Cracking the Collecting Code: Star Wars Toys and the People that Love Them

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– by Conn8d

There’s no doubt that merchandise, and toys in particular, are a huge part of both the success of Star Wars as a brand and a part of cinema. These products remain an essential part of the franchise’s identity, but in many ways also helped launch what we experience as modern merchandising when it comes to film, literary, television, and other media properties.

Toys and merchandise in general are a major force in the ongoing life-blood of the franchise. We all know there are many ways to be a ‘fan’, and for many Star Wars fans, the toys are a hugely important part of their experience of the franchise.

To learn more, I had the chance to sit down with an avid amateur collector, Toytooine, for a discussion about merchandise from a galaxy far, far away.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Conn8d: How long have you collected Star Wars toys and how did you get started?

Toytooine: I was really little, maybe 6 or 7 years old. I started collecting Star Wars toys when they brought them back in ‘95, after a period of not having really any new releases. My mom had shown me the movies the year before, and I thought it was all so cool! I remember I asked her if there were toys for it.

At the time in 1994, the answer was no, but then either the Sears or JC Penny catalogs started carrying the new release. I think they had a Millennium Falcon and some action figures that were part of the company cultivating a bit of a comeback. I believe that the brand was still Kenner back then, the original Star Wars license carrier. But it could have also been Hasbro owned already, but still using the old familiar logo.  

So, I started as a kid, for toys to play with and as I grew up I still wanted to buy them and so transitioned into being an adult collector. Star Wars is where I started and my biggest set, but I also collect other toys now too.

Conn8d: What kind of Star Wars merch do you like to buy? How big is your collection?

Toytooine: Yes. All the things.

But in all seriousness, I like the action figures. If given a choice, I will buy a realistic, well done action figure as my first choice when buying something. That goes for all my collecting, not just for Star Wars. In fact, when it comes to liking or getting engaged with any property as a fan, I will choose the one that has toys first, regardless of quality or anything else.

My preference for Star Wars is the 4 inch original small scale figure. I like getting as many characters as possible and they tend to produce more variation in the smaller size. I have some 6 inch Black series, but I choose only to get those for figures I really love.

I easily have over 1000 Star Wars toys.

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Conn8d: What kinds of things have you seen others in the community collecting?

Toytooine: Star Wars merchandise now is really broad and there are so many choices. Even the most prolific collectors tend to focus on specific things after a while. Otherwise, it’s almost too much. Everyone can better maintain their sanity (and their wallet) by sticking to a focus. For example you could decide, my focus is just R2-D2. Funko Pop Star Wars collecting is a big thing and demonstrates a sort of focus. (Though I would just add as an aside, that Funko doesn’t connect and intersect so much with the rest of the toy collecting community, because for many it is more casual than someone like me.)

Many people who might not describe themselves as ‘collectors’ per say, actually kind of are and just have a narrow focus, like for example if you only want to get toys of your favorite character but in different formats, or you want to get a whole team or trio. Those collections are small but they have a rhyme and reason. Not everyone who buys merch is a collector, but more people have that impulse than they realize.

I focus mainly on the 4 inch action figure basic line and I like to try to purchase each character they release. Someone else that collects might decide to get the Black Series instead. Or only the Disney Elite figures. Or only Forces of Destiny dolls. Or action figures of different sizes, but looking for the best representation of a character. Some only get the higher end stuff, like Hot Toys, or imports from abroad. I know that realistic prop replicas are another big thing that people collect as well on the high end of pricing.

And then beyond that, you start getting into really niche things. That’s mostly for folks who have reached of the apex of their collection or focus. Imagine someone wanted to collect every action figure from the original movie period in the ‘70s. That’s a smaller and quite limited collection, just because there were less products from that time produced and over time there are less available. Once you have finished, how do you stay within your focus, but keep pursuing what you find fun? Many reach that point and just change or expand their focus but sometimes this also leads them to morph in to more and more specific collections.

They might decide to try for all the original figures, or to obtain every packaging variation, or the actual prototypes used in the design process, or even the die-cast molds that made the prototypes. This can get really really pricey, and there’s only so many of these kinds of items left, but some collectors really have fun with it.

Personally, I am satisfied with having a 4 inch action figure collection. I like getting strange or unique figures and sometimes tributes to the original lines, even if they are outside the 4 inch releases. That way I collect in my focus but still make it a little weird unique and niche.  

Conn8d: What’s it like being a collector as a way of being a Star Wars fan?

Toytooine: It’s interesting because I would compare collecting, or being aware of the merch, to how some fans view theories or lore. For the most part, when you watch and focus on those things, you are following with the story and sometimes speculating on where it might go, or what the presented story might mean in a more literary sense.

When you are collecting things, you see a toy from where you don’t remember it in the movie and then you have the toy, and you have to research and learn who they are deeper in the lore. Even if you don’t by the toys you learn some of the lore by getting the toys. It expands the world a lot further. For myself it’s like a tangible connection to the thing I love.

When I was a kid and the prequels were coming out, they had all these preview figure toys. I would get them, Jango Fett for example, and wonder about the upcoming film.

