When “Star Wars” premiered on May 25, 1977, it changed the movie industry in ways few could have foreseen. Accompanying its release were toys that would become coveted collectors items still in demand to this day. Filmmaker Brian Stillman hopes to reveal this episode of history with “Plastic Galaxy,” an upcoming documentary on “Star Wars” toys.
“I wanted to do a movie on the value of these toys—how were these toys were culturally influential,” Stillman said. “Also why they remain popular. What is it about these toys that keeps the brand alive?”
“It’s not so much that I see significance in them—it’s that they are, in fact, surpassingly significant,” he said.
To capture the history around “Star Wars” toys, Stillman has not only tracked down some of the top collectors, but also the people who have followed them from the beginning: employees of Kenner, the toymaker; experts; authors; and others.
The film is set for release on DVD in November 2012, and recently surpassed its fundraising goal on Kickstarter.
Stillman said he wants to show why these toys have value.
Now, to understand this history, we have to go back… way back. It was a time when the popular G.I. Joe toys were large, Barbie-like dolls with changeable clothes. Rather than buy new ones, kids would just buy new outfits. Toys made for films were a rarity, and although “Planet of the Apes” was among the few that tried to open the market, even it came up short.
According to Stillman, the set understanding was that when a film left the theaters, all marketing left with it—and this included the toys. “Kids forget about it, and that’s that,” he said. “No one was really licensing toys for movies. It had been done before, but not successfully.”
Science fiction also didn’t have the same fanfare as today—it was more a sub-genre with some interest.
Yet, something happened. In 1976, an employee at the Kenner toy factory, was sent one of the first scripts for an obscure film with little-known actors called “Star Wars.” Twentieth Century Fox was releasing it along with what it thought would be its top film that summer, “Damnation Alley.”
Being a huge fan of science fiction, Swearingen, from Kenner’s preliminary design department, decided to take the script home to read over it. The next day he came back to his boss and said simply: “We have to do this.”
The rest is history. On one side, it changed the way companies viewed movie licensing, and this continues today where many kids’ films are made with the toy market in mind. Yet, beyond that, “They showed you could create this gigantic world within the lines,” Stillman said.
Toys were no longer just one or two figures you’d play with—Kenner made such a diverse number of the toys that kids could buy tons of them and recreate the “Star Wars” universe.
And beyond this, the toys are still selling today. “It’s essentially an unbroken line,” Stillman said.
Being an avid collector, Stillman is well versed in the ways of the Force and all the creatures it flows through, yet while filming he came across collectibles that were never meant for the public: prototypes, concepts, and other secrets from the factory floor of Kenner.
“They would dig out material that was never meant to be sold. It was just going to be thrown away,” he said.
Behind the scenes, Kenner was always looking for new toy concepts, and although a few were often made, many of these never went into full production. One of them was a wind-up C-3PO that was made in 1978 when Kenner was looking into large “Star Wars” figures. There was also a whole series of smaller toys Kenner made when it was making toys for the M.A.S.K. cartoon series. These were two-to-three inches, as opposed to the common three-and-three-quarters “Star Wars” toys.
“Stuff like that was really cool,” Stillman said.
Some of the coveted items were not toys, but collectibles nonetheless. One collector Stillman met had a letter from LucasFilms saying what it liked and didn’t like about the toy concepts, which he said was “fascinating, because it was a look inside as things were happening.”
Yet, he notes, “Probably the most famous never-released toy was the rocket-fired Boba Fett. Everyone seems to remember having one, but they didn’t.”
What happened, Stillman notes, is that Kenner was going to release a Boba Fett with a backpack that fired a rocket in early 1979. Yet, just before it was released, a child chocked on a “Battlestar Galactica” toy. Chocking hazard laws were passed, and Kenner didn’t want the risk. It ended up releasing the toy with the missile glued in place.
“What happened was the guys from Kenner would go home and give the things to the kids,” Stillman said. “At that time, nobody cared—it just didn’t matter.” There are a handful of these now on the shelves of collectors.
“Seeing that was just eye opening. You think you’ve seen everything that’s out there—then go to homes of collectors and find stuff that was never sold,” he said.
At the end of the day, Stillman said, “One of the things I did not want to do was the ‘Let’s make a movie about adults playing with toys.’” He wanted to create a film showing why the toys are valued the way they are.
“This is the movie you show your girlfriend when she says, ‘I think it’s OK you collect toys, but I don’t understand why,’” he said.