negotiated the deal of the century when he asked Fox for a mere 40% of box office, plus all rights to future sequels and complete ownership of the merchandising. This struck the studio as some- thing of a steal, as toys and lunchboxes were less commonplace at the time.
The first run of plastic Star Wars figures, crude as they were, didn’t even make the shops in time for the film’s US release and 600,000 empty boxes were sold by toymaker Kenner with the equivalent of IOU notes within. (In 1978, 42 million figures were sold. Yes, some of them to me and my brother. Ah, the little vinyl capes that Ben Kenobi and Princess Leia wore!)
It’s worth noting that Star Wars didn’t invent merchandising. Films like Doctor Dolittle and Planet of the Apes – not to mention the Bond movies – had explored this territory beforehand, but on a more modest scale: jigsaws, belt buckles, hobby kits, that sort of thing.
After Star Wars, all bets were off. The eager participation of “media partners” like Lego and McDonald’s helped fan the synergistic flames of family films. From the 80s onwards, it really was a case of, “see the film; buy the Kinder Surprise”.
We’ve been immunised to product placement, whereby whenever a character in a film flips open a laptop to hack into a top-secret government mainframe, an instantly recognisable apple-shaped logo glows prominently from the screen. It’s an unavoidable commercial imperative of 21st century entertainment. But hats off to Jurassic Park, which depicted a gift shop selling its own merchandise. Audacious.
Transformers, however, is another world. The warring robot toys came first. Hasbro introduced the Autobots and Decepticons in 1984, their “backstory” exploited through a Marvel comic and animated TV series. These days, Marvel-linked superhero blockbusters are a dominant force in the movie calendar; less so in the early 80s.
An animated Transformers movie followed in 1986 – featuring the last-ever film performance by Orson Welles, in voice only – but it took until this century for the technology to catch up with the demands of the story, and the current trilogy began.
Hasbro’s GI Joe toys had been a hit in the 60s and again, on a smaller scale, in the 80s, but didn’t become a big, fat blockbuster until 2009 – Joe’s first animated precursor going straight to what we used to call “video” in 1987. And girls got to join in on the action, too, as the freakish, fashion-victim doll-line Bratz spawned first a cartoon series, then a live-action movie to keep the dollars rolling in.
If all this corporate opportunism is making you nauseous, think instead of Toy Story, which at least re-animated wholesome, old-fashioned brands like Mr Potato Head, Slinky and toy soldiers, in the process somehow making the exploitation of pester-power children seem sugary and benign. How do they do that?
Hasbro are digging deep into their asset port- folio for the next wave of tie-ins, with GI Joe 2, Battleship, Stretch Armstrong and Ouija all in production. Watch out, too, for Ridley Scott’s version of Monopoly... but will it be a Clue for the 21st century, or change the game?