Q&A: The Menace Awakens, Star Wars Digital, and Action Figure Variants

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, March 29, 2015

1. As a Special Editions kid, I was all over the POTF2 line and anything that came out between 1996-2000, but I've been wondering how those couple of years prior to the release of Episode 1 compare to today, in terms of how the line was doing and build up to the release of the line. Technology, spending habits and the economy have all changed significantly over the past 15 years, so are there any big differences or similarities you see?

It depends on what you mean by "health." As a fan, 1997 and 1998 were glorious years to be alive - we got new figures like Tarkin and Expanded Universe comic characters for the first time ever. We got a few concept vehicles, 12-inch figures, micro stuff, macro stuff, AT-ATs, and there was so much stuff in development that Kenner had to put instant redemption coupons and mail-away offers out there to help thin the herd of there being way, way too much product on shelf at the time. So it was great for us, but The Great Clearance of 2000 - where Kay-Bee and Toys R Us sold tens of thousands of items allegedly bought for pennies on the dollar at drastic discounts - say that there was too much plastic. Today's eBay prices would agree with the sentiment. On the other hand, Hasbro has kept the line pretty tight since the second waves of 2012, and a lot of figures are scarce with a few just plain not coming out in the USA.

So that shifts over to the question of timing - we're nine months pre-movie.

August 1998: The next couple of waves would be feast or famine, depending on where you shopped. The last Collection 1 waves started to pile up, Collection 2 piled up much later, and the Collection 3 waves were super rare. Things were winding down and people were more focused on what was happening right then - scarce supplies of Expanded Universe and Freeze Frame figures - rather than the next movie due in a few months. There were severe pegwarmers from 1997 and 1998, particularly Ugnaughts and 8D8 would last on shelves for years. At this point there were also about 26 more individually carded figures due to hit store shelves before the prequels. Also as of August 1998, we were about 1 month from our first unpainted look at the very first Episode I test shots. Oh - and the movie didn't have a name yet, that would also be September 1998.

March 2015: Whereas 1998 enjoyed 3 straight years of growth, things have been on the decline since 2012. Most stores have few or no figures and seeing 12 figures or less at a store has been the norm for over a year. We just got a huge glut of new figures and word on the street (which is the word online) that you can't order Saga Legends figures much any more. We have a few 3 3/4-inch and 6-inch figures on deck still, but it seems all the known Mission Series and Saga Legends figures pre-movie have started to ship to stores. We do know the movie's title. We do know a fair amount of stuff from official announcements - Hasbro was still denying the name Darth Maul existed 9 months before The Phantom Menace. We've seen 4 "alleged" 6-inch figures leaked so far, but not much else as toys go. We've also got one teaser under our belts.

Overall, the Internet of 2015 has shown us a heck of a lot more than the supposedly lax security of 1998. Official announcements through Entertainment Weekly gave us legit character names and we got to see the first teaser already - almost a year early, this time. The one place The Phantom Menace had a real edge was sneak preview product. Right now we don't know of any for the new movie, so unless it's SDCC's duty to give us surprise preview figures - or Celebration - we sort of got hosed there.

Despite claims of secrecy and increased security, we know an awful lot about this new movie 9 months out. I don't think we know everything, but a lot has leaked and it remains to be seen how much is actually true. We had some names and vague ideas at this point for the prequels, but as to the actual spending habits... well, there are some things I can't compare just yet. It's a safe bet spending is way, way down right now by virtue of the fact that Kenner/Hasbro are no longer the only game in town for three dimensional representations of your favorite characters, plus Star Wars has to compete with other family-friendly genre films on a regular basis. We used to get one or two superhero movies per year. This year alone we've got Avengers, Ant-Man, and the Fantastic Four competing with Jurassic World and other properties. For Hasbro in 1999, the emphasis was really heavily on Star Wars - I don't think they're content to ever keep all their eggs in one basket again, and odds are the depth and variety of all future lines will suffer a bit as a result.

