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The Star Wars Toy Empire Launched With An Empty Box

Entertainment | September 2, 2020

Source: museumofplay.org

New Star Wars toys, particularly action figures, are inevitable with the release of each film in the 40-plus year-old movie franchise. But when the very first Star Wars movie (episode IV, later retitled A New Hope) came out, they didn't exist. That's not an exaggeration: the movie was in theaters, the figures were in development, but for kids stricken by Star Wars mania there were no figures on store shelves. In a desperate move, having no other choice, manufacturer Kenner ended up selling an IOU, and somehow it worked.

It's said that George Lucas didn't get rich off his share of box-office receipts from Star Wars. Well, maybe he got kind of rich off of ticket sales, but the real money came from his decision to hold onto the merchandising rights for the franchise. In the 1970s, distributors like 20th Century Fox didn't see a point in producing spin-off toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes, etc. They were in the business of making movies and didn't care about anything else, meanwhile Lucas knew that there was a truckload of cash to be made in merch, he just had to get the rest of the world on board with his idea.

Kenner Believed In The Movie Enough To Want The License, But Not Enough To Make The Toys

First shots of the four figures included in the Star Wars Early Bird package. Obsessed fans will note some slight differences between these and the toys that were actually delivered. Source: theswca.org

In 1977, even toy manufacturers and retailers doubted the ability of a space opera to inspire the fervor of capitalism in the minds of children. On Christmas 1977, Kenner whiffed the launch of the first generation of Star Wars toys completely. The company didn't just miss the release date of the film; Kenner was set to miss the first Christmas season after the release, which was six months later. Kenner ended up selling empty boxes containing a voucher for the first four figures, just what every young Star Wars fan wants to find under the tree.

No one expected "Star Wars" to be successful

source: pinterest

When Star Wars opened in May 1977 it inspired people of all ages to fall in love with fun popcorn features. Audiences lost themselves in the movie's immersive world, moved by the battle against the Empire and awed by the power of the force. People were excited about this movie in an organic way that just doesn't happen anymore. 20th Century Fox and Kenner, two companies that were ho-hum about George Lucas' film were woefully unprepared for the success of Star Wars.

For 20th Century Fox it was easy to turn things around. They just sent out more prints of the film and kept it in theaters for as long as it sold tickets. Kenner had a much bigger problem. In 1976, George Lucas initially offered a Star Wars licensing deal to Mego, the premiere action figure company of the day, but they passed on the project and it was picked up by Kenner, a division of the General Mills Fun Group (the makers of Kix, Trix, and Wheaties).

At the time Kenner was a small company but they were excited to get the license, now all they needed were designs.

George Lucas helped create the action figure black hole of 1977

source: pinterest

The release of Star Wars came and went, and the Christmas season of 1977 loomed -- and Kenner still needed designs for their toys. It turns out you can't just whip up a batch of toys without making a proof of concept, agreeing on something for national release, then making a mold, etc. By this point in his young career George Lucas was paranoid that Star Wars would be poached and replicated until his film was meaningless. He held his character, ship, and weapon designs close to the vest, but he finally relented when it was clear that without designs Kenner couldn't make toys.

Even with the designs in hand Kenner had no way of making their deadline for Christmas. Even if the toys were produced they weren't going to be on shelves in time for the most wonderful time of the year. What were they supposed to produce if they didn't have designs for the toys they were advertising?

Board games, anyone?

source: pinterest

So Kenner didn't have any toys, who cares? It's not like kids like to play with toys or anything, right? What Kenner did have at their disposal was millions of copies of Star Wars jigsaw puzzles and board games. While that's all well and good it's not what any kid wants to find under their Christmas tree.

Rather than go into the first Christmas season for Star Wars with nothing but the Escape From the Death Star board game and a Star Wars Dip-Dot Design Book, Kenner formulated a plan that was so crazy that the Rebel Alliance would have pushed it aside in favor of something a bit less extreme. Kenner decided that it was going to sell an empty box.

The Empty Box Campaign

source: pinterest

Rather than skip out on the Christmas season altogether and lose a ton of money, Kenner opted to create the "Early Bid Certificate Package," also known as an empty box with an IOU inside. The box on offer from the toy company promised some super cool options. Who wouldn't want to have Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca to play with, on top of an X-Wing and a myriad of creatures from Star Wars?

The figures were all "proposed," meaning that it wasn't actually clear which toys were going to be released, and aside from the fact that the box could be turned into a diorama to display the figures once they were released, it "Early Bird Campaign" also featured a coupon that promised the holder a crack at the first four figures off the line. There were also stickers and a Star Wars Fan Club membership card, which is admittedly kind of cool.


All of this cost $7.99, which is pretty steep for a box, an unhappy child, and no guarantee that a toy would actually arrive on your door step between February and June of 1978. Even though this sounds like a monetary nightmare for Kenner they actually made a ton of money. Kenner capped sales of the Early Bird Certificate Package at 500,000 which made fans want it regardless of what it was, and they stopped selling the boxes on December 31, 1977. 

These steps managed to build a sense of scarcity and urgency to order a product that was actually coming out a year late. Genius.

Kenner's plan worked

source: pinterest

In early 1978, Kenner began shipping out the first four figures. Keeping their promise to the fans, Kenner sent Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and R2D2 to people who mailed in their coupons, and everyone who received their figures was happy. People who decided to skip the Early Bird Package found that they could just buy the figures anyway when they were released in 1978. By the end of the year Kenner had sold more than 40 million action figures, bringing in more than $100 million, a bounty that basically paid for Empire and Return of the Jedi. More importantly than funding one of the most science fiction trilogies of all time, this cardboard box - that's all it really was - changed merchandising forever.

Tags: George Lucas | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Remember This?... | Star Wars | Toys Of The 1970s

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.