It is hard to think of a cultural phenomenon more influential than Star Wars. We all loved the Vintage Star Wars Figures, of course, but the mythology of the epic has seeped into every aspect of our lives. Sure there has been religions, but none of those have released a sequel in a long time.
Based on the cultural obsessions of its creator, George Lucas, it was part science fiction serial, part samurai movie. Mixed in with a whole lot of mythological structure and a pinch of philosophy, Star Wars became at once a deeply personal experience and simultaneously wholly universal.
These days, it is not uncommon to come across Star Wars references outside the films. In fact, it is probably harder to dodge the brand altogether. But back in the olden days of the ’70s, before its zeitgeist-shaping mainstream dominance, options for geeking out were more limited. The toys that we now call vintage Star Wars figures were the first in a long line of collectibles still tickling our nerdy neurons.
The Unexpected Blockbusters
Stories exist about the making of Star Wars, and how it apparently was rescued in the edit. The fact, however, is that the movie had an only lukewarm response before it was released. Neither the studio nor George Lucas himself really believed in its triumph.
This general feeling of mediocrity spread when it was time to shop around licensing. Lucas, having garnered a deal to take most of the profits of merchandising, wanted the Mego Corporation as the company to produce Star Wars toys. Mego was one of the biggest toy makers of its day, holding licenses for DC Comics superheroes and Star Trek. But after seeing the movie, they passed.
The license eventually fell into the hands of Kenner, a subsidiary of General Mills. They saw it as an opportunity to make some toys with a cheaper method of scaling down the action figures. Long-term success was also not on their mind.
Star Wars released in May 1977. To say the rest is history would be probably an understatement. The movie shattered expectations. The audience flocked to Star Wars‘ promise of escapism. Blockbuster filmmaking arrived.
Certificates for Toys
No one was prepared for Star Wars‘ success, least of all Kenner. As a film that appealed to all ages, droves of kids wanted more after leaving the cinema: they wanted toys! Kenner was not even remotely able to meet the demand of hordes of newly minted fans. Worse yet, they ran the risk of missing out on the lucrative Christmas market. To avoid losing out on the most important and profitable period of the year, Kenner came up with a crazy idea.
In today’s world of video game pre-orders and pre-order bonuses, this does not seem all that weird. The world was different in 1977. Instead of selling existing stock, which Kenner didn’t have, they decided to sell an empty box. Or to be more precise, they sold people a box containing a cardboard display, stickers, and most importantly, a certificate. Kids were able to mail in this certificate to receive four Star Wars figures later in 1978.
The box was poorly received, both regarding sales and media attention. Nonetheless, the first four toys released, action figures for Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca, became the first vintage Star Wars figures. The move also kept attention on the budding franchise. This was much harder to achieve in a pre-digital media landscape. And when 1978 finally rolled around, no hard feelings where left. With over $100 million in sales, demand still outstripped the supply Kenner was able to put out.
Action Figures Strike Back
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was announced in 1979 to much anticipation. Capitalizing on this, Kenner decided to start another promotion. It also proved to be controversial. After sending in four proof of purchases from existing Star Wars toys, kids were able to receive a sneak peek of what was to come from Empire.
This took the form of a figure of the mysterious Bounty Hunter Boba Fett. The action figure was advertised to include a rocket firing jetpack. Concerns about child safety made Kenner reevaluate and ship the toy without that feature. Versions of the figure with the rocket firing intact have popped up now and again. It is one of the most valuable collector’s items of all vintage Star Wars figures.
The dominance of Star Wars toys on the market seemed endless. With the release of the third movie, the line boasted a staggering array of figures and playsets. But with no plans to continue the movie series, interest began to dwindle. Plans to continue the toy line in the form of a toy-based expansion was rejected by Lucasfilm. By 1985, with over 250 million toys in worldwide circulation, the Kenner line of toys was finished. These are what we now consider vintage Star Wars figures. However, the history of Star Wars toys, just like the history of Star Wars, was far from over.
Vintage Star Wars and Beyond
It was not until the mid-1990s, over a decade after the original trilogy ended, that Star Wars returned. Not only was there going to be a remastered re-release of the first three films, but a new trilogy as well. At this point, Hasbro owned Kenner. And with the success of the late ’70s and ’80s still in memory, they decided to again capitalize on the franchise.
A spiritual successor to the toy line that ended in 1985 was released to great success, but great dismay of the now well-established community of collectors. Drenched in the “extreme” aesthetic of the ’90s, the figures looked as if our heroes had hit the gym on steroids over the last decade. But as often is the case, the voice of a niche fanbase is not louder than the noise of a cash register printing money.
Mixed metaphors aside, the ’90s also saw the burgeoning Expanded Universe gaining legitimacy. Hasbro lept at the opportunity for toy inspirations outside the limited source material of the three films. However, it was not until The Phantom Menace that a true sequel allowed toy makers to get to work.
This time, they released two figures before the release of the film. This gave Star Wars toys a degree importance more akin to its symbiotic relationship with its source. The action figures have been certainly part of the worldwide success of the franchise. More importantly, fans were able to get their first proper look at new characters in the form of toys for the first time.
Toy lines continued throughout the rest of the prequels. But at that point, video games became more relevant than action figures in capturing young minds.
The Vintage Star Wars Figures Economy
Star Wars’ fairytale structure of a struggle between good and evil that combines fantasy and space is like a shot of espresso for the young imagination. More importantly, this appeal also translates to resonating with that “childlike” part of our mind that makes us pick up sticks to swordfight with our friends. And as such, it is hardly a surprise that Star Wars, both new movies and old, still hold a Force choke on peoples’ imagination. In the world of vintage Star Wars figures, this means collections and collectors.
With card back variations, bootlegs, reproductions, and other rarities, it comes as no surprise that the vintage Star Wars figures market is going strong. The most expensive figure ever sold so far was an aforementioned Boba Fett for around $25.000 — original packaging included.
With the new movies ratching up the amount of merchandise, it is interesting to see how the market will react to oversaturation. One thing is sure; it does not matter how many more movies we get, vintage Star Wars figures will only become more valuable.