Star Wars Merchandising and Toys as Paratexts

Lincoln Geraghty

 

death-star-playsetThe impact that the Star Wars figures had on the toy industry was phenomenal, as evidenced by the fact that “in 1978 Kenner sold over 26 million figures; by 1985, 250 million.” Profits from the toys, figures, lunchboxes, and video games eventually totaled $2.5 billion by the end of the first three films (Engelhardt, 1998, p. 269). This was in addition to the huge takings at the box-office where A New Hope (1977) would follow Steven Spielberg’s lead with Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and achieve blockbuster status. A New Hope, which only cost $11 million to make, “began as a summer movie, ran continuously into 1978, and was re-released in 1979.” It earned “over $190 million in U.S. rentals and about $250 million worldwide, on total ticket sales of over $500 million” (Thompson and Bordwell, 2003, p. 522). It is no secret that Lucas kept the rights to the merchandise in order to recover the investment in the film, and no doubt this is the reason why Disney paid him $4 billion in 2012 for the intellectual property rights. The franchise helped to cement the summer blockbuster as part of American film culture and made merchandising an integral part of Hollywood marketing strategy.

Justin Wyatt sees Star Wars as a high concept franchise, the first to really approach toy merchandising with vigor, and, as a result, increase its market appeal. Although, quite rightly Eric Greene has pointed out that Planet of the Apes (1968) created a similar buzz around its toy and comic merchandise (1998, pp. 164-169). For Wyatt, the “high concept” movie was an important part of the New Hollywood film industry. High concept films are those that are conceived as highly marketable, and therefore highly profitable, as well as being visually striking and stylistically innovative. Such films are different through their “emphasis on style in production and through the integration of the film with its marketing” (1994, p. 20). In terms of the Star Wars films, we can describe them as “high concept” since they are comprised by what Wyatt labels “the look, the hook, and the book”: “The look of the images, the marketing hooks, and the reduced narratives” (22). The fictional world of Star Wars that had kept children engrossed also had underlying marketing advantages: “The film’s novel environment and characters have been so striking that Kenner Toys has been able to go beyond the figures in the film by adding new characters to the Star Wars line in keeping with the film’s mythological world” (153). The infinite potential for expansion has kept the toys popular throughout the past 40 years as children continued to watch and re-watch the movies and play within their own make-believe worlds.

Toys as Paratexts

vinylcase-sw-protobobaThe first steps toward a wider consideration of Star Wars merchandising is to acknowledge the prominent position of what Jonathan Gray calls media paratexts as opposed to the centrality of specific texts. So, rather than studying Star Wars as film text, we might study the related merchandise and physical ephemera that carry inherent meaning and significance in and of themselves. The peripheral texts – those associated with the commercialization of the franchise or brand such as the lunchboxes, toys, video games, and websites – are so much part of the meaning making process that they become texts to study in their own right. Gray argues that “the paratexts may in time become the text, as the audience’s members take their cues regarding what a text means from the paratext’s images, signs, symbols, and words” rather than from the original (2010, p. 46). Therefore, in relation to the Star Wars toys, what the fans buy, make, transform and display online are crucial and interconnected parts of the entire Star Wars phenomenon and need to be analysed to fully understand the toys’ appeal and fan nostalgia for them: The “action figures underscore the plural in [Star Wars], declaring the central frame and theme to be that of a never-ending series of grand and cosmic battles of mythic proportions” (2010, p. 180).

In the age of media convergence “old and new media collide” and once forgotten icons, symbols, images, sounds and series from music, comics, film and television are reborn and attract new fans to with which to share and indulge. As Henry Jenkins asserts (2006, p. 2), convergence allows for the archiving of and searching for new forms of entertainment where “the flow of content across multiple media platforms” links the web with older media forms such as film and television. Star Wars as long-standing movie franchise is clearly subject to such flow across media and through new owner Disney’s own network of conglomerated outlets (television channels, movie studio, theme parks etc.) its audience is potentially infinite. Yet Disney cannot do this alone. To spread its newly acquired intellectual property as far and wide as possible – in different forms and formats – it has undertaken a series of partnerships so as to benefit from the creative talent and energy offered by toy manufacturers. For Jennifer Holt, “integration” results in synergy which drives production (2011, p. 3) and thus we can see how the integrated strategies of Disney working with merchandising partners on Star Wars diversifies potential markets and increases the dissemination and circulation of Star Wars as media franchise.

