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about the marketing of toys & merchandise for THE FORCE AWAKENS:
Inside the Toy Marketing of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
Sphero’s BB-8 robot works with a smartphone; fans debate the points of articulation on Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren figures
Nov. 10, 2015 1:34 p.m. ET
Corey Van **** knows almost nothing about BB-8, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, General Hux and Constable Zuvio, some of the new characters expected in the coming film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Yet the 16-year-old has already bought these action figures plus more than 100 other items related to the movie, which hits theaters on December 17.
Corey, a high-school senior in Richmond, Va., hosts a weekly Star Wars podcast called the WolfPack. He has been raking leaves this fall for extra Star Wars spending money. “This buildup waiting for the movie is the greatest time I’ve had as a Star Wars fan,” he says.
Walt Disney Co. is rewriting the playbook of blockbuster movie merchandise for the latest installment in the nearly 40-year-old Star Wars saga, whose fans now span three generations. Toys tied to movies typically are introduced six to eight weeks ahead of the film’s release date. But Disney launched merchandise related to “The Force Awakens” 15 weeks ahead of the movie’s debut.
“We could have gone even earlier,” says Josh Silverman, Disney’s executive vice president of global licensing.
First Order Stormtrooper, left and First Order Flametrooper action figures from Disney’s Star Wars Elite Series. First Order Stormtrooper is described as ‘equipped with sleek armor and powerful weapons.’ First Order Flametrooper ‘carries incendiary weapons that can transform any battlefield into an infernal blaze.’ Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas and Leah Latella With the Sept. 4 merchandise launch, which Disney called Force Friday, Star Wars grabbed Halloween-costume sales and consumer attention well ahead of the Christmas holiday selling season. In between Force Friday and the opening of “The Force Awakens” in theaters, several smaller merchandise introductions are planned, all carefully designed to avoid giving away the plot of the movie. Another major wave of merchandise will launch with movie’s mid-December debut and continue into 2016, Disney says.
Such an early effort helps safeguard Disney from merchandising missteps it made with its last blockbuster, “Frozen.” Retailers and manufacturers didn’t anticipate the animated film’s runaway success and quickly ran out of Frozen dolls and gear, struggling for months to keep items in stock.
In contrast, Star Wars’ early launch has given stores crucial lead time to organize holiday displays and stock inventory according to the best-selling toys, says Steph Wissink, a Piper Jaffray Cos. managing director. She expects retail sales of Star Wars toys to reach $1.5 billion within a year of the movie’s release.
Finn, left and Rey, right. Action figures from Disney’s Star Wars Elite Series. Finn is described on the box as ‘a trained warrior desperate to escape his past,’ and Rey as ‘a resilient survivor, a scavenger toughened by a lifetime of dealing with the cutthroats of the harsh desert world of Jakku.’ Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas and Leah Latella “Star Wars will likely be much bigger than Frozen,” says Ms. Wissink. “With Star Wars you have that adult collector who reaches far beyond the traditional toy demographic, which is generally up to age 10.”
“This is going to be a very significant business in the first half of next year as kids watch the movie multiple times when it is distributed digitally,” says Richard Barry, chief merchandising officer of Toys “R” Us Inc., which has built permanent Star Wars aisles in all of its stores.
Star Wars fans sometimes have been disappointed in characters they bought ahead of a film. Jar Jar Binks merchandise was heavily marketed ahead of the release of the 1999 movie “The Phantom Menace” and many fans ended up disliking the character after they saw the film.
Disney says that incident hasn’t influenced its merchandise strategy this time around. “We’re not looking at that, we’re looking forward to the new film and the new stories they’re telling,” says Disney’s Mr. Silverman.
Star Wars’ massive appeal means the toys must please a varied audience, ranging from serious adult collectors to casual nostalgic fans to children who are new to the franchise.
To maximize appeal, Hasbro Inc. segmented its toy line by price and design sophistication. Its most basic 3.75-inch Star Wars action figures, for example, start at about $8 and are intended to encourage consumers to buy more than one, the company says.