What is this character going to do? What will happen in the movie? For me, it enhances the experience of interacting with the lore and reconnecting with it over time.

Conn8d: Didn’t something like that happen with a Boba action figure? He was popular as a toy before being a character?

Toytooine: People are huge fans of him. But looking at the movie he just doesn’t too much, in my view. Stands around in his armor. Gets hit by a blind guy with a stick and dies. On paper, he isn’t doing much in the original films.

Conn8d: His armor is admittedly pretty sweet.  

It is, but I think he created a mystique because his first official appearance, if I am not mistaken, was actually a prototype armor in a parade. But nobody really knows about that. Then the next time was holiday special. Which people actively avoid. Then as an action figure.

So, the main time he gained popularity was as a toy. Kids could fill in a mail in form after purchasing enough of the main toys. And then get a special Boba, who’d never been in a the movie yet. And he looked cool and was advertised as having a rocket firing accessory jet pack. Even before he is in the movie, here is this really cool looking character with really exciting tools. I think to this day, there are some people who were kids in the ’80s that built up in their minds the character from imagining this character before he was even ever presented in the narrative.

In the films, Boba Fett doesn’t really use the tools he has and only uses the jet back to only fly to his death. Yet, he’s massively popular and has had so much stuff come from him.

That for me,  speaks to the power of the collectible. That kind of legend and aura that came from the special main in action figure carried into perceptions of Boba Fett and Mandalore more than actual stuff that happened in the movies.

Conn8d: How or where do you spend your time as a fan?  

Toytooine: It’s a bit hard to say. I peruse some news sites, such as Rebel Scum, Galactic Hunter, and Yakface, but I don’t really interact online. I am mostly just skimming to see when certain waves of merchandise have been released or if people say they have found certain figures at certain stores. That way I know when and where to look for stuff.

I go to conventions and really enjoy them, but for the most part since I have been collecting for a while, conventions aren’t so much about collecting for me. I am very clear about what I like and don’t like. Generally, I already have the stuff or I get it early in the convention on the first day.

Time-wise, I spend most of my collection time checking in stores. I always swing through places where they are available. Because I might find something. You never know!

Conn8d: How do collectors determine a toy’s value? Do all even care?

It really depends on what you mean by ‘value’. If by value you mean market value, that entirely depends on how much people are willing to pay and when you are selling. Usually product lines are released by location first. One store in one city might get something sooner than the rest. And then collecting folks scoop them up and can double their pay on ebay in the short term, but then the value goes down as more locations receive the toys. Sometimes people can hold on to a rare one for longer and make some money that way, if that’s what they want to do.

In my experience, not many collectors care as much about value in that way though. It was more popular like that in the ’90s. It was part of the hobby to have the selling and flipping.  With Pogs, Beanie babies and the like too. That bubble burst in the 2000s.

Nowadays, it’s more of a scarcity thing. Like when Episode 7 came out, no one in the collecting community expected Rey to be as popular as she was. By the time people realized she was a more major player than they thought, she wasn’t as easy to get on shelves. Now production and demand is more balanced out.

I think most of us now, in the collecting community, are like me and just buy the toys and products because they genuinely like them. Sometimes we might be willing to pay more because we care about a particular thing, but I certainly don’t treat my collection as an investment or nest-egg or something.

I started this collection when I was a child. I had no perception of any value then, beyond simply liking it. For me, it’s still about having the tangible objects and liking them.    

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Conn8d: What do you think is the highest selling toy right now?

Toytooine: I have always heard that light-sabers sell the most, no matter what show or movie is out. They are always able to sell light-sabers to kids. They can be fun even for a child who is  unfamiliar with the story.

Conn8d: Has Disney-era Star Wars been different in terms of the collecting world and merchandise?

Toytooine: Well, I would say the Disney era is mainly different in how many releases we have. Traditionally there was a pattern, based on whatever movie was in the works and when it was scheduled for release. They could sell one wave of action figures early. Then, the movie would come out and more products would be released or new characters would get made. After the craze died down after the holidays, there would be a lot of extra stock that went on clearance.

Then, back in the day, there was gap between movies of multiple years and more of a dead period. That is when they would produce more niche stuff. Perhaps a release or revisiting of old toys, or more quirky choices. That first year of the movie, a shopper could easily get the main characters and get bored of them, and stores would pile them up. But in the years waiting for the next film, more weird and interesting stuff got released in order to keep attention and revenue going. (Yay for us collectors!)

Disney has been interesting because that rest time or that down time, waiting for a new film hasn’t really happened. The timeline has been compressed.

You just got bored of the same characters? Boom here’s more! (Looking at you, Jyn Erso in a scarf!)

Perpetually, the same characters are on the shelves, in the same costumes and variations. For me, I really want more complete collections, so where’s Cliegg Lars? Holdo? Lor San Tekka?

In some ways, there’s been less room for the more creative types of toys. More of the cool stuff is coming from other companies, however. The main licensees are sticking more to typical releases, but others might feel less bound. Though the the release for Solo has been really cool with having neat action figures, like Moloch or the Kessel guard, Quay Tolsite.

