Q&A: Lightsaber Futures, Star Wars Class of 1978, and Sale Power

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, October 9, 2016

1. In your opinion, what are the definitive modern versions of the original 12 [1978 Kenner Star Wars] action figures in terms of accuracy of sculpt, articulation, soft goods etc.?

That's sort of the problem - accuracy, modernity, uniformity - we're not there, nor are we even close, to having a set of 12 figures that feels cut from the exact same cloth. What even would be necessary to be accurate? How do we feel about telescoping lightsabers and the vinyl capes? (One of the Jawas does come close, though.)

In Hasbro's shoes, I'd love to put out a new set of 12-backs in the current 3 3/4-inch format - vintage-ish packaging, vintage-ish articulation, and just do up a definitive set as closest you can. Mostly just to say that you did it.

At this time the Death Squad Commander has no grey-suited modern update in the last 21 years. You've got dozens of R2-D2s and C-3POs, but what requirement do you personally need? If it's to match the articulation with a good sculpt, you've got the The Vintage Collection release or Mission Series, but neither replicates the shiny gold finish. R2-D2s are all over the map - but if you want a literal recreation of the sticker? Or the inaccurate dome? I might say that the "Early Bird Kit" Luke from 2005 is the best one, because of the telescoping lightsaber and limited articulation. You may disagree. I don't think soft goods would necessarily have a place in the vintage update world.

So, in short, I don't like this question and I don't think it has a good answer. I don't know if "definitive" means "the most Kenner-like" or "what 12 are you settling for right now?" I love the new Rogue One Stormtrooper as a Vintage update, but the gun's wrong. I'm very fond of the "Mission Series" R2-D2, but the deco is weak. Mission Series Han, Leia, and Chewbacca are all very close but I don't like the head sculpt, the pants sculpt, and deco there.

Here's hoping Hasbro has something planned for the 40th, failing that hopefully they (or Future Hasbro, Mattel, or whoever gets the license in 2027) does something neat. Of course by then most of the crew who really gives a rip about 12-backs will probably be out of the hobby as a collector, but who knows? If Kenner and Hasbro have gone 21 years without updating their original 1970s-1980s line-up, it's no wonder we're still lacking a good Death Squad Commander and after dozens of Vaders we've yet to see a telescoping lightsaber version. I don't think my opinion is worth much here, because once you pass up 1998 there's really no block of figures that delivers a consistent set of 12. It gets close, but is anyone really bonkers about 2004 Leia?



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2. is it just me, or is it telling that the new Hot Toys Darth Vader Rogue One 1:6 scale figure only has a lightsaber hilt, and no blade for his appearance and use in the movie?

It's hard to say - in 1999, Hasbro made a 3 3/4-inch Darth Vader with only a hilt on his hip. It was the only time they've done that. For all I know the Hot Toys figure is an intentional nod to the fact he doesn't light up on-screen, or maybe there's a variant, or maybe that's a spoiler. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and all that jazz. Heck, even Revenge of the Sith Darth Vaders frequently had an ignited blade - which we never saw in the movie, not once.

I guess I'd say read into it as you wish. Generally we only see Darth Vader whip his blade out when fighting others with lightsabers, although he stumbles around with it lit after his duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original movie. Usually it's just a prop, and it's hard to say if he'll have any real reason to use it or not. If Rogue One is the literal "before the crawl" prequel some rumblings say it is, odds are they don't want to put Vader in any too-dramatic situations where he could be damaged.

I'm not even sure if we should read into the fact that the robes are over his shoulder armor on that figure, rather than under it. Some promotional images show it under the armor. So does Funko's Pop! vinyl bobble head, but Hasbro's has it like the traditional look from the original movie. Why the differences? Maybe Vader gets shot and hides the damage under his robes for the original film? Heck if I know. Maybe someone goofed.




3. 2 Part question:
- With the exception of a few items, not only have I been able to find everything at retail since the inception of the line in 1995, but have found everything below the asking price at retail. If you are willing to not grab things their first release time, items will go on sale, clearance, online coupons etc, at some point. Do you think Hasbro inflates the pricing to see what they can sell at retail vs. what is sold on sale/clearance? I find that if you are patient/diligent, you can find almost everything on sale/clearance
- Do you think the days of 2005-2008 in terms of quantity are gone? Is the fact that Disney wants to put out a movie each year indicative of the fact that they line can not be more then 25-30 figures in length. Is having a new movie each year a hindrance to the Star Wars line or a way to keep it fresh?

I can say how and when you buy makes an impact on what happens next. You don't know this, because you don't see all the stuff that doesn't get produced - by waiting for clearance, you send a clear signal to Hasbro and Hasbro's biggest customers - not collectors, but the people who buy millions of dollars worth of this kind of stuff for their stores. If a part of The Black Series doesn't sell well, what does that mean for the future? What segments (new and existing) evaporated because some items didn't perform? You'd be surprised what you don't even know that you're missing.