Disney and LEGO Star Wars

disney-star-wars-mashups-21In LEGO, Disney has the perfect partner to continue the merchandising machine. Since 1999 LEGO has been producing sets and minifigures based on the films and expanded universe of Star Wars. Adapting well-known ships, characters and scenarios into brick form might not have been the ultimate success it has since turned out to be. The Danish toy company has produced licensed sets based on established media franchises for some time with mixed results: other Disney movies to get a LEGO makeover such as Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger have passed into obscurity. However, over time, LEGO has been instrumental in creating paratextual additions to the franchise, working now with Disney to create animated shorts for the LEGO Star Wars website. Following The Force Awakens (2015), the series of shorts entitled Star Wars: The Resistance Rises (2016) focuses on moments preceding the action of the movie: for example, Poe Dameron rescuing Admiral Ackbar from Kylo Ren and the First Order. Shown on Disney’s XD channel this is an example of paratextuality, same characters but new scenarios.

Similarly, in a new series entitled Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures (2016), also on XD, viewers are introduced to a new group of rebel heroes in LEGO form. Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi the series focuses on the Freemaker siblings, Rowan, Kordi, Zander, who salvage wreckage for a living in their ship, the StarScavenger. They become enmeshed in the struggle between the Empire and Rebellion, encountering old and new Star Wars characters along the way.

lego_star_wars_the_freemaker_adventuresThe toys released to coincide with the series premiere combine traditional LEGO attributes such as minifigures and moveable parts, and fans of the franchise will recognise the inclusion of bounty hunter Dengar in the Eclipse Fighter set. LEGO Star Wars achieves balance through economy of design and recognisability of salient features, it transforms important screen details into buildable and playable forms according to Mark J.P. Wolf: “Instead of merely adapting a narrative, a playset will be designed to provide its user all the elements needed to reenact a particular narrative, without requiring that the narrative be reenacted” (2014, p. 20). The popularity of Star Wars LEGO – in toy, print and video game form – is due in large part to “character abstraction”, where the conflict inherent in the figure of the “doubled avatar” (the character in a video game compared to its source material original for example) is alleviated through the “winsome, if somewhat mocking, representations of their cinematic selves” (Aldred, 2014, p. 106). Minifigures represent important paratextual characters in the Star Wars narrative “built” from LEGO, but they are also “figurative” characters in their own right.

Star Wars has clearly affected the lives of millions who not only believed as children in the make-believe world of a “galaxy far, far away” but also see the products of a multi-billion dollar merchandising campaign as integral components of the Star Wars experience. As Disney continues to work with companies such as LEGO in developing and expanding the fictional universe the toys will continue to sell. They make the films, and now television series, more real. Over the years, and the upcoming Rogue One (2016) is no exception, merchandising and the toys have helped to make the franchise a household name. Lucas let the genie out of the bottle and Disney is clearly capable of making the most from the potential crossover markets with partners such as LEGO. But perhaps the most important thing to consider is what the toys allow fans to do, play.

Bio:  Dr Lincoln Geraghty is Reader in Popular Media Cultures at the School of Media and Performing Arts, University of Portsmouth, UK

Works Cited

Aldred, J. (2014), “(Un)Blocking the Transmedial Character: Digital Abstraction as Franchise Strategy in Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO Games,” in Mark J.P. Wolf, ed., LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, New York: Routledge, pp. 105-117.

Engelhardt, T. (1998), The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Gray, J. (2010), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, New York: New York University Press.

Greene, E. (1998), Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Holt, J. (2011), Empires of Entertainment: Media Industries and the Politics of Deregulation, 1980-1996, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2006), Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York: New York University Press.

Thompson, K., and Bordwell, D. (2003), Film History: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Wolf, M.J.P. (2014), “Adapting the Death Star into LEGO: The Case of LEGO Set #10188,” in Mark J.P. Wolf, ed., LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, New York: Routledge, pp. 15-39.

Wyatt, J. (1994), High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press.