The LEGO Movie, which blends Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Han Solo in one film, is the type of thing that could once only happen if you paired your imagination with the contents of your toy box.
Now it’s on the big screen. A culmination of more than three decades of action figures, cartoons and toy advertising, which started in 1977, the year George Lucas released Star Wars.
Brian Stillman doesn’t remember a time before Star Wars toys. “If you were from that era, whether you played with them or not, you grew up with them,” says the director of the new documentary Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys.
He eventually grew away from the toys. But that plastic passion was revived five years ago, when a shop displaying vintage Star Wars toys triggered old memories. “It flipped a switch in my head where all that nostalgia flooded back,” says Stillman, who is based in New York City. At first he ignored the temptation — “it wasn’t really what I collected” — but gave in, buying an R2-D2 figure. It snowballed from there.
Stillman, a journalist and filmmaker, didn’t simply want to collect the 3 ¾-inch figures; he also wanted their stories. Several books had been published, hundreds of websites existed, but no documentary had been made. “It was a cool opportunity to see some amazing collections and tell the story.”
By the 1970s, licensed toys existed for other science-fiction properties like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes. Why did Star Wars resonate?
“It was the right property at the right time. It somehow struck this nerve in pop culture,” says Stillman. The baby-boomer generation, who were now young parents, were more comfortable giving their kids toys, “something that a previous generation didn’t get to enjoy quite as much,” he adds.
Most importantly, you had a character-filled movie that translated perfectly to a massive line of toys.
“Star Wars showed that even the most minor character could become a toy because kids used their imagination to create new worlds,” he says. In Lucas’s film, Hammerhead never stole Han Solo’s rustbucket of a spaceship, the Millennium Falcon, but you could make that happen in your basement rec- room.
As the documentary demonstrates, nobody expected Star Wars to revolutionize the film and toy industries. In hindsight, it’s no surprise the original lineup of 12 figures, produced by Kenner Toys, weren’t ready for the 1977 Christmas season.
Instead, kids received an “Early Bird Certificate Package” promising the eventual delivery of four figures. The wait only increased demand and anticipation. By 1980, when The Empire Strikes Back was released, Kenner had generated more than $200 million in sales worldwide.
In Canada, the toys were distributed by Kenner Canada, a joint venture between Kenner and Irwin Toys, a partnership that began in the late 1960s and lasted until 1986. George Irwin, the current president and CEO of Irwin Toys USA, fondly remembers those days when he ran product management for Kenner Canada. “The phenomenon of Star Wars is something the toy industry hasn’t seen since,” says the 43-year industry veteran.
Although Kenner and Irwin shared equal profit in the Canadian venture, Irwin often struggled to meet demand. “Because Kenner U.S. was the big brother, they always took more than their fair share of merchandise. Overseas production was limited to a certain amount every week so we had to scramble, bite and scratch to get our share of what was coming here,” he says.
“But we certainly did OK,” says Irwin, estimating that Canadian sales generated $10 to $12 million annually during the first few years of the line’s run.
Kenner’s success showed that a broad range of characters was key to dominating the toy shelves. The formula was repeated over and over: G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, She-Ra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers. “The list goes on,” says Irwin, whose company, once the dominant player in Canadian toys, no longer sells action figures.
At the Silver Snail, a comic book and toy shop on Yonge St., owner George Zotti often sees parents hit by nostalgia when their kids are picking a toy. Today’s kids might be more familiar with Anakin Skywalker over Luke Skywalker, “but you can tell that the passion of the father has been passed onto the son,” he says.
Irwin, sitting at the same desk he used during Star Wars’ original heydey, loves hearing those stories. “These toys transcend generations,” he says. “When you have great experiences as a kid, you remember them as an adult. Now that you have your own kids, you want them to share in that experience.”