The Big Idea Issue: Star Wars & The Merchandise

This article appears in our “The Big Idea Issue,” which is on stands now.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there lived a man who had the creativity, the talent, and the balls to create a legacy that would span decades. He built a cinematic empire straight out of his imagination that has bridged the gap between pop culture, counter culture, and even mainstream culture. But it’s not over yet—in December, George Lucas will pass the torch to Disney for the latest installment of the Star Wars saga, Episode 7: The Force Awakens. To celebrate, we’re sharing our favorite big ideas from this remarkable series.

05/03/99. Santa Monica, CA. Leonardo DiCaprio shops for Star Wars Toys at the ''Toys R'' Us'' store at 1-30 am in the morning. Exclusive Pix by DAN CALLISTER and ANDREW SHAWAF.

05/03/99. Santa Monica, CA. Leonardo DiCaprio shops for Star Wars Toys at the ”Toys R” Us” store at 1-30 am in the morning. Exclusive Pix by DAN CALLISTER and ANDREW SHAWAF.

Star Wars is more than just a series of movies. It’s toys, comic books, video games, and everything else you could imagine. Star Wars was one of the first franchises that truly capitalized on the power of ancillary products. The exercise of releasing a large amount of merchandise tied to a blockbuster film is now a widespread practice.

It’s easy to view the mass merchandising of Star Wars cynically. George Lucas made a lot of money off the toys and other products that were slapped with the Star Wars name. But the merchandise has enhanced the Wars experience for a lot of fans. Part of the impact the saga has had on the cultural landscape is directly related to all the tie-in goods. There are several popular characters whose names we only know because of the action figures. (The bounty hunters in The Empire Strikes Back and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi would be nameless to our culture without the toys.) When you talk to fans of the series they often speak just as fondly about the toys as they do the films. Imagining a new Star Wars film that isn’t accompanied by action figures is impossible to envision.

Star Wars toys sit on display at a Toys "R" Us Inc. store in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011. An index of U.K. retail sales unexpectedly rose to a seven month high in December, boosted by retailers offering pre-Christmas discounts. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Star Wars toys sit on display at a Toys “R” Us Inc. store in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011. An index of U.K. retail sales unexpectedly rose to a seven month high in December, boosted by retailers offering pre-Christmas discounts. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There is also an admirable entrepreneurial spirit inherent to the Star Wars franchise. Lucas had to fight hard to convince a studio to make Star Wars. When he finally was able to get 20th Century Fox to agree to finance the project Lucas made an unbelievably savvy business decision. He took less money for directing the film in return for being able to hold on to the merchandising and sequel rights. That decision obviously brought him billions of dollars over the years. The products that have been made have all had the approval of Lucas and his company. There was a level of cohesiveness between the products and the films that made the goods feel integral to the series.

A shopper displays Walt Disney Co. Star Wars movie franchise merchandise at a Target Australia Pty department store in the suburb of Parramatta in western Sydney, Australia, on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. Walt Disney Co. is making toys tied to its first Star Wars movie in the adventure series available in a finely tuned rollout called "Force Friday." Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A shopper displays Walt Disney Co. Star Wars movie franchise merchandise at a Target Australia Pty department store in the suburb of Parramatta in western Sydney, Australia, on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. Walt Disney Co. is making toys tied to its first Star Wars movie in the adventure series available in a finely tuned rollout called “Force Friday.” Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By holding on to the rights to make the Star Wars sequels, Lucas had to finance those films and eventually the prequels. It may be hard to completely believe or fathom but George Lucas was truly an independent filmmaker and the Wars saga is independent filmmaking at a copious level. To help finance the films Lucas used the revenue he was getting from the goods and put it into the production of his films. Even if you don’t agree with the mass merchandising of Star Wars—it was in many ways a necessary evil for the creator and his saga.

The modern day blockbuster today has to have a toy line, it has to have a fast food presence—a blockbuster today has to bring in revenue from as many places as possible. That tried-and-true exercise started with Star Wars.

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