The BB-8 droid action figure from Disney’s Star Wars Elite Series. BB-8 is described as ‘the spherical, loyal astromech droid of the resistance pilot Poe Dameron.’ Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Anne Cardenas and Leah Latella
“Once you have two characters in your hand and you’re a 6-, 7- or 8-year-old, you can start playacting and building out a whole world,” says Steve Evans, Hasbro’s design director for Star Wars. “As people get older, they move away from the play state, and go more to the display state.”
For those fans, Hasbro has a so-called Black Series of highly detailed, 6-inch figures that start at about $20. These figures have many points of articulation, the toy-industry term for the number of places where a figure can move. That compares to around five points of articulation in Hasbro’s smaller, less costly figures.
Having a range of points of articulation helps appease the most rabid Star Wars toy collectors. The higher the “POA,” some fans argue, the higher the perceived value of the toy and the wider the range of poses it can achieve. Others prefer a lower POA because it makes the figures more stable, or because they never take the figures out of its packaging, valuing the toy’s aesthetics more than its mobility.
Hasbro says it closely monitors the points-of-articulation debate. “What’s great about the Star Wars audience and fan base is that they are very passionate and have a lot of great viewpoints on what the product should be,” says John Frascotti, president of Hasbro Brands.
Chris Pirillo, a Seattle-based online producer whose daughter’s name is Jedi, says he stays out of the points-of-articulation debate. He participated in Disney’s 18-hour online Force Friday toy launch, unboxing the new Millennium Falcon in a live video. So far Mr. Pirillo has purchased eight different figures of BB-8, a small spherical robot, among other characters from the coming film. “Ultimately I just enjoy the toy for what it is,” he says. “I can make up my own story for the characters—that’s part of the playing.”
Disney has been mum on how the new characters are selling. It says that due to accounting rules it cannot report revenue information about “The Force Awakens” merchandise until the movie is released. Hasbro has reported sales of its Star Wars toys have been well above expectations.
This weekend, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is planning a Star Wars-themed “Epic Weekend” in 3,000 stores, offering shoppers the opportunity to play the Star Wars: Battlefront videogame, made by Electronic Arts Inc., four days before it is available for purchase. It currently carries over 500 Star Wars items in stores and “thousands” online, a spokeswoman says.
Target Corp. has more than 600 Star Wars items in stores and more than 1,000 online, including action figures, pizza cutters and lipstick. Among its biggest sellers is BB-8, a robot about whom only hints have been revealed through Disney’s cryptic movie trailers.
“For all we know, BB-8 could be a son of a gun and grumpy,” says Steve Sansweet, chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan Inc., a nonprofit museum near Petaluma, Calif., containing Mr. Sansweet’s 350,000-piece collection of Star Wars merchandise. “Something tells me that BB-8 is going to be cool and heroic, though, and we’re not going to say, ‘Why did I buy all that stuff?’ ”
Sphero, the maker of a $149.99 BB-8 droid controlled with a smartphone app, has been racing to meet demand after nearly selling out in September; the droid remains in short supply. Now half of Sphero’s engineering team is in China working to speed up production. “Demand has far exceeded anything we predicted,” says Ian Bernstein, company co-founder and chief technical officer.
For the past year, Sphero worked to keep its BB-8 development a secret, adding frosted windows and a keypad lock to the room where most of the work took place in its Boulder, Colo., headquarters. To keep the character name secret, Sphero employees called it “Project Ray.” Every time visitors to the office were expected, employees received a memo warning them to hide any BB-8 evidence, and the marketing department did a final inspection of desks before outsiders were allowed into the office.
Mr. Bernstein says he hasn’t seen the “The Force Awakens” and had to rely on character descriptions of BB-8 from Disney, which is an investor in Sphero. He’ll finally learn BB-8’s full story during Sphero’s holiday party, when the company plans to gather in a rented movie theater on the film’s opening night so employees can watch it for the first time together. “I know BB-8 is going to be amazing, but I’m still nervous,” says Mr. Bernstein.