Entertainment, Guest Authors

From An Empty Box to Thousands of Star Wars Figures

This week, we’re excited to have Steve Sansweet guest posting on the blog. Steve is the author of Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection and chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit membership museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia.

To think, it all started with an “empty box”… and survived even that public relations disaster.

We’re talking about the now iconic Star Wars action figures, those 3 ¾-inch pieces of plastic that have been with us for nearly 35 years. Because toymaker Kenner Products signed a Star Wars license only a month before the unexpected hit opened in 1977, it couldn’t get toys made and delivered by the first holiday season. So the company’s president—against strong advice from his marketing and publicity people—offered instead the empty box, actually a sealed cardboard portfolio with a send-away coupon guaranteeing you’d get the first four Star Wars figures produced the following spring.

The infamous empty box.

The media cried foul, parents complained, and many of the 600,000 kits were returned by retailers after the holidays. But the gambit was considered a marketing success because it reminded the public that the figures were on the way.

When I wrote my first Star Wars book in 1992, From Concept to Screen to Collectible (published by Chronicle Books), a total of 108 different action figures had been released. In 1999, when I wrote The Action Figure Archive (also from Chronicle), it included the new figures that Kenner (now owned by Hasbro) had turned out from 1995 through 1998. The total figure count was then up to a whopping 280. After that, the deluge!

I’ve been asked more about a possible update to the action figure book than any of the 15 other Star Wars books that I’ve written. The stars finally aligned late last year, and work on The Ultimate Action Figure Collection was started. The biggest unknown: just how many Star Wars action figures are there?

But first… who cares? It turns out that lots of people do all around the world. A quarter of a billion of those little plastic people, aliens, and droids were sold in the first nine years. Before video games, before even home video, kids could use the figures to recreate great scenes from the three original movies or use their imaginations and make up their own scenarios. And when those kids grew up and felt the tug of pop culture, those familiar figures became the centerpiece of untold thousands of Star Wars collections.

Even many adults who don’t collect feel the warm glow of nostalgia when they see figures they had while growing up, or that their brothers or sisters played with. And many of today’s kids, mimicking their elders, start Star Wars collections when they’re only six or seven years old—taking as much care with the package as the toy inside.

So there I was, faced with the job of figuring out how many different Star Wars figures have been produced to date. From the start, the same figures have been released in numerous packaging variations. Sometimes there’s a slight color change, or an extra part that moves, or a new piece of apparel added—or even subtracted. Since we were looking for unique figures, and needed photos and descriptions of each one, we started by going through my own collection, ripping open packages, creating mountains of debris, and carefully examining each one.

I called in reinforcements to help on the book: my friend and colleague Anne Neumann, and two online action figure experts, Dan Curto and Paul Harrison. I double-checked my data against that of several online sites—mainly rebelscum.com. We called in teams of volunteers to help open, sort, and closely examine the figures. And in the end we came to the conclusion that up to the middle of this year, there had been—give or take a few—some 2,300 unique Star Wars action figures released.

Anne Neumann has action figure overload.

Because the book is the first to arrange the figures by character and then chronologically, we needed the most familiar name, release year, the source of the character (movie, comic, book?), and the line in which it was released. If two figures looked similar, what really made them different?

When you do a project like this, you’re always afraid you’ve left out an entire group of figures. So I was relieved when a Hasbro executive asked me at a fan convention this summer how many unique figures we had come up with. When I told him about 2,300, he shouted, “You’re right!” It turns out that the company, which had long pondered that question itself, had recently done its own internal count, and we matched. I slept well that night, although I dreamt of myself as a plastic action figure!

The author as action figure.

Purchase: Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection

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