Thanks to the roller coaster that is action figure line size, we could end up with a The Force Awakens line similar in scope to The Phantom Menace, which had under 100 figures in its first red-boxed year in the USA. The Rebels line, including repacks, gave us about 58 "kid figures" since last October - that ain't bad for a down time. We also got about a dozen 6-inch The Black Series figures plus... like two 3 3/3-inch ones, six if you count repacks. As such, if the movie window (which I am guessing is September to January) is anything less than 50-60 figures then Hasbro is squandering a great opportunity. The big question is how are they going to market things to fans - not launching in summer, not holding the toys back until 3 weeks before the movie, and giving the big convention push eight months to cool off before the movie will certainly change things. Also, the insane buzz of midnight madness seems to have worn off - but perhaps that's just for me, I think people realized nobody got rich off the last movies and anyone foolish enough to try again deserves to be parted with their money. The glittering golden sheen of Star Wars as a collectible has given way to more traditional patterns - short-shipped tail enders are expensive, things kids buy and destroy are expensive, and toys that start off expensive tend to get more expensive. But if anyone crams their carts full of Kylo Ren the way they did Darth Maul, I'll be surprised.



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2. Do you have any insight to what the Star Wars Digital Releases will be that come out in the Fall?

Generally speaking, Lucasfilm liked to take their time when it came to releasing Star Wars on new home video formats as of late. This would most likely be the only digital area left untapped - iTunes and such is where the consumer tends to be moving as, apparently physical media is for old people and hipsters. This has not been officially announced and seeing as that we have products far before the actual release of whatever this may actually be, it's possible the figures showed up early and they were planning to use the upcoming Celebration as a "Hey we're announcing this and you can download it RIGHT NOW." I have zero insight as to what hypothetical edits may happen to the hypothetical digital release of the movies, or if it'll even be in the Fall for sure or not. Given the interest for Star Wars with the new movie on the horizon, this would indeed be the best time to rererelease the movies on the iPad so your kids can watch it during Summer vacation.

I, of course, am praying it's just a digital download of just the Blu-Ray edits so those of us who bought the Blu-Rays on day 1 a few years ago and only watched the extras and the prequels don't feel suckered into buying yet another cut of the films... but I am not known for my luck.




3. Are the versions of Ezra and Kanan in found the TRU 3-pack with holo Obi-Wan (or the even Kanan with Phantom at Target) the same figures as the solo-carded ones that are nowhere to be found in stores?

What about the single carded Inquisitor compared with the one who comes with the Target exclusive Tie-Advanced?

Are the Stormtroopers with Zeb (and Sabine) the same as the individual ones I've never seen in stores?

I'm trying to get a REBELS set for loose display together as painlessly as possible. I'm hoping that Chopper and Agent Kallus are the only one 1st series carded figures I have to overpay for through EBay?

Are the Ezras, Kanans, Inquisitors, and Stormtroopers all the same? Or "just different enough to make you mad?"

For me, being "just different enough to make you mad" is something like tweaked eye color, or a different weapon, or a new tampo on the back of the figure. Depending on what you personally consider a valid reason to rebuy the figure, the answer for this one is on a sliding scale. So, let's walk through them.

All of the figures have the potential for date stamp variations. Due to when the figure was made, the 5-digit code printed on the figure (usually on the leg or under the crotch) will be different depending on when it was manufactured. This isn't a tracking number or a SKU, it's just the day it was born, basically. It may coincide with a legit change, but generally speaking this is just a toy's birthday. If you need to have all of the datestamps, that's entirely up to your own compulsive needs.

Ezra Bridger has a difference on the figure's back, which may well be the single most obnoxious thing I've ever seen as it's not easily displayed or easily seen in the packaging. The white bird on the back has two flavors and so far, the rougher one is seen mostly (or exclusively) in the Toys "R" Us 3-pack with Obi-Wan while the other one is (as far as I know) mostly or exclusively on single cards.

Stormtroopers are identical or very, very nearly identical save for their date stamps. I'd say snag one of each just because your Imperial Troop Transport will thank you.

The Inquisitor has a small variation in how the eyes are decorated. The first eye paint has a shorter, more curved red stripe coming out from under the eye that looks a lot like one of the teeth on a Metroid. This version can be found in the Target exclusive TIE Fighter sets, or on the all-English individual cards from late last year. The second version has a longer more needle or nail shaped line that doesn't curve down as much and is thinner. This version I've seen on figures from Saga Legends waves 6 and 7 on the multi-lingual packaging.

