How Star Wars used the Force of Fandom to create a merchandising empire

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Sep 3, 2019, 7:42 AM EDT (Updated)

Today, fans across the country are flocking to stores to buy the latest Star Wars toys, their wallets and enthusiasm activated by the Lucasfilm-created holiday Force Friday. Now it's just generally accepted that Star Wars can declare its own merchandising holiday, but 40 years ago the concept was unimaginable even to executives in Hollywood. But George Lucas, the mind behind the franchise, had a notion that people might want to collect lightsabers, and the origin of Force Friday and the Star Wars toy craze goes back to one very smart call in the lead-up to A New Hope. He turned down $500,000, and that move would singlehandedly make him a billionaire.

Back before Lucas had proven himself a sci-fi demigod, 20th Century Fox didn’t have much confidence in Star Wars becoming a hit, and it happily cut a deal with him: The studio would keep $500,000 of his directorial pay, and Lucas would hold on to the merchandising rights to the franchise. Since the studio figured the movie would bomb anyway, a half-million dollars in hand felt like a better investment than securing merchandising rights to something they assumed would be worthless.

Obviously, Fox made the wrong call.

Lucas turned those rights into a billion-dollar business, teaming with Kenner to launch a line of action figures around the original trilogy that proved so popular the company was literally selling kids “I.O.U.”s for Christmas sets. It also became  the first IP to partner with LEGO for branded sets (a market that, in itself, has become a billion-dollar business). You can find Star Wars on just about anything now, and that’s the point. Over the past four decades, the franchise has grown to be one of the biggest merchandising forces in the world, accounting for well over $25 billion in sales to date.

Before pretty much anyone, Lucas could see the future wasn’t just in the movies, but all the stuff that surrounds them. They manufactured action figures, the lightsabers, the LEGO sets, the T-shirts, the X-Wing drones, the tie-in books, the Yoda Halloween costumes, the Chewbacca pillows, and everything in between — stuff he could sell far beyond the run of a movie in theaters (this was also before home video). He knew he was creating a huge, fantastic world of science fiction, and that if people fell in love with the movies, they’d want to live in that world. No, you can’t literally visit the Mos Eisley cantina (that Hollywood bar notwithstanding), but you can pick up the LEGO set, the action figures of the band, and a T-shirt that says you were there. And all that just meant more money in the bank for Lucas.

The rights were so valuable that they were a key piece of the puzzle during Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise from Lucas. Sure, the Mouse House wanted to make a new trilogy and spinoff films, but Disney needed to control all the other stuff they’d be cranking out around it. It’s why the studio ponied up a mind-boggling $4 billion for the franchise, which doesn't even seem like all that much right now.

We haven’t even made it to the second proper Star Wars sequel yet, and that investment has already paid off and then some. Star Wars merchandising accounted for $5 billion in 2015, the year Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit the big screen. With more spinoffs and proper sequels mapped out for a decade or longer, Disney will basically be printing money for years to come. We’re assuming the bills have Kylo Ren on them, but still. Money’s money.

And outside of a dip in the '80s, in the fallow years following The Return of the Jedi, the obsession has only grown, and allowed Lucasfilm to launch several of its own personal merchandising holidays. May 4 has commonly become known as Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth” be with you, get it?) When that wasn’t enough, Disney literally created “Force Friday” in 2015 to launch the merchandising around The Force Awakens, and with The Last Jedi hitting screens this December, Force Friday II is in full force today.

The first Force Friday is likely best remembered for the debut of Sphero’s insanely cool, controllable BB-8, and — not to be outdone — the company has a brand-new, rolling droid to drop this year, too. Disney has even created an augmented reality app to complement the marketing push, which can be used by shoppers to unlock characters from the films. It’s the cash-in of cash-ins, but it doesn’t bother anyone. Fans love this franchise so much, they’ll happily line up at midnight for the chance to buy new toys (which, yeah, so will we).

Lucas was ahead of pretty much everyone, and created a model that served as the template for all the superhero figures and Disney princesses littering toy aisles today — something Disney is all too aware of as it leverages its Marvel heroes and fairy tales as a counter-punch to all that money Star Wars is already making. But even Earth’s Mightiest Heroes still can’t touch Luke and the gang. Call it nostalgia, call it a zeitgeist, call it passion. Getting people to line up to see a movie is one thing, but getting them to line up to buy the latest T-shirts and action figures? That’s something entirely different. Put simply, it's closer to love than anything else.

Lucas poured his heart and soul into this universe, and though it’s obviously a complicated world littered with alien races and far-out planets, at its heart it’s a story of good and evil. It’s Luke vs. Vader, Rey vs. Kylo Ren, and Jyn Erso vs. the Big Bad Empire. That’s something that resonates with people, be they adults who grew up with the franchise or kids just now discovering it through the animated series or LEGO TV specials (which also create some rich merchandising opportunities). It’s a story as old as time, but one that Lucas was wise enough to turn into something all his own, complete with more collectibles and toys than you could ever hope to collect.

Fans can’t get enough of Star Wars, and unless that changes, it’ll keep making a whole lot of money — and we’ll keep on stockpiling action figures and driving our BB-8 droids around.