With the final movie in the story of the Skywalker family just over half a year away Rebelscum is looking back at two and a half decades of fantastic plastic - so sit back, imagine the house lights dimming and the screen curtains being drawn back as you cast your mind back to the late 1990s when, for many of us, was the start of our Star Wars collections.
The bulk of collectors today had their awakening in the late 1990s when The Power of the Force collection from Hasbro and Galoob filled toy store shelves for almost half a decade - and with it the first original Star Wars toys - in the form of Shadows of the Empire line - since the end of the original Kenner line in 1985. It would be remiss not to mention Bend-Ems, a limited run of flexible Star Wars characters, made by JusToys in 1993. But the sooner the world forgets about those the better!
The landscape was about to change however, because something big was just around the corner with the Prequel Years about to be born, and to ensure our wallets were wide open Hasbro introduced the concept of the teaser toy when they dropped the first Episode I sneak preview character and vehicle.
When the official starwars.com website revealed the news that the next Star Wars movie title was The Phantom Menace created a multitude of theories about the who/what/where/why's filling George Lucas's head. Thankfully we had Supershadow to provide all the answers.
All of this was happening in the earliest days of the modern World Wide Web, and when it came to toy news a number of sites - few of which are still around today - provided coverage that most of us would today consider prehistoric. If a news update had an image it was grainy and small; double-figure megabyte resolution was a long way away when Anakin was a junkyard slave and not even old enough to shave. Exposition was light on the ground and posts were short and to the point, with speedy delivery over dial-up modems the conveyance of the time.
The last year of the Second Millennium was big for Star Wars fans; not only did they have all new toys coming out for the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years - not counting the European theatrical release of Caravan of Courage in 1984 - but the official fan club was putting on a convention.
Simply dubbed Celebration (the I wouldn’t be needed for another three years), it was the first Star Wars convention since 1987. Hosted in that mecca of tourism - Denver - and housed in a tent on a rainy and windswept air force museum, it started a trend (though not a standard) that would be repeated every two to three years for more than two decades.
Perhaps the most exciting licensing news of year was that LEGO was going to start making Star Wars construction toys, and after more than 20 years of 3-3/4“ scale toys that on the rare occasion some assembly was required no-one really knew what to expect. When the first few sets were released in Spring a fuse to the company’s fortunes were lit, and the line has just celebrated its own milestone.
When the debut of The Phantom Menace merchandise line finally hit at 12am on May 3rd, 1999 it was something that Star Wars shoppers had never seen before - and (or so we thought) we’d never experience again.
Fans flocked to one of hundreds of toy stores around the world, stocked with multiple aisles of toys from the upcoming Episode I, opening around the world at the stroke of midnight to be amongst the first to own the latest merchandise from Galoob, Hasbro, OddzOn (remember Jar-Jar Koosh balls?), Applause, Kelloggs, Pez and a hundred other brands that had decided to get in on the action.
Perhaps the most innovative and progressive step forward in toy marketing since the advent of the 3-3/4" action figure came at this time in the form of the Commtech chip, which added genuine movie audio clips to play.
To this date, The Phantom Menace is the single largest and most diverse toy line in the gamut of Star Wars collecting - but it wasn’t just the scenery of the toy aisle that had changed.
Toys for adults were the break out products of the Prequel Years. The first to enter into the market was French company Attakus who, using traditional crafting techniques and mediums to design their sculpts, tested the waters in 2000 with a limited range of classic and The Phantom Menace resin statues. The line is still successful and Attakus continues to release highly detailed, hand painted Star Wars statues at a rate of one or two a year due to their laborious development process.
While fans were hotly debating the success/failure of The Phantom Menace, the toy line that the movie generated suffered no such contention and Lucasfilm decided to leverage their success and greenlit Hasbro’s plans to deliver all-new action figures from the four - yes FOUR! - Star Wars movies.
The new line, dubbed Power of the Jedi, encapsulated old and new character designs from the Original and (what would become known as the) Prequel Trilogy. Debuting the new assortment in 2000, Hasbro ditched the bulked up sculpts they had filled the Power of The Force line with and adopted a far more realistic approach that saw aliens, Imperials, Rebels and robots hitting a new standard for action figures for any license, and drawing in more fans into the collecting community than either of the two previous toy lines.
Milestones were thick and fast during this period, with the 300th Star Wars action figure coinciding atthe same time as the movie fanchise's 25th birthday, there were many reasons to celebrate the success of the Power of the Jedi line.
With fan-appeal at an all-time high Hasbro used the line’s pull to broach the Fan’s Choice figure - a practice that has been running (almost continually) for nearly 18 years. Further capitalising on the success of the previous Sneak Preview wave, Hasbro teased fans with four characters from the next instalment - Attack of the Clones.
With the second Star Wars episode about to hit screens, Lucasfilm wanted to make sure that fans would continue to enjoy jaw-dropping experiences after they left theatres and engaged the new 3D scanning technology that newcomers Gentle Giant had recently unveiled to the film industry.
Their accurate - and more importantly - portable digital modelling equipment could be taken to Lucasfilm’s production facilities and detailed scans of actors, models, costumes, and props could be made and turned into realistic statues and busts. Starting in 2002, the Gentle Giant license continues, in one form or another, to this day. So exciting was their revolutionary scanning technology that they toured conventions with it, giving some fans a chance to enjoy the experience that the likes of Natalie Portman and Samuel Jackson took part in during the production of the second Star Wars movie.