As to finding the figures, my question to you has to do with tenacity and gasoline. I have seen Kallus and Chopper showing up at regular retail lately as well as the Disney Store, where they tend to sell for $10 per. However, in the last week Disney Store put all of their stuff on a BOGO sale and blew through most of their good toys. They should be $6, but Toys R Us is already up to $8 anyway. I would assume a reissue is likely eventually, but odds are if they do show up again they will either see a deco change or the change to the new multilingual packaging. You're probably going to overpay, but just keep in mind what your time is worth, and consider that with another year on the air Hasbro may hopefully exploit their investment with another run of these characters. Especially Chopper. If they don't put out a box of reissues as a big box exclusives there's something wrong.




Hasbro isn't doing a panel at Star Wars Celebration VII? That's disappointing. After a disappointing showing at Toy Fair - not even showing the new Saga Legends or Mission Series - it seems like they're just kinda not really feeling like trying very hard right now. It'd have been nice to, you know, at least show what was coming in the next 30 days.

This may speak volumes about myself as a toy fan these days, but generally speaking my interest in any convention is directly proportional to the toy cred. If your show has a really cool toy panel, or press-worthy toy announcements, then congrats - you are on my radar, and I want to visit. If it is likely that I will be the closest thing to toy industry representation your show has, I do not want to go to your show. Thankfully Hasbro has a booth because, really, if there's no Star Wars toys to be seen then why am I getting out of bed?

Looking at this week's spread of questions it really does speak volumes of how much things have changed over the last decade and a half. For The Phantom Menace Hasbro kept a lot under wraps, there was no big showing at Comic-Con, and they kept the toys off the shelves up until about 3 weeks before the toys came out. (There was also a delightfully stupid "Certificate of Achievement" of sorts for attending the Toys R Us Midnight Madness event, where hundreds of fans would line up in front of stores to buy carts of this stuff.) The level of fever in 1999 came from as much as pent-up love for the line as it did speculation. Actually, it's probably more speculation - as of 1999 we were still dealing in a toy collector market that was centered around print, and much of print had to do with price guides and telling people that they, too, could some day invest in the right toys and get $$$ later. Seriously, "$$$" was a rating in an investment column. The majority of once-valuable 1990s toys - not only Star Wars, but much of the whole lot of the 1990s action figure world - are pretty worthless today and the entirety of the 1990s was basically a wild experiment and correction in the world of childhood and adolescent collectibles.

We saw comics and cards explode - and implode. Magazines devoted to valuable non-sports trading cards, comic books, and even toys came up. There was even a very brief magazine (which I contributed to) called Star Wars Galaxy Collector that was basically devoted to the licensed products of the day. The funny thing is that there's a lot more stuff now, and such a publication would be incredibly useful just to keep up with (and have a complete record of) all things Star Wars because nobody can keep up with shirts, lunch boxes, and other new licensed goods. It's just not possible to do everything without help.

For this reason, I am very curious to see how this year shakes out. I can smell that licensors are expecting a marketing push like 1999, but the speculators and investors have more or less moved on - getting rich in toy collecting lately is about short-term gains and those tend to be pretty small. The act of buying a $10 figure to sell for $20 and losing $3-$5 in Amazon, eBay, and PayPal fees is sort of a colossal waste of time in the era of stores like Amazon, Big Bad Toy Store, and Entertainment Earth where you can probably just drop $11 and get it in a few days.

If you believe that the path of the Universe bends toward justice, or that the free market really works, there's probably going to be a brief blip of intense interest in some characters as people figure out what the kids wanted for Christmas, but Hasbro underproduced. (See Darth Maul in Summer of 1999, Bumblebee in Summer of 2007, and numerous wrestling dudes in the 1990s as well as Ahsoka during the first couple years of The Clone Wars.) But let's be honest. Nobody here is starving for toys - anybody with fifty bucks can probably buy a dozen figures on eBay tomorrow. If Hasbro keeps its eyes on the prize - actually delivering the goods for new fans - things should be fine, and hopefully we'll see them keep Darth Vader in production just because that's smart money right there. With a new world on the horizon, remember to buy what you like and if you can get it cheap, go for it.

--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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