Q&A: Retro Star Wars, Inflation, and License Merry-Go-Round

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, August 29, 2021

1. Hasbro has to charge a high price for Star Wars toys because there is a hefty license for the product. My question is if toy companies ever have leverage over Disney, and can come to the bargaining table and say "Look, your movies are declining revenue producers, so we are going to need a little lower licensing fee if we are going to continue this relationship."

Naturally, you might think "Of course not!", but does Disney really want to burn a bridge with a company like Hasbro, for example, with a proven quality track record, in favor of a company like, for example, Spin Masters or Hiya, which have not been around for as long?

No, nobody else is getting the 3 3/4-inch action figure license. They're not going go re-renegotiate it either. They just renewed it!

Right now Star Wars products are not declining in revenue. They're sort of doing ridiculously well. I can't share numbers, but I would not say anything I see says that the value of the license in Hasbro's hands has gone down since the last movie came out - people love this stuff, and are still buying a lot of things. (Just not Finn, Rey, Poe, or Rose.) The empty aisles you see are not a sign of failure.

A new licensee is a business negotiation, and there's a lot at work - a lot of ins, a lot of outs. A lot of companies like to keep a relationship going, even if it's turbulent, especially if it will upset collectors. If what you're asking is "will Hasbro give up action figures because this infinitely valuable property is still preposterously valuable?", no. The Disney+ shows and legacy movies are incredibly valuable, and the empty pegs of Vintage Collection you've seen for the last year are proof. You can't keep most of these guys in stock - just because you don't like how it does means nothing in the grand scheme of things. If it's selling at full price - especially if it's sold out - that's a success. Stuff sells out quickly and people you know scramble to get more things if they can be sourced. There are a few duds here and there, but stuff like Mission Series is still doing well too. (A pity, I'd love Star Wars Playmobil.)

It's possible Hasbro may one day say "this format is done, we don't want to do it anymore" - and then all bets are off. I'm not quite sure what caused the Hasbro Titanium Series line to disappear while Mattel's Starships flourished, but that did happen, so there is precedent for awkward (and supposedly unknown to both parties) weirdness with contracts. It is possible someone could look at the Hasbro Star Wars 3 3/4-inch mass-market action figure license and work out an angle to carve out a slice - but Hasbro has been remarkably good about keeping most of those in their hands. For example, Funko wanted to do 3 3/4-inch Star Wars Pop! Vinyl figures - you may have noticed Marvel and Star Wars are both bobble-heads, unlike every other license. Star Wars also required stands, supposedly for contractual reasons, because they're not vinyl figures or action figures - they're bobble-heads.

Someone might be able to come up with a 3 3/4-inch statue, or perhaps a 3 3/4-inch figural model kit that has some articulation, or another similar loophole format where you have to pop prepainted parts off of a sprue and build it yourself. I don't know how the licenses work this week. There are lawyers who are paid to figure this stuff out, and I don't think that you're really considering the implications of what you're saying. If someone (like Mattel) gets the license, they're either going to start over from scratch, do a "best-of" line re-remaking things you own, or just do whatever the new thing Lucasfilm is doing until Disney changes their mind in 16 minutes and they switch to the other new thing they're doing. Hasbro is really the best partner here, even if this year isn't the most exciting. The only hope you might have is someone has the sense to do an all The Mandalorian line, which it still amazes me Lucasfilm/Hasbro haven't done yet.



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2. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the future of the retro line. I’m hoping to see more never before made characters from the time period of the original Kenner line. So far we have Tarkin and Snowspeeder Luke, but that’s it. Does Hasbro see these types of figures as just a once every few years special event kind of thing? Also, with Hasbro partnering with Super7 to make GI Joe and Transformers ReAction figures, is this something that could happen with Star Wars? I’m not optimistic that Hasbro would make something like a retro Uncle Owen, Princess Kneesaa or Mungo Baobab, but Super7 just might.
-- James

See above. Not likely.