I've been able to find everything - or almost everything - since the beginning at retail, eventually, with precious few exceptions. I personally do not believe anyone found everything below retail and it would be unprofessional were I inclined to call you a fibber, but that's not the place this is. Generally someone in a big city with lots of places to hunt will eventually find stuff on the second or third shipments. But you might not - not everybody found Battlefront Stormtroopers, or Snowtrooper Officers, or 3 3/4-inch super-articulated Captain Phasma.

I can't say what but there are numerous items that you as a fan would have loved to have had but will never see because some toys made it to the sales rack. It's not a good sign, and as I've been saying for years - it's important to vote with your dollars. Other fans do too, and some of those segments are louder, or have more potential customers, which is why Hasbro is going after those segments. Hasbro bends to the will of the publicity machine just as much as they do dollars.

The 2005-2008 era was insane. It's over until a new breed of collector steps up and/or Hasbro kills part of the line. The 6-inch line has competed with the 3 3/4-inch line for resources, and won. Bladebuilders are selling very well, but not to collectors. Right now, Hasbro has no reason to keep 250-350 figures per year in circulation in forms of multipacks and singles, mostly because of competition with themselves. Hasbro now has multiple Marvel movie lines to promote, as well as Transformers and (for now) Jurassic World. Not G.I. Joe, though. That's what happens when you chase collectors exclusively for too long. If Hasbro was selling only one collector action figure brand with any real mojo, sure, maybe they'd try it again. G.I. Joe was always smaller, as much as I love Transformers they were never the collector (speculator) property we saw from Star Wars, and Hasbro didn't get Marvel until - I think - 2007. (And boy howdy did they take a while to get the hang of it.)

But I digress.

As I mentioned in last week's column, I'm now trying to construct a home for my 21 years of modern Star Wars action figures. I don't want another 250 figure year.

It's my understanding most manufacturers have some back-end math - McFarlane Toys did this during Spawn's heyday - of about how many they can sell at full price, how many they can dump at Kay-Bee (if needed, when that was possible), and what that means in terms of a good return on your investment. Hasbro doesn't sell these things to stores for free, and the margins are pretty weak in toys. I've very rarely been given a peek at what it actually costs to stamp out a figure from a mold in China and to date, I've never seen what it costs Hasbro.  Hasbro has to make some money - all companies do - and you never know how much is going to get dumped at Ross, if any.   It's smart to plan for some of that.

As such, I don't know what's inflation, and what's a store willing to take a hit. I know Walmart took a serious hit in 2005 to sell basic figures drastically cheaper than its competition and Target followed suit, because as a business they are frequently willing to take that tactic. Right now we've seen their The Black Series 3 3/4-inch figures drop from about $13 to about $11. Did Hasbro give them a break? Are they taking a hit? Are they too oblivious to realize the new product is a new wave and not something that was on sale a month ago? I have no idea.  Walmart ain't chatty and this information would be confidential either way.

It can be in a company's interest to mark stuff up a couple of bucks - due to features, or margin - to get more on their investment. Sometimes it pays off (2004 OTC Vintage packaging, which we all bought anyway) and sometimes it doesn't (2009 movie G.I. Joe action figures). You never know what's going to work, or how, or when.  Sometimes pricing is a strategy as you've seen Mattel been able to keep basic Hot Wheels at or around a buck for pretty much your entire lifetime, but at the expense of some features like more metal or rubber tires.

Things change.  The way things were done in the 1990s were due to a huge selection of speculators, fans, kids, and collectors with a massive collector media push.  The media push is dead thanks to the decline of print, and the speculator toy market isn't what it was since the first Midnight Madness.   Things might change again in a few years - we'll see.




A was talking with a good friend of mine not too long ago (who also got married this weekend, congrats Zac & Jacob!) about the annual Star Wars movie release schedule, in part because we almost had Rogue One and Episode 8 released a mere 6 months apart. Seeing the rapid-fire release of Marvel movies from that factory has given us a sort of an American Harry Potter, a system of regular releases with big, impressive stars guesting in a decent franchise of beloved, if similar, movies that you could set your watch by. While I've been advocating Star Trek movie to an annual release schedule - hey, if you can do 25 TV episodes you can do one movie - one per year shouldn't be a stretch. But I digress - we were both coming to the conclusion that it seems that one movie a year might be too much for Star Wars, just because the marketing for Rogue One doesn't seem to be doing the trick and finding anyone but the faithful (read: you and me) who's excited is tough. Having a whole extra year of publicity helps.

