TRANSMISSIONS FROM A GALAXY FAR, FAR, AWAY:

EPISODE XVI

This is the 16th column in a weekly series from The Rock Father James Zahn. Check back Fridays for the latest in what’s happening in the galaxy far, far away, or read them all here.

It was three years ago this week that Star Wars fans experienced the first-ever “Force Friday” event—a day to celebrate the release of the all-new toys and consumer products tied into the release of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Coming 16 years after the release of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace in 1999 (which itself arrived 16 years post-Return of the Jedi), Force Friday was set to usher in a new era of Star Wars as part of a franchise relaunch of an unheard-of scale.

With pent-up demand for new Star Wars merchandise, retailers went big in hyping up their midnight openings by using nostalgia to bridge generations, hoping to attract parents who grew up on the original and prequel trilogies and were now set to experience a brand-new series with their own kids for the very first time. I was part of the hype, having worked with Hasbro to promote a “Force Friday Countdown” with daily posts, each highlighting a page (and toy) from a four-month countdown calendar that launched on “Star Wars Day” (May the Fourth) and ended on Force Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. Going a step further, I made an appearance in Target’s #ShareTheForce campaign, with archival footage that my parents shot on Super 8mm film being digitized for commercial use.

Disney Consumer Products put together a “Global Unboxing Event” that would span 18 hours and feature YouTubers and other personalities doing first-look unboxings of new products from locations in 15 cities and 12 countries. And while all retailers were plotting midnight events, none came close to what Toys “R” Us announced, withDestination: Star Wars.They promised that TRU would be “leveraging its global footprint and position as the toy authority to provide an unprecedented Star Wars experience worldwide.” Nowhere was that ideal more present than at the flagship Times Square location, which featured a multitude of events toplined by Destination: Star Wars—The Experience,  a special exhibition featuring prototypes, originals, and early editions of some of the best-known Star Wars toys in the world, curated by Rancho Obi-Wan, Inc., a non-profit museum that houses the Guinness World Record-certified largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia.

“Since the introduction of the first Star Wars toy in 1977, Toys “R” Us has served as the ultimate destination for Star Wars playthings, providing millions of kids and collectors worldwide with their most beloved memorabilia,” said Richard Barry, TRU’s EVP and global CMO at the time. Just two years later, TRU filed for bankruptcy with millions in unsold Star Wars product spanning four films among the items liquidated in 2018 as all stores in the U.S. wound down.

When Force Friday finally occurred, the response wasn’t necessarily what anyone was looking for. Sure, millions of dollars worth of product was sold, but many fans were left underwhelmed. Gizmodo even dubbed the event “a disaster for many.”At midnight, I found myself in line at the local Super Target, where product was divided into two sections—a single aisle in the toy department and a large portion of the seasonal department. I was maybe the 20th or so in line, and when the doors were opened, everyone casually walked single-file to the back of the store to start the experience. Yes, the experience was fun, but if I’d had the intention of walking out with a haul, that was squashed by about the 10th person in line. There was a lot of product, but it wasn’t what the customers really wanted. The core products, such as action figures and vehicles, were wiped-out within minutes—a common report from locations around the country. I left with a couple of T-shirts for my girls, some strawberries, apples, and grapes. Also, scored a free tote bag.

If anything, Force Friday in September 2015 was a preview and an initial warning of how not to do things. Much of the product left on the shelves on Saturday would be the same items hitting clearance by the time The Force Awakens hit theaters in December. There was just too much stuff that no one asked for, and it was in some cases pushing characters that kids weren’t familiar with (or never would be, such as the Constable) four months prior to the film’s release.

The ramp-up for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story played out a little bit better, albeit with little fanfare, but it was always intended to be a smaller affair without the big push of the episodic films. Still, it was odd to visit stores on release day to find a lack of product or to find the unassembled displays sitting in shopping carts. Like The Force Awakens, you could tell after a day or two what was headed for the clearance aisles—product that should’ve been moved long before the formal Force Friday II ahead of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017. My experience for that one was shockingly dull—a Walmart Supercenter with only one other customer awaiting the midnight release, and a store staff that had no idea where the product was. After 30 minutes of waiting, they brought out a pallet train, but there were absolutely ZERO core action figures or vehicles, just a handful of collector-focused Black Series along with a lot of expensive items, such as drones, placed alongside role play and Funko Pops.

By the Spring 2018, retailers and vendors were finally acknowledging that there were problems with strategy. Leaks for Solo: A Star Wars Story product began in January, leading many (myself included) to question the value of embargoes and street dates, especially when both are repeatedly broken and customers are either expected to buy product they’re unfamiliar with or are refused sale if they find the product on the shelf too early. Additionally, releasing product months before a film’s release was no longer just suspected to have been a bad idea—the numbers were reflecting that, and Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner admitted it. “The fact that we began to merchandise the film in September and the film came out in December was just too long a period of time to sustain retail interest,” he said.

By the time that Solo product did launch in April, perhaps things were scaled back too much. There was little, if anything, to be found on launch day at many retailers; a shame because Solo inspired some of the best items released for any of the new films.

As we move toward the conclusion of the sequel trilogy with Star Wars: Episode IX on-deck for next year, now is the time for everyone involved to start planning how to do things right. That means presenting families with a lineup of products that’s not overwhelming and focuses on the right mix of kid-friendly and collector-oriented. It also has to be affordable, and if an item does carry a high price tag, it needs some real “wow” factor to make it a must-have. In-store events and creating an experience is key, but at the end of the day, the product needs to be available. That means that retailers need to be in-stock on the core products, and they need to have enough to make it through a launch weekend without empty pegs and bare shelves because that might be the one chance they have to make an impression.

When plotting for the Episode IX push, I’d like to see Disney, Lucasfilm, and all of their licensees and retail partners take a step back and look at what I believe was the best Star Wars launch: Midnight Madness 1999.

I know because I worked it.

At the time, I was working for the Kmart Corporation in their Super K division. Believe it or not, before Eddie Lampert came in and began destroying Kmart (and Sears) from his semi-hidden lair in Florida, there was a time when Kmart had some fantastic-looking stores and a plan for the future (photos and details I might share at another time). For the Midnight Madness launch of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a real vibe was created throughout the store—with many departments taking part. With vendor support, there was a Star Wars presence in electronics, grocery, apparel, and, of course, toys! You could not walk through the store and escape Star Wars. It was vibrant, and it was everywhere. Above all, we had the product that families and collectors wanted—and we had enough of it to go around.

Of course, there was some overkill there as well, eventually. What’s a Ric Olie action figure going for these days?


Further Transmissions

  • The Star Wars Show has a new episode this week, and this time around the crew talks with Sam Witwer about voicing Darth Maul, plus there’s more on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, including news about that new Cantina.
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story is hitting home video this month, but as of this week the novelization is officially out. As always, the book expands upon the story of the film with more detail than the events on-screen.
  • Mark Hamill noted that he was “not in the U.S.” on Labor Day, and that he had to work. Clean-shaven in this photo, could he have been getting ready to don a Jedi robe?

Do you like “spy photos” from movie sets? Perhaps the kind that are grainy and don’t really show much but are still cool? Well, Making Star Wars has some pics from a “jungle” set in the UK. The Falcon is parked nearby, but I’m getting a real “Forest moon of Endor” kinda vibe.