The Plastic Bones of Star Wars: A Condensed History of the Merchandise that Funded the Saga

Toys and merchandising have been a part of the Star Wars franchise since before the movies were in theaters. Action figures, clothes, plastic plates and cups, coloring books, and video games. The eventual ubiquitous nature of the Star Wars branding over the years has led to a fair amount of scorn from some segments of the fandom and film critics alike. These types of detractors can be heard making claims that specific scenes or certain characters were added to the saga solely to sell toys. Whatever one’s personal views on the subject might be, the fact of the matter is that if you enjoy any aspect of the Star Wars mythos at all, there’s a good chance you have the merchandise to thank for it.

In 1975 George Lucas was seeking funding for this next film project, the Star Wars. After receiving several rejections from various studios Lucas eventually ended up at Twentieth Century Fox sitting down with studio head Alan Ladd Jr. who was a big fan of Lucas’ previous film American Graffiti. The junior Ladd was confident in George’s filmmaking abilities and was eager to make sure Lucas’ next project was produced by Fox.

Through a combination of confidence, eagerness, kismet, and foresight George Lucas and Alan Ladd Jr. came to the following agreement: Fox would fully fund Star Wars with a sum eventually totaling $11 million. Lucas would forego the typical director’s fee of $500,000 in exchange for a larger portion of the backend profits of the film’s total gross. Twentieth Century Fox would retain exclusive distribution for the first Star Wars movie while Lucas would be allowed to retain all rights for any and all merchandise as well as exclusive rights for any sequels, so long as those sequels were distributed by Fox.

And thus a universe was born.

Of particular interest is Lucas’ retention of all merchandising rights for Star Wars and its successors. With the immense success of the original movie and the early marketing for the toys, movie goers and children of all ages were clamoring for any and all Star Wars merchandise earning millions of dollars for Lucas virtually overnight. Soon more waves of action figures were deployed, vehicles, trading cards, t-shirts, and anything else the Star Wars logo could be printed on. Excitement only grew when talk of a sequel began to circulate.

You may be asking yourself why Fox would make such a deal. Why give up input on any future films and why hand over so much in the form of those lucrative merchandising rights? But what we must remember is that before Star Wars, movie sequels were not seen as commercially successful ventures. Film series like the Godfather and the Planet of the Apes were seen as exceptions as opposed to the rule. In an age just at the dawn of home video, before movies could be viewed on demand, once a movie’s initial run in theaters was over it was often gone for good. More popular films might find themselves relegated to limited rereleases at smaller, more obscure screens but the average film might not be shown again for years. This meant that demand for any type of film-specific merchandise would generally be limited to whatever span of time the particular movie was playing in theaters. So allowing Lucas to maintain these rights for a movie which hadn’t even started production seemed like a no risk gamble for Alan Ladd Jr. and Twentieth Century Fox.

By the time the Empire Strikes Back was underway Lucas was able to take out a personal loan with the profits from his merchandising as a sizable collateral. These continual toy sales were able to keep

The second Star Wars film afloat when the production ran over-budget and filming ran long. However following the success of Empire and more Star Wars merchandise in its wake, Star Wars was officially an independent movie. From Return of the Jedi through the dark times between trilogies and into the Prequel era, Star Wars was solely funded by its own success. Thus making the Star Wars movies the largest indie movies of all time and George Lucas the most successful, quirky indie director.

All of this, thanks in large part to the toys and merchandise for which Star Wars has become infamous. As kids so many of us fell in love with that universe and wanted to recreate it on the floors of our living rooms or spread across our own backyards. As adults we collect pieces of our childhood or simply long to surround ourselves with tangible trappings of favorite fictional moments.

All the while we were directly investing in the future of that galaxy far, far away . . . .

For a huge overview of merchandise in Star Wars, check out Joshua’s latest appearance one the Chatter Squadron podcast!

Written by: Joshua Witsaman