I'm in a weird position to have one foot squarely in fan circles as a lifer, and another in the professional and semi-professional circles for over two decades. As a fan - especially as a young fan - the wait between Return of the Jedi and what would become The Phantom Menace was a lifetime. 16 years was a long wait, but in that time the saga got to go away, have a comeback, and almost anything new was newsworthy. I bought magazines because of a mention of Star Wars - a well-loved issue of Starlog discussed Star Tours and Dark Empire before it came out. This, in turn, resulted in me going to comic shops regularly in hopes of getting it when it came out, which I did, and I followed up on nearly every Dark Horse book for a very, very long time.

However, thanks to The Clone Wars my need for new Star Wars was being taken care of, cheaply and regularly. My beloved comics were less of a necessity. Now we're getting a movie every year - the 3-year gap between prequels gave us time to watch and rewatch the movies, to see the film and have time to ask Hasbro to give us the characters and aliens we really liked as toys, and to really anticipate (or dread) the next chapter. One of the most amazing side effects of The Force Awakens was its development alongside Rogue One allowed the latter to enjoy a smokescreen - a smokescreen amplified by the marketing black-out created by Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. In short, we've got a secret Star Wars movie on the way, and the new fandom doesn't seem hip to it just yet. Unfortunately, that long, long ramp-up to the movie is what gets toys sold and tickets bought. You need the hype.

Speaking strictly from a business perspective, 2-3 years gives everyone time to make cool busts, awesome action figures, big beasts, and to sit around exploring the unknowns. For the first time since 1983 we're in a position to really wonder. The prequels were forged with a love story with a known outcome, a genocide waiting to happen, and little drama to service characters not directly involved in making what was basically the biopic of the backstory of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is so exciting because we're seeing discussions about a possible love triangle, the nature of our hero (or secret villain), and so much more. It also gives us time to want more. The comic books, novels, TV shows, and other stories are so much more exciting because that was all we had. That 1-2 year wait between the last movie and the next trailer was just torture, but at least Dark Horse, Marvel, Del Rey, Bantam, LucasArts, and others were there to take your $3-$20 to tell you another tale of a galaxy far, far away while Hasbro milked the udders of the newest movie to give you awesome toys. I mean, say what you will about Attack of the Clones, but we exited that movie window with Ayy Vida, Dannl Faytonni, WA-7, two Kaminoans, a whole ton of Jedi, a good mess of Clones, and even a bunch of Separatist leaders.

The Force Awakens toys came and went in about 9 months, and while we are seeing a couple of new ones under the Rogue One assortments it's another Rey and another Kylo Ren - the weird robots and aliens aren't here. Neither is Luke. Neither is the regular Leia costume, or the regular Hux outfit, or Snoke, and I could go on. Hasbro can't get the most out of the movie due to the sales windows and fans don't get to wallow in the wonderful new world J.J. Abrams built for us. On top of that, and I realize this could just be me being old, I don't have time to memorize the movie in under a year. Today's Hasbro/Disney/Lucasfilm probably wouldn't squirt out a Wat Tambor quite so fast.

I'm thrilled for Episode 8 and I love Rogue One's toy line-up, but I'm sitting here in the dark about the movie's specifics. Maybe it'll be awesome. Maybe zero expectations is good. I should be overwhelmed with excitement, and I haven't seen enough from the teasers to know what will be in the movie beyond some costumes and the cast. Saying "too soon" feels cliche, but I'm still absorbing the last movie and very much enjoying it. Also, as you've seen with the launch, Hasbro is still sending stores old waves of assortments when new waves are available - new shipments of old Titanium helmets and ships are reappearing rather than the launch batch. Why? It's still in the system. It didn't get the hard reset it needed, because the original plan was to have three films between December 2015 and May 2017 - and that can cause problems.

The old chestnut about show business success surrounding "always leave them wanting more" is not adhered to with this franchise, and I'm certainly feeling very satisfied from a narrative perspective. I've got 20 or more episodes of a cartoon each year plus a movie? I'm positively spoiled - which is why I haven't had to buy any comics or novels or new games. I've got plenty of Star Wars to watch as it is, and it's likely cutting in to the money I'd be throwing down for additional reading material. They've given me so much Star Wars that I no longer need to read it or play it.

There's a lot more money to wring out from the franchise, and more toys to make, if things were just spread apart a little more. I don't think collectors are interested in annual shopping line parties (or any of them, to be honest) or lining up at midnight every year, or really the whole "let's go out and buy all the new toys without knowing what they are or if they're all here" angle. I feel there's something we're missing with annual installments, and maybe I'm wrong, because I'm old and I lived in an era where NPR doing a Return of the Jedi radio drama in the late 1990s was considered to be hugely exciting news.

Oh, and I got the new droids from Disneyland this weekend. Good times. Reviews are being worked on as I write you this.

--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.