Conn8d: Toys really help you learn the more obscure names.

Toytooine: Yes! Being aware of the toys lets me know a lot of the small details like that. It’s really cool.

With Disney, I do feel like there is more product total. Most collectors might disagree with me, but I think I have gotten a lot more figures since Disney. We’ve had a new entire roll out of characters every year for The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo. We get more released per year, I believe. Even if it’s not always the variation we want. I haven’t done any research, but that’s what it feels like as a collector.

Now, I am always on the hunt, always on red alert. There’s always something coming. In the past there were more periods where I didn’t feel like that.   

Conn8d: From your perspective, do you think there’s been much change in toy sales this year compared to the past?

Toytooine: I can’t speak to any numbers accurately, only my perspective as a collector and what I have observed and experienced. New product comes out so often that it seems like at the tail end of every movie there’s a glut of leftovers. Since the movies are coming out so regularly, it just feels like there’s always clearance. And typically the same familiar characters on clearance. That makes it tempting to interpret that the product isn’t selling well. But I can’t really say for sure if this is new. I don’t know that there wasn’t an equal amount of glut after the Prequel Trilogy, for example, since I was just a kid and wasn’t paying attention in the same way.

I would say now, Star Wars toys have much more competition than it had in the past. Certainly during the Original Trilogy. Today, there are a lot of brands that are evergreen. Everything is a franchise. Star Wars toys, all year long. Marvel toys, all year long. Harry Potter, all year long. Whether or not there’s new media coming out, they still make product. There’s a lot of competition. Which is weird for Marvel and Star Wars, because both are owned by Disney.

Lastly, kids tend to play less with toys now than they did in the past. They want toys that are interactive. The children of today aren’t buying (or aspiring to buy) a whole set of action figures anymore, like I might have or the folks who grew up buying action figures in the 80s. Not at the same scale as generations past. They get one character they like and that’s it, because they have video games and stuff.  I don’t know as much about Star Wars gaming or how it relates to children, but video gaming in general has impacted the toy market.

toys

Conn8d: The market for Star Wars toys is vast and includes both hardcore collectors, small children, and everything in between. How do you think Hasbro or Disney handle catering and marketing to the different groups? Are they more beholden to one over another?

Toytooine: It’s a hard balance. Star Wars isn’t Friday the 13th or a niche video game property that can have a whole strategy of catering to collectors. With a really wide appeal across ages and many demos, Hasrbo and Disney need to find a balance that is making the most people happy most often. Like I said earlier, I wish I could have a more complete collection and have a Holdo toy, but I am sure there’s not that many kids begging their parents to have one.

So, they will never make everyone happy. It’s not possible.

Conn8d: Maybe that’s why they have so many types of products and license agreements over all, even beyond toys. In addition to traditional products, I’ve seen Finn Soup, Rey Bananas, and Kylo Ren Ziplock bags…

As a franchise you can’t only have high end collectibles, like Hot Toys, because kids can’t get those (more accurately parents won’t buy them). Likewise, you can’t just make toys for small kids because they (again, more accurately their parents) tend to buy only a few characters they like and connect with. Collectors will buy things that families won’t. A parent might coax a kid into eating her meals if she can have Finn or Rey on it. And someone who really needs a Ziplock bag might buy it, whether or not they know about Kylo.

In the past, the brand Star Wars has done really well, because as long as they made a good figure for kids, the adult collector would buy. Now, collectors have more options. Hot Toys, or Japanese imports with great scuplts for example. Collectors have the valid option of pursuing more premium options rather than normal retail.

The big companies are in the middle of a changing market. Do we pursue the collectors or not? Focus on kids or not? And in my opinion, none of them have cracked that code yet.

There was this sail barge promotion from Hasrbo recently, experimenting with splitting the market and using crowdfunding from collectors to make more niche products. I think they were testing the waters. Can we have lines that are separate for collectors and different from the releases that go to the Walmart’s of the world? And can the collectors themselves make something like that financially sustainable? It seems like it was successful, because it did launch. But I think we need more projects like this or direct to collector lines to see if it really works.

The other factor is that toy making takes a long time. It can take a whole year. They might seem behind in how they behave or what character is in release or what marketing they choose. But that’s based on decisions made a while ago and might not be what they are doing in the moment for future releases. They can’t be responsive and react at the drop of a hat, because of how much time it takes to produce a toy.

By being at conventions, as they have more frequently in the last year or so,  it’s clear Hasbro and Disney are trying to engage with collectors. Yet, at the same time, in each of those events they gave all the kids in the room toy props. The child audience is still a huge deal along with collectors.

Even if they are still trying to find their feet, they are still working to touch those both main groups.

If you could advise or alter the Hasrbo’s toy planning or designs, what would you choose to do?

Toytooine: Aliens. More Aliens. That’s it.

To learn more about the history of the business side of Star Wars toys, as well as a timeline of toy releases, the Netflix series “The Toys that Made Us” looks at the history of many iconic products, and dedicates an entire episode to the origins and development of Kenner and later Hasbro brand Star Wars toys. It’s worth a watch.

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