It's also worth noting that Kenner of old didn't give us a Bantha until 1998, a Tarkin until 1997, a Wuher until 2000, and that's just sort of how life works. I was really sad as a kid because I couldn't get Kneesaa action figures when I was young and watching the cartoons, and we never got Latara or so many others either. (Or Vlix.) Trust me, some of us are being pests to Hasbro and Lucasfilm people about it, but you can see how effective it's all been. If you guys want to start some campaigns, hey go for it. I'd love to see a $200 box of Kenner retro guys on HasLab. As an aging toy fan, I can see that there are some holes from my childhood that will likely never be filled - and this isn't unique to Star Wars either. Transformers took decades to give fans Scrounge and Arcee in the desired format, and even Star Wars only just got Jaxxon this year.

The 3 3/4-inch figure license is a crown jewel which Hasbro guards, and should continue to guard. Hasbro couldn't carve off a slice for Funko's wildly-popular Pop! Vinyl figure format without having to resort to bobble-heads. Super7 isn't going to get a bite merely because they want it - Hasbro is doing it themselves, because the revenue is there for them. Those The Mandalorian Kenner figures, and the Marvel Legends 375 line, are things they want to make because it's profit. It's money. And only Hasbro owns the Kenner name. Similarly, Hasbro still makes money licensing out its own IP to Super7 to do Power Rangers, Joes, and Transformers... and My Pet Monster and whatever else they own now. Hasbro makes more money, most likely, by licensing out its own IP to other toy makers, and getting (and keeping) the biggest licenses for themselves.

The problem right now is that Hasbro is having a wildly successful year, unable to keep up with demand, the shelves are empty, and everything is doing well. They don't need to make a bunch of retro figures right now, because that competes for oxygen with Mission Fleet, The Vintage Collection, Black Series, and whatever else I'm forgetting. They're doing fine - they diversified too much, and now there's no one single collector format. Each segment has things that the other ones don't, and that's the future. The narrative of "they're not doing what I want so they should give up the license" is very silly. Look at other wildly popular IP like Nintendo's Metroid, which has gone nearly 20 years between Metroid Fusion and its next 2D sequel, Metroid Dread. Konami squanders Castlevania since the original Nintendo DS, and even Hasbro just threw its arms up with G.I. Joe for several years.

I know the guys at Super7 (hi Luke! Hi Brian! Hi Bart!) and they're awesome. I have no doubt they would be awesome stewards of the brand and I would happily vouch for their ability to do right by the Kenner style, or something close to it. Right now, it's Hasbro's license, and there's really no reason for them to give up a slice of it when it's money they can be making.




3. Hasbro often reminds us of the rising costs of doing business, materials, labor, etc. in cranking out our figures and vehicles.

When the line restarted waaaay back in 1995, figures were around $5, and now they're up to $13, not much of an increase.

Vehicles in '95, like the Slave 1, were around $20. Now it's $150, retooled.

In 1995, I don't think anyone would have said, "If they make a $400 Falcon, I'll buy several!"

And now those $400 Falcons sold out in preorders.

Looks like the inflation for vehicles is much higher than figures.

Do you see a point in which inflation is going to kill off our hobby, or at least make vehicles unaffordable?

The Falcon was marked down in some places, I believe I heard. But let's go with the premise of what you say here.

Labor, materials, and freight keep going up - especially freight - and that's not good. Sometimes it works - like the Slave I and Millennium Falcon transcend inflation, because they're still cheaper than buying them on eBay. In 2012, Hasbro tried to reissue 1999 Episode I vehicles for $30, and you could buy the 1999 originals for $15-$20 on eBay. That didn't work. It's a mix of math, and the reality-distorting properties of marketing. If for some reason Boba Fett rode around in a AAT Trade Federation Tank, you can bet that a reissue of that would sell very well.

Are vehicles unaffordable? Well, that last Walmart The Vintage Collection big wing TIE Fighter was like $80 when the kid line one - which was arguably a much better toy - was around $30-$35. It's all up to Hasbro - remember those mini Jedi Starfighters around 2012? They did those because rerunning the old ships cost too much money in both parts and labor in China, so Hasbro made simpler, cheaper versions. Walmart's 3 3/4-inch The Black Series AT-ST reissue cost more than twice as much as its previous Legacy release, and the Best Buy AT-ST Raider also remained somewhat expensive. The line in the sand is 2012 - anything that's a reissue from before it (like the old XL Slave I) is going to cost a lot more to bring back today. Hence the Falcon being preposterously overpriced this last time around.

