Q&A: A Crisis of Star Wars Scale, High Pricing Is the New Distribution Problem

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, January 29, 2023

1. There are 2 opposing thoughts that have entered my mind lately about the hobby of collecting plastic Star Wars bits. One, the cost of the Star Wars The Black Series Imperial Officer (Dark Times) Action Figure has been pegged at $41.60 for some time. Two, the concept of toxic fandom at least as it applies to the collecting world. Looking back, George really had a system in mind. The movies reinforced the figures. The figures reinforced the movies. And, for us older collectors, that synergy was good most of the time. It provided symbiotic entertainment at a reasonably joyful price point. But, this seems have gone out the window some years ago. Somehow, I think this is the root of the toxic fandom. A company is asking to me to open my wallet for a figure that is nearly twice the basic figure price that means nothing to me (anyone?) relative to its source material. When I did sales of multi-million-dollar projects, I found it really came down to the customer finding value in the effort. Outside that box, you could really get some ire fast. And, to me lately, I feel that ire. And, I want to start to shake the hobby and say hey; I think that I know a thing or 2, knock it off. So, the question and they say never open yourself up to criticism... Is it just me? Or, are many in the hobby feeling similar things?

Most likely, Hasbro is very happy - or at least happy - with their current direction. It hasn't budged much in a few years, prices keep going up, pre-orders continue along like normal, and with a few exceptions figures seem to be selling. Unsurprisingly, some of those exclusive figures at slightly higher prices seem to be the ones not selling.   There are more grumbles than ever, but there's also more social media and a little more obfuscation which doesn't help.  (Closed boxes have put me off trying some new lines.)  

Hasbro can produce a $5 6-inch figure with limited articulation - I assure you they could make something with at least 5 joints for $10. They just don't want to right now. At $5 a hit, or $10 a hit, I probably would never have considered cutting back. At $25 a hit, it hit a ceiling - a figure should not be more than a vehicle. Also, there are no vehicles. And few droids. Or aliens. And most of the new figures look a lot like the figures we already own, or can buy on eBay for less than the new retail prices.   On the whole, the adult collector has yet to prove they're concerned about value.

When it comes to price points we're dealing with a desire to raise the bottom line, inflation, and hikes with materials and freight. I am being told that the industry now not only has declining freight costs (a container is similarly priced as or cheaper than pre-pandemic levels), but materials and labor costs are also reportedly going down. Hasbro is slow to change direction, but also they've never met a price increase they didn't like - we were supposed to see a drop for Power of the Jedi and, on the whole, it didn't get cheaper everywhere. With The Black Series I assume Hasbro has data saying fans will pay premium prices for their favorite characters - this is just a guess, much like how we see popular characters sell for a premium on Amazon would lead me to believe at least a few toymakers are asking "Why can't we get a piece of that secondary market action?"

As to the character selection, blame business today. If 20% of your product make 90% of your revenue, you may want to drop 80% of your product. If Hasbro can sell you one $35 Boba Fett, they may not see a need to sell you any $10 figures even though their competition at Mattel and Spin Master and others have occasionally managed to deliver a comparable, cheaper product with more gear. Hasbro is a big company, with lots of moving parts, and is slow to change the direction of the ship when something may or may not be working much of the time. Hasbro doesn't have a lot of young people, meaning the era of kids who grew up with Kenner toys are long, long gone and you might be getting some prequel kids. And prequel kids weren't the same as old-school kids.

The $41.60 price of the Dark Times Imperial Officer may or may not be a fluke - I doubt Hasbro intended Walmart to charge that. I know I didn't buy it, and I hit my limit on exclusive retools once The Bad Batch Cad Bane hit $27 on Amazon... and it looks like it's $34 now.

We've been in a weird position with too much stuff and no time to breathe. We used to be able to count on a couple of years between movies to learn everybody's name, which in turn gave us reasons to buy a deep bench of alien and robot toys. Now it just jumps from a new show to another new show, many of which don't really bother to stop for us to learn who anybody is, with fewer reference materials to be easily found, and on top of that it seems toymakers want to focus on established names, faces/helmets, and such only. If there was a golden age, this isn't it. Our childhoods ended a long time ago, and while it hurts it's important to consider that in 1980, not a lot of toys from 1940 were alive and kicking. Somehow, our thing is still going. Even my beloved The Retro Collection is still chugging along at about 16 or so new (or "new") releases per year, which is about as good as the old days. I want more, but don't we always want more?