A short-lived license was held by Code 3, a company who specialised in die-cast fire and rescue vehicles, who picked theirs up after they were approached - reportedly at the request of George Lucas himself - to produce a fire engine for the Skywalker Ranch fire company. Over a handful of years Code 3’s offerings included a series of authentically detailed Star Wars vehicles. Due to the collaboration with Official Pix, a licensee that organised official Star Wars autographing opportunities, a number of “Signature Series" models marked the pinnacle of Code 3’s products. Their short license, which started in 2002, ended shortly after the release of Revenge of the Sith and culminated in a series of three-dimensional movie posters.
Also making a splash in 2002 was Kotobukiya, the first Japanese company to get a license and gain a foothold amongst the hardcore collector’s outside their own domestic borders. Their pre-painted, ready-to-assemble model kits of Prequel and Original Trilogy characters were impressive in detail though the attached price tag, with its import duties, tended to put the average consumer off.
With licensees of Lucasfilm’s properties benefitting from the Attack of the Clones digital asset library the accuracy of toys, collectibles and licensed prop facsimiles raised the bar to a level that has still to be surpassed.
Perhaps the biggest rags-to-riches-to-rags story is the one of the Master Replicas license. Born out of the failure of Icons, the first company to do licensed Star Wars 1:1 scale prop replicas, to keep up with demand, Master Replicas was founded in 2003 and hit the ground running with series of high-quality limited edition 1:1 replicas of hand-held Star Wars weapons, before expanding into helmets, costume accessories and ILM-based special effects vehicles - and best of all, their combat ready Force F/X lightsabers. Of all the “adult" licensees, Master Replica’s success was considered to be a no-brainer, but when it all came crashing down after only three years the collecting community was left reeling.
Not wanting to rest on their laurels Hasbro upped the ante and increased the number of points of articulation from the traditional five (neck, shoulders and hips) by added knee and wrist pivots to popular figures to the 2002 line that, for the first time ever, combined a new movie launch with existing content from the other four movies. Simply dubbed Star Wars by Hasbro this all-encompassing line was unofficially dubbed Saga by the collecting community. This line remains one of the most memorable - and extensive - as it brought collectors some of the most requested action figures and toys in the entire past/present/future of the line and became so successful for Hasbro that practically everyone associated with it got the keys to the executive bathroom.
In order to keep the juggernaut rolling between movies, Hasbro and Lucasfilm decided that a TV micro-series of three minute episodes would be just the ticket to flesh out the Clone Wars story-arc. Drawing on the talent of Samurai Jack creator, Genndy Tartakovsky, the 25 episodes were aired in three series in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Critically and marketing wise the original Clone Wars series was a huge success, with Hasbro producing two toy lines - in animated and lifelike styles - while Dark Horse published a tie-in comic book series and Gentle Giant created a small collection of maquettes.
Like the interstitial Power of the Jedi toy line, the long-awaited DVD release of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi on DVD in 2004 was marked by a cross-licensee (which included LEGO) line of merchandise known as the Original Trilogy Collection, a line Hasbro used to produce a selection of 3-3/4" products on card backs that Lucasfilm had rejected in 1995.
For the most part, the basic figures were mostly repackaged from the Saga line but the real pull came in the form of a selection of action figures from the vintage line that were given modern sculpts, improved articulation and put on retro card backs which are still highly sought even after fifteen years.
Starting out in 1994 as a toy prototyping company, Sideshow Collectibles bridged the gap in 2005 when they started producing a line of 1:4 scale premium format sculpted Star Wars figures. With a growing number of collectors looking for something more fulfilling than a plastic action figure barely made a Twinkie look small, Sideshow came out with their first 12" tall articulated figures that had a level of accuracy and detail that hadn’t been seen before and effectively put a blaster to the head of Hasbro’s own 12" line.
As well as gaining a reputation for making sure their limited edition production run stayed in the thousands, rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands that other toy manufacturers managed to squeeze out, Sideshow also developed a direct-to-customer sales platform that was both flexible and responsive.
The final merchandising assault of the Prequel Years took place in 2005 with the ultimate battles of the Clone Wars and betrayal of the Jedi Order played out for us in the last instalment of the Star Wars saga: Revenge of the Sith. The army of licensees marched together in lockstep to deliver a coordinated book, comic, prop and collectible campaign in order to make sure we were up-to-date with all the intrigue, deception and events in a galaxy far, far away.
It was a bittersweet few months for the bulk of the Star Wars fan and collecting base because we knew the end was coming with the movie's release.
Again, the most obvious brand to carry the Episode 3 torch was Hasbro, whose Revenge of the Sith line was christened in the same way that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was revealed to the world - with a limited Sneak Preview collection. Armed with the knowledge that this was the last foray into new Star Wars content, Hasbro didn’t mix and match movie content but stuck the final episode and gave us more action figures, creatures, vehicles, battle packs, playsets than you could shake a gaffi stick at.
Knowing what we know now - we wouldn’t have to face the same winter of Star Wars that those of us lived through in the late 1980s/early 1990s - we probably wouldn’t have cried over the blue milk we’d spilt over the previous decade, because more… so much more… Star Wars was closer than we could imagine.
Stay tuned for the next instalment - Part Two: The TV Years - coming soon!