Every company does things differently. For example, Hasbro made a 3 3/4-inch scale Ghostbusters Ecto-1 for $50 (but no figures.) Meanwhile, Playmobil sells theirs - with a less fancy paint job, but 2-4 figures and electronics and other gear - for $40ish-$60ish. (The Ecto-1A cost more, had more figures and accessories, and now is very expensive.) Also Hasbro has a 5-inch scale toy Ecto-1 on the market right now for a shockingly cheap $25, and you can put figures in it! If Hasbro wanted to make a $25-$30 TIE Fighter or X-Wing tomorrow, they could. It may not have every feature, but it's doable. They just don't want to do it for the current market, for whatever reason. They'd rather sell you a $80 Troop Transport, because it seems it'll sell.

As long as you pay $500 or more for a Barge, it's unlikely inflation can kill this hobby.



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Over the last few years, we've had a steady diet in the toy biz of how stores are coming back - specifically Kay-Bee and Toys R Us. Neither happened, although I will say that a Macy's I visited a week and change ago did have a pretty decent selection of newer toys, but not the kind of spread that would likely make everybody happy. It was at a mall I hadn't been to in a while, so I was surprised that the Disney Store was closed. (This was just before the big closing announcement this week.) Here in Arizona we've had a few of them for decades, the first I remember seeing was at Scottsdale Fashion Square (that location is gone), later at Paradise Valley and Metrocenter Malls (both malls are closed), and also Arrowhead Mall - which is the one that's now gone. Now I'm not a Disney fanboy - they own some great IP - but we don't live in a world where it's hard to find some example of Disney stuff somewhere. Between Walmart, Target, JC Penney, and so on, you're going to find something.

One of the big fears early on when Lucasfilm got bought by Disney - interestingly, I don't recall this with Muppets or Marvel - was that Disney would cut licensees like Hasbro loose, make everything internally, and sell it exclusively at their Disney Store retail establishments and/or theme parks (and/or movie theaters, when that seemed like something that could happen.) Every state is different, but what's notable is that here in Arizona they're drying up now they're at around 293. That's definitely down from a few years ago, but it was never a shop that ever seemed like a go-to place for action figures anyway. The LEGO store is usually pretty open and bright, big box stores are - well, what they are, and the Disney Store felt like there were people that were going to run into me at any moment. But I have to say with the growth in their character portfolio, I really did think we'd see a rapid expansion of stores, with more exclusive merchandise, and that it was going to be a go-to destination for toy stuff. And maybe I've been in one four or five times over the last five years?

We're seeing an expansion of various stores-within-a-store but as far as Star Wars goes, I don't expect big changes in a while. Force Friday/Midnight Madness is done for a while - thank goodness. It would be my hope we don't see it again until at least the Rogue Squadron movie, and even then - if there's no 3 3/4-inch figure-and-vehicle line, and a full LEGO line, and Funko exclusives, and something else new and interesting, why bother? The online roll-out of the COVID era is a bit easier to handle. Here's a wave of figures. Here's a new lightsaber. It's not like anyone is expecting you to drop $800 in the middle of the night, after waiting hours in line. Movie theaters got out of the Line Party game, and it's my hope everybody has finally gone beyond doing the same for toys.

While I expect nothing meaningful toy change the toy retail space this year, there's a lot to look forward to in 2022. (I think 2021 is kind of a snooze, overall, as it's mostly leftovers from 2020 and 2020 looked like a snooze in the first place.) The buzz is good for a stronger understanding of making things people seem to want, but having said that, you have to remember that the 3 3/4-inch line - as great as it was - has no plans to come back as this big giant thing. What you see now will be improved upon, but I wouldn't hold your breath for a big vehicle line in stores, or playsets, or even widely-available action figures. Between global production and shipping issues, hungier-than-ever fans, and a generation of people without much better to do than hunt for toys, it is pretty much what is is. But less so. I can honestly say there's never been fewer places to hunt for toys, especially here as we lose malls every couple of years and most major oddball retailers that went away don't seem to have any up-and-coming replacements. Losing the Disney Store is just one more on the heap, although other cities still have a bunch. There is no shortage of big box stores with Hasbro and LEGO stuff, but they all dropped Playmobil this season and there's only one place in town I know that still stocks it (hi Hobby Bench.) It certainly would be nice to see a new toy chain, even a tiny one, pop up given just how many toy stores have closed. And by that, I mean almost all of them.

--Adam Pawlus

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