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2. In the 80s, we were blessed to have a number of toy lines in the same scale. Star Wars, GI Joe, as well as Galactica, Buck Rogers, and even The Black Hole could all interact, swap vehicles and play sets, but for all of these, there were the ones that had an incompatible scale, such as Playmates’ Trek toys and TMNT, MMPR, and MOTU.

My question is what makes toy companies want to avoid a unified scale?

Unless you have a standardized buck - Mego, Playmobil, LEGO - you're probably always going to get a little variety in sizes as people play with features and detail. At some point I'm sure we'll see 5-inch kid lines tried again, and 6-inch lines will continue, and so will 7-inch lines. It's unlikely we'll ever see this business reduced to a single standard.

Licensing restrictions and personalities, most likely, are the reason you pretty much have to see new scales. Batman has numerous divisions in its various contracts, with 6-inch figures, 4-inch figures, Pop! Vinyl figures, LEGO figures, Imaginext, and so on and so forth - everybody gets the slice of pie they can get, and generally companies don't give a ton of thought to a specific compatibility with other toys unless they're like us. The Bif Bang Pow! The Twilight Zone figures, and Super7 ReAction figures, and a bunch of those guys were made with the old 3 3/4-inch size in mind. It's intentional. The same is true with Mego and a lot of compatible figures. Everybody else has different ideas, or their contracts had other ideas.

Also if you buy a new figure, you have to buy a new scale vehicle to use with it. It's money. For companies that want to reuse their own tooling, a common scale is good. If you're Playmates, you'd probably rather people buy your new vehicles than repurpose old Kenner or Hasbro ones from your big brother or a garage sale.

TMNT has the same issue as Batman - multiple lines, multiple channels, multiple price points. Everybody thinks theirs is the best take, and therefore, we have to suffer because nobody has a "master toy license" anymore. It can be good - we get LEGO Star Wars sets now - but I don't want 50 scales of Batman or TMNT. Turtles fans have it rough because Playmates has multiple scales and formats, plus NECA has a dynamite cartoon scale, and on top of that Super7 is doing incredible reimaginings of the original toys. Each new scale allows for a different take and a different kind of customer, which can be good and bad.

While the late Gen X kids and some early Millennials love 3 3/4-inch, most Millennials liked 4- or 4 1/2-inch figures, older Gen X may have loved Mego. So far nobody has really done the 1990s Kenner scale in a significant way - which is similar to Playmates' Star Trek and seaQuest - that gave us Aliens, RoboCop, Predator, Batman, and dozens of other lines. We all assume whatever we like is the one true scale, but the only companies that have really nailed a uniform scale seem to be the likes of LEGO, Playmobil, and Funko.

Action figure fans are generational. At one point 12" guys called the shots. Mego fans thought theirs was the ultimate at one point. It stands that every generation thinks theirs is best, so we're never going to agree on any one size as a community unless it's forced on us. Before Kenner relaunched 3 3/4-inch Star Wars in 1995, a lot of us were hoping for Playmates-style figures in the scale of their Star Trek offerings - they were bigger, cheaper, had more gear, and better detail for the same price. Some day you and I will be closer to retirement and some indie guy will be kicking off Imaginext clones.

"3 3/4-inch scale" means different things to different people - some people like Hasbro's G.I. Joe format, some like Kenner's Star Wars, and a lot of people like Micronauts and Fisher-Price Adventure People. Well, some people. Each have their own dimensions, with some skinnier figures than others. A more modern compatibility issue comes from the world of indie toys. The Glyos factory - Onell Design, Knights of the Slice, Healey Made, ToyFinity's Manglors/RoboForce/etc., The Outer Space Men, etc. - their whole deal is that figures can swap limbs and parts and be customized. It works fairly well but the Knights of the Slice are beefier, wider 3 3/4-inch figures. The Outer Space Men have "tall" aliens that are even bigger than a Chewbacca or Darth Vader. Healey Made's guys are the closest to original Kenner specifications. I could go on - even though these guys all come from the same place, with the same factory guy, with compatibility in mind, they're all a little bit skinnier, wider, taller, shorter than the rest despite arguably all being 3 3/4-inch scale. Each person running their own brand has their own take on the same thing, not unlike "The Aristocrats."





