Action figures, Underoos, lunchboxes – a Jedi wants not these things (but probably buys them anyway).
Star Wars, Episode 7: The Force Awakens has already wrecked just about every domestic box office record, even beating the multi-release totals of Avatar and Titanic. It’s an extraordinary rebirth of the franchise, and under its new mouse-eared guidance, the next wave of Star Wars films could continue to generate massive ticket revenue. But history shows us that there are even bigger rewards out of the multiplex and on the shelves of the big box retailer. Simply, merch is where the money is.
Nobody knows this better than Jedi Master George Lucas himself, who famously traded a $500,000 director’s fee in order to retain the merchandise rights to Star Wars in 1977. Less well known is that the original toy license to Kenner was worth only $100,000 – neither Lucas nor Kenner anticipated just how collectible those toys would become. By the end of 1978, after working through major supply issues, more than 40 million figures were in the hands of collectors and fans – bringing in more than $100 million(1). This gamble is an amazing success story – but it’s made even more fantastic when you understand how much Star Wars has dominated the collectible merchandise market(2).
To see where it stacks up, we looked at the merchandise value of film franchises (which isn’t necessarily more than one film) that were not part of an already toy-friendly franchise. (The Avengers, for example, made only $150 million in merchandise, but it’s hard to draw the line between official movie merch and anything with Captain America’s logo on it.) “Merchandise”, for our purposes, includes toys, collectibles, consumer packaged goods, and video games – but excludes books, whether they’re source material, novelizations, or licensed expanded material.
Conservative estimates put the all-time sales of Star Wars merchandise at $20B, which significantly outpaces its closest peers. It had a big head start – the other most lucrative franchises in film history are 28 years younger on average. This is a testament to its continued relevance in the zeitgeist of toy buyers – but it does mean that when calculating merch sales per year, Star Wars takes a back seat to relative upstarts Cars, Despicable Me, and Frozen. (Note that we haven’t adjusted for inflation – so we’re discounting some of Luke Skywalker’s space credits by comparing them to whatever Minions use for money.) Still, Star Wars merch has maintained an average of over $512 million per year for 37 years. That’s the same as raking in Jurassic World’s opening weekend every year for almost four decades(3).
It’s this franchise longevity that really sets Star Wars apart. As inescapable as she’s been since 2013, do we expect a steady stream of Elsa-themed merchandise to last until 2050? Disney’s second-most lucrative character ever, Winnie the Pooh, was introduced to movie audiences the same year as Star Wars, and has accounted for one-quarter of the merchandise revenue since (4).
And, of course, Star Wars isn’t done. There are ambitious plans for more films, and they will come with more pajamas, pencils, and play sets. Maybe the only thing threatening this merchandising behemoth is brand fatigue – a concern for Disney after flooding the market with Frozen toys and ultimately competing against itself, analysts say (5).
It could be that too much merchandise leads the Star Wars brand down the path to the dark side – but that’s a wide road paved with phone cases, bed sheets, and pint glasses.
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