Disney Marshals Its Own Empire to Hype New 'Star Wars' Toys

Maker Studios and ABC Join Fight to Sell Merch Months Before Film Release

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Stormtrooper figurines from the 'Star Wars' movies on display during the D23 Expo 2015 in Anaheim, California.
Stormtrooper figurines from the 'Star Wars' movies on display during the D23 Expo 2015 in Anaheim, California. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

For "Star Wars" fans, Christmas is coming early this year: on Sept. 4, when the toys tied to Walt Disney Co.'s first film in the space-adventure series go on sale.

Three months before "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens in theaters, the company is staking its claim on gift lists, with everything from Captain Phasma action figures to Nerf crossbows and blasters. Disney on Wednesday described plans for events leading up to next week's "Force Friday." They include a global unwrapping of "Star Wars" merchandise on YouTube by Disney's web video unit Maker Studios, and coverage on ABC's "Good Morning America." ABC is also part of Walt Disney Co.

If all goes according to plan, fans, many in costumes, will be lining up well before any new Chewbacca masks, lightsabers or red-armed C-3PO action figures go on sale. The products, built around one of the highest-grossing film franchises in history, could help the toy industry score its best growth in more than a decade, according to NPD Group Inc. The researcher predicts the industry's U.S. retail sales will increase 6.2% to $19.9 billion this year.

"There's nothing more fun for 'Star Wars' fans than being in a crowd of other 'Star Wars' fans," said Steve Sansweet, the former head of fan relations at Lucasfilm, which created the series. Mr. Sansweet, who runs the non-profit Rancho Obi-Wan museum, will be showing off "Star Wars" memorabilia at the Toys "R" Us outlet in New York's Times Square.

Marketing maestro
Disney teleases the new film on Dec. 18 but has been promoting it almost since buying Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012. A month later, the company hired "Lost" writer J.J. Abrams to direct the first installment. Chairman-CEO Bob Iger posed with Chewbacca on the set and posted photos on Instagram, while the Disney XD channel aired a cartoon, "Star Wars Rebels," to introduce kids to the franchise.

"Star Wars" products generated $2.2 billion in retail sales worldwide in 2013, according to the Licensing Letter. That