Professionally, I have been in the toy biz for twenty+ years. Personally, I have been a toy fan my whole life. One trend I have noticed throughout the years is a consistent battle cry of "this property is the NEW Star Wars!".
Be it Titan AE, Avatar, or countless others. I have heard this phrase used in marketing materials and in pitch meetings countless times.
But why Star Wars? Okay, that is obvious. Star Wars worked. Star Wars toys broke the mold in terms of movie based licensing for toy products. Before the original 1977 film, movie based licensing was VERY limited. Toy licensing started with items like the Teddy Bear (named after and endorsed by President Teddy Roosevelt) as well as Snow White dishes and the Mickey Mouse Guitar. But for movies, most toy manufactures stayed away from licensed merchandise because of the feeling that a movie was a "one and done" property. Once it was out of theaters, toy makers felt their would be very little interest in toys. (and we are talking pre VCR world here).
So why did Star Wars change this? As a fan, a customer and a (ahem) toy geek, I do have some thoughts that (like the toy line itself), break the mold a little.
1: Toyetic properties
First and foremost the movie itself contained what are called "toyetic elements". Items in the content itself that translated well into toy product.
2: Mythic themes
I'm not the first (nor will I be the last) to talk about Star Wars in terms of following mythic themes. George Lucas was quite upfront in noting (and hiring) Joseph Campbell to consult on his film. Campbell's seminary work "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" documents how world wide mythology follows a specific "Hero's Journey". This common story worked across cultures specifically BECAUSE it spoke to innate human experience. By infusing Star Wars with the exact Hero's Journey story line, Lucas ensured that his film would speak directly to a primordial story constructs and expectations.
In other words, follow the template for what works.
3: Forced Play (no pun intended).
Now here is the big one that I don't see talked about or discussed often.
When Star Wars came out in theaters their were no toys. Many collectors and fans know about the now infamous "Early Bird Kit" which promised toys the soonest toy maker Kenner could provide them (the following spring, almost a year after the film came out!). Not only did this product draught create demand, but it drove interest in additional stories.
Once the toys did hit in 1978/1979 they became not just playthings but avatars for the imagination. The lack of home video, or quite frankly ANY other form of Star Wars content (video games, books, comics &...) was what I believe drove the success of the toy line.
Without content or the ability to watch the film (outside of what became annual re-releases in theaters) kids were quite literally "forced" to make up their own adventures. In other words, the only way one could continue the story of the first film was in your own basement or backyard and the Kenner Star Wars toys became the instrument to accomplish this.
Even more importantly, once the first sequel came out, the "time skip" of several years became key to these imaginative adventures because the fun one had playing out Darth Vader vs. Han and Luke on your floor transformed into many child's personal Star Wars story cannon.
The marketing and box art also played a major part in this phenomenon with key vehicles and playsets packaged with giant full panel "honesty shots" using actual toys shot against real world environment sets (like sand and snow). These images became the instructions for how to "play Star Wars" and visualized how the toys could actually take you to a galaxy far far away.
Fast forward to today and we are inundated with content and instant home releases. The time frame of "between films" without content is pretty much nonexistent. As more and more properties are called "the new Star Wars" one has to take a pause to truly think about the factors that made the original toy line so iconic.
Sure the scale was innovative, the character selection literally out of this world, but the combination of toyetic elements, mythic themes and most of all a moment in time when the toys were the ONLY way to experience the Star Wars universe was that final push encouraging strong imaginative play that shaped a generation.
So why go over all of this? Because in a toy licensing world where so many properties say and or want to be "the next Star Wars" it is important to truly look at the factors that lead to it's toy success. Limiting content and/or using the toy line AS content can be just as important as the source material itself.
Want to know more about toyetic elements and how use toys AS content to drive sales? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org today and lets talk creative solutions!