Star Wars: A Merchandising Empire

Posted on Wed, December 20, 2017

In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope, the first installment on George Lucas’s famous Star Wars film series, became one of the biggest box office hits of all time. It also gave rise to an innovative mass-marketing campaign for toys and other products that became an industry model – one that notably expanded to even grocery store shelves for the most recent franchise films. Through movie souvenirs, Lucas sought to strengthen the bond between filmgoers and the Star Wars experience that extended beyond the theater. The action figure set in our collection from The Empire Strikes Back, the first sequel to A New Hope, highlights Lucas’s formula of intermingling fun, mass marketing, and fan loyalty to the Star Wars fictional universe.

Beginning with the first Star Wars film, Lucas focused on product development, integrating it with filmmaking and promotion. His marketing strategy was simple: give filmgoers, through toys and other merchandise, an avenue for fun. The toy manufacturer Kenner was caught unprepared, however, for the parental rush during the 1977 holiday shopping season. The film’s popularity forced them to sell a decorative box that symbolized a promise for the toys when ready, adding a heightened sense of drama to the marketing rollout and escalating Star Wars fans’ desire for the movie’s souvenirs. The first figurines hit store shelves in early 1978, all prized finds for collectors today. Kenner and Lucasfilm learned from this experience and were well prepared for the merchandising boom that came with the release of The Empire Strikes Back on May 21, 1980.

One thing that made Star Wars toys and products so popular was the originality of the concept linking filmmaking and merchandising. The 3 ¾” figures, unique in size, became a hallmark of the Star Wars toy universe, a universe that also included plush toys, fake lightsabers, children’s costumes, games, and literally hundreds of other products. Star Wars, more than any other single film or series, inspired legions of children (and adults) to recreate their viewing experience through the purchase of products.

The hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue generated by A New Hope and its souvenirs resulted in a Hollywood first in providing the financing for two additional movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (1983). The hunger for products continued through a long dry spell without new films. The original product line continued expanding, which in turn financed digitization and revision of the first three films for re-release in the 1990s. The production of two entirely new trilogies, associated single films, animated programming, and expanded universe novels gave rise to even more ways to explore the Star Wars universe, found today around nearly every corner in our own galaxy.

A set of Star Wars toys manufactured for the release of The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. Pictured are R2-D2, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Yoda, Boba Fett, and a Storm Trooper, among others.

A set of Star Wars toys manufactured for the release of The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. This set was donated to the Museum in 1997 from a private donor, Michael O’Harro. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum. 

Jennifer Levasseur is curator of the Museum’s astronaut personal equipment and cameras collection, and is an avid, life-long Star Wars fan. You can read more from Levasseur on Star Wars and its impact on pop culture in After Sputnik: 50 Years of the Space Age