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Are we done? Is it another week?   I haven't even had time to process it all yet.

This week I got my $10.99 retro Luke (Snowspeeder Prototype) pre-orders from Target, and it's charming enough. It's funny that this is how we get new colors of official Kenner lightsabers after all these years - I have a purple one now! Heck, I might buy the other colors if I see them, just because I could use a bright orange lightsaber. I could take or leave the multi-color concept, I'd be just as happy with a solid purple pilot.

The big question is "How is this year going to look?" and from everything I've seen, and what people in the biz have chimed in, this year should be a lot like last year. We're probably going to have a bit of a glut continuing. It remains weird that exclusives tend to be the easiest things to get, but even the dreaded and vile Boba Fett Tax hasn't prevented some of those figures from actually selling. A lot of neat exclusives came and went on clearance pretty quickly for lots of toy lines this last season, but the big question is just how much of this stuff might still be in a warehouse waiting to show up somewhere? If you missed anything from the last coupe of years it might be worth continuing to be patient as inventory (and, of course, hoarding) sort theirselves out. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if the last 2-3 years will end up being like the 1990, with tons of packaged mint product suddenly popping up for sale on the cheap as soon as people get over it. A buyer's market is, most likely, coming.

I had some really fascinating conversations with people about all sorts of directions for the hobby and some neat things coming up on the horizon. It ranges from inspiring to depressing, depending on the scope of your ambitions, and things like massive Hasbro layoffs seemingly resulting in a bigger emphasis on games. We'll see what happens - the market does what it does, and Hasbro has not always succeeded on its plans. And sometimes they're wildly successful - look at HasLab, the $275 lightsaber market, the $130 helmets, and so on. This is next-level success as long as you don't get hobbled by dusty, unsold inventory. You can even afford a few failures, because at least what you make tends to get sold.   Action figures have been a big deal for a while and toy trends don't all last forever.  (That's what I keep telling myself with this most-likely temporary surge in Kenner retro figures.  Enjoy it while you can.)

The pandering comes at a cost - there's no cheap stuff anymore. I remember when action figure prices started to shake loose of the orbit of $4.99, and then went back down, and up again, and down again, each time adding and losing features. The last time we had figures around $5-$6 was 10 years ago for the underrated Mission Series and Saga Legends 5-jointed figures. A little more time with paint could have made some stellar figures, and I would have been thrilled as a collector to get aliens in that format. I don't need every elbow and knee, as long as the sculpt and pose are interesting and the figure can sit in a playset or a ship. But also, I don't need yet another round of every last main character. Some, sure. I'd be pretty stoked to see a $6.99 lightly-jointed The Mandalorian and/or The Book of Boba Fett kid 3 3/4-inch line. (Don't complain, it's not like you're getting most of the secondary non-armor guys in The Vintage Collection.)

The era of cool new vehicles at retail is probably over for 3 3/4-inch Star Wars fans unless kids are the driving force, and it seems the business is willing to let that one go for now. But with any luck, there will be cool new things to look out for. ToyFinity just put up new Manglors, Onell Design has a lot in the hopper for the future, Plastic Meatball and Super7 continue to do some very nice work too. Since Hasbro seems to be over droids and aliens and other weirdness, it's probably a good time to look at what compatible products there are for new stuff, or just keep an eye out for the old Hasbro and Kenner stuff that actually really exists. Knights of the Slice keeps putting out tip-top weirdness, for example, and hopefully we'll see more stuff like that unless Hasbro really wants to get back on its droid game.

So, to the 3 3/4-inch faithful keep an eye on the Acid Rain and the Super7 and the indie world because I don't expect things to get that much more exciting in Star Wars any time soon.  So buy a Manglor.

--Adam Pawlus

Got questions? Email me with Q&A in the subject line now! I'll answer your questions as soon as time (or facts) permit.



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