'Star Wars' merchandise a phenomenon bigger than the movies

Since 1977, toys from the film saga have dominated the hearts and wallets of fans

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The "Star Wars" saga has earned far more revenue from merch than from box office.

"Star Wars" has always been far more than a film franchise.

It was a merchandising machine from the get-go, starting with George Lucas' decision to forgo a $500,000 directing fee from 20th Century Fox in return for merchandising rights to the film in 1977.

Lucas sold his production company, Lucasfilm, to Disney in 2012 for $4.1 billion in stock and cash.

Fast-forward nearly 50 years later and that might just rank among the most brilliant business decisions in Hollywood history.

A mere 22% of "Star Wars" revenue over the years has been generated through the movies themselves. That ranks behind rentals and merchandise and only double the proportion earned through gaming.

When you look at the numbers, it's pretty clear the films are essentially just high-budget commercials.

Total Box Office Revenue: $10.3 billion+

Total Merch Revenue: $32 billion+

Though you can find varying numbers across reputable sources, they all fall within that range. Any data that comes within a reasonable margin of error of those figures tell the same story.

All this is to emphasize the significance of the events that unfolded in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the wake of the May 1977 release of the first "Star Wars" film.

Prior to the release of the film, the notion of toy companies aligning themselves with a sci-fi property — particularly one with a cinematic release — seemed completely ridiculous. Conventional wisdom at large toy companies, such as Mattel and Mego, led them to turn down the risky project, eschewing any licensing agreements in favor of more tried and tested television properties. TV shows had naturally longer shelf lives and were far easier to predict viewership.

After the major players in the industry passed on the deal, Cincinnati-based Kenner Toys found themselves with an opportunity.

A designer at the company who had previously read the Star Wars script and believed it would be a success convinced the higher-ups at Kenner to jump at the deal to produce toys for the upcoming film.

Kenner paid a $100,000 flat fee for the toy merchandising rights.

Kenner's 'Early Bird Certificate Package' included stickers and coupon to be redeemed via mail for the first set of four action figures. (Credit: Hakes)
Kenner's 'Early Bird Certificate Package' included stickers and coupon to be redeemed via mail for the first set of four action figures. (Credit: Hakes)

But talk is cheap and pretty soon it became apparent to Kenner that the company would be unable to meet the Christmas 1977 deadline to produce the first batch of toys.

So, Kenner got crafty.

Instead of finding toys under the tree on Christmas morning, kids around the country found themselves unwrapping an I.O.U.

“One of the hottest-selling toys this Christmas may not be a toy at all, but the promise of one,” The New York Times wrote in a December 1977 article. The Times called Kenner’s line of Star Wars toys a "winner" before offering a caveat: “The only problem is that the company does not have a single 'Star Wars' figurine on the market.”

“Because of the backlog in producing the toys, the Kenner toy company is having stores across the country sell 'Star Wars' gift certificates so parents can let their children know on Christmas Day that 'Star Wars' characters will be arriving by Feb. 15,” The Telegraph reported in December 1977.

A representative from Kenner told The Telegraph that it usually takes a year-long production cycle to produce similar toys, explaining that after conducting “market research to see if people would settle for certificates” the company determined its best path forward would be sending out the "Star Wars Early Bird Certificate" in lieu of the action figures. The representative added that he had never seen a “hotter item than Star Wars” in his 20 years in the toy business.

The certificate, which sold for $15, guaranteed delivery of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2 figures before the following spring.

This sealed Obi Wan figure comes from the less desirable later production 'B' wave and is worth less than $1,000. (Credit: Goldin)
This sealed Obi Wan figure comes from the less desirable later production 'B' wave and is worth less than $1,000. (Credit: Goldin)

Despite some outcry over Kenner’s failure to deliver the toys in a timely manner, certificates had sold out in stores all over New York and Chicago a week prior to Christmas.

Those certificates are now collectors items, with a sealed example graded AFA 85+ selling for a record $20,905.59 in March 2022.

In January 1978, Kenner began shipping out the toys, as promised.

Kenner sold 40 million "Star Wars" toys during that first calendar year, representing $100 million in revenue. By the year’s end, Kenner had introduced 12 action figures, now known by collectors today as the original "12-Back A" set, named due to the 12 character’s featured on their cardboard backs.

These toys are among the most coveted and valuable of any Star Wars collectibles ever produced, particularly key characters such as Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jawa.

As the years went on, Kenner continued producing dozens of figures for the franchise, expanding their cast of characters to include Snaggletooth and Greedo in 1978, Yoda in 1980 and Admiral Akbar in 1982.

If all this sends you digging around your attic thinking you've struck gold, let's hit the brakes a bit.

First off, you most likely aren't going to have one of the more valuable "12 Back-A" variations. Those were soon phased out for B and C waves, which are worth decidedly less. For example, a 1978 Obi-Wan Kenobi sealed AFA 75 (12 Back B) sold in November 2023 for less than $900.

And keep in mind, that's sealed, meaning you weren't playing with them as kids. As for common, loose figures, we're likely talking less than $200.

On the other end of the spectrum, here are some of the most valuable and collectible Kenner figures today:

The rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype is the undisputed grail of Star Wars toy collecting. (Credit: Hakes)
The rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype is the undisputed grail of Star Wars toy collecting. (Credit: Hakes)

1979 Rocket-firing Boba Fett prototype

Only around 100 of these figures ever escaped the production floor, never intended to land in the hand of consumers. Due to issues presented by a "Battlestar Galactica" toy, which proved to be a danger to small children, Kenner attempted to scrap its figure featuring a similar rocket-firing component. However, a few made it out into the world and have since become the undisputed crown jewel of any "Star Wars" toy collector. The finest copies have sold for more than $200,000 at auction.

1978 Obi-Wan Kenobi double-telescoping lightsaber

Due to a change in design early in production, it’s believed there are less than 20 sealed examples extant. Hake’s Auctions sold an AFA 75 example for a record $79,178.00 in November 2022.

1978 Luke Skywalker double-telescoping” lightsaber

Produced under similar circumstances to the DT Obi-Wan, an AFA 90 example sold for $100,251 at LCG Auctions in June 2023.

1979 vinyl cape Jawa

After beginning production using vinyl material for the cape of the action figure, it was deemed too expensive and quickly swapped out for a cheaper cloth cape. The result was an extremely rare early variant that has become a collector favorite. An ungraded example found in a garage sold for more than $30,000 in July 2023. In June 2022, Hakes sold an AFA 80 example for $40,887.

1979 Millenium Falcon spaceship

One of the most enduringly popular toys produced by Kenner, the ship remains a beacon of nostalgia and fond memories for an entire generation. Sealed examples have sold for excess of $40,000.

Kenner Star Wars toys currently on eBay.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct. You can follow him on X at @Will__Stern.