It’s a strange thing to think that the LEGO Group didn’t used to have licensed themes. Today, they are so prevalent that a huge percentage of the LEGO line-up each year is based on movies and TV series to the extent that it has become passé.
But in 1999, after much soul searching and debate, Star Wars became the first licensed theme to be launched by the LEGO Group. It is also the longest-running licensed theme, now in its eighteenth year as Star Wars is in its fortieth. Soon, LEGO Star Wars will have existed for half of the time that Star Wars itself has. It’s an odd thought, as for many LEGO Star Wars still seems new – but then it only seems like a short while ago that we were are all enjoying the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars, too.
For a solid thirty years, the toy most associated with Star Wars was the action figure line. Kenner reinvented what movie related product could be by introducing a 3.75” line of figures that were scaled so that the company could also sell vehicles and playsets without them being ridiculously huge. Famously, when no product was to be ready in time for Christmas 1977, the toy manufacturer sold customers an empty box with a promise of action figures that come later. Hasbro, who acquired Kenner in the 1990s, is still dining out on that piece of nostalgia today.
That initial set of four figures were indeed special, but it is what happened over the following years that cemented action figures as the sign of being a Star Wars fanboy. Up until Return of the Jedi had left cinemas, Kenner regularly released new action figures that delved into the obscure corners of the galaxy such as the Mos Eisley Cantina, giving children the opportunity to really expand their collection and build a Star Wars world.
It was tapping into that nostalgia for the format and following a decade of action figure successes that led to Hasbro resurrecting the Star Wars line in the mid-1990s, which following a successful relaunch saw thousands of action figures released. The prequels gave toy designers new designs to work from, which produced mixed results until the formula was perfected for Revenge of the Sith. 2007 saw the years of design know how and character choice come together to produce an excellent collection that fans now fondly remember. Unfortunately the subsequent years saw the lines beset by difficulties, with even relative successes such as vintage style packaging marred by distribution problems.
At the same time that action figures were suffering slow sales, LEGO Star Wars was cementing itself in the minds of fans. Children, who did not have the same nostalgic connection to 3.75” action figures, found themselves drawn to buildable versions of classic vehicles and stylised characters in the form of minifigures. This was a new way of building a Star Wars world, a little more literally. Although the line was successful from the beginning, it was in 2005, for the release of Revenge of the Sith, that there was a shift in appreciation for LEGO Star Wars. Whether it was improved set design, the more compelling box art or interest generated by the video game, it began to dominate more of the Star Wars shelf space.
That sales of LEGO Star Wars increased after no more movies were expected was surprising at the time, but it was as the company had made the necessary changes to allow designers to produce awesome products, and other lines such as LEGO CITY were also feeling a boost. There was a whole new energy around LEGO in general.
As well as the LEGO Star Wars video game, a short film was produced to coincide with Revenge of the Sith – Revenge of the Brick, which aired on Cartoon Network. Although purists rightly point to the LEGO sets themselves as being king, these projects marked the beginning of LEGO Star Wars developing as a brand beyond those toys. The sense of humour and whimsy that would lead to designers putting little nods such as coffee mugs in LEGO Star Wars sets was initiated by these releases.
This ability that was developed to distinguish Star Wars and LEGO Star Wars led to continuing success over the past decade, with many – including TT Games’ Jon Burton – commenting that many children are introduced to Star Wars through LEGO, before they see the films for the first time. This connection that children see between the bricks and between the saga both allows LEGO Star Wars to continue, but also improves the reach Star Wars has to the younger generation. Then on top of that, the two become separate universes, easily communicated to children as the minifigure versions of the characters and brick built versions of the ships are so distinctive to the authentic versions.
The other aspect of the LEGO Group’s success with Star Wars has been a willingness to innovate and take risks, in order to please the consumer. This is in part the reason that the company has succeeded at a time when Hasbro has seemed to struggle for direction. 10179 UCS Millennium Falcon was a huge risk – the largest and most expensive set the company had ever sold – but proved to be a huge success, released a year before Hasbro put an action figure scale version of the ship to market. Another clear example is 10188 Death Star, now re-released as 75159, which action figure fans have been clamouring for a version of and Hasbro has not wanted to risk releasing.
By giving hardcore fans what they want – and with the aftermarket prices of 10179, legends to talk about endlessly online – the interest and loyalty of adult fans sits alongside the natural interest of the younger fans. Maintaining this, through judicious choice of sets and ensuring the standard remains high, will be key to ensuring that LEGO Star Wars remains relevant. Although LEGO has become as natural to refer to alongside Star Wars as action figures, that does not mean it will remain so forever.
What the LEGO Group and Lucasfilm has achieved with LEGO Star Wars is an impressive feat, that saw a product line based on the saga become a separate piece of entertainment that consumers – young and old – can view in isolation. This has shown the LEGO Group what the right licensed theme can deliver, if cultivated carefully, and has helped Star Wars to reach a whole new audience that find this a very appealing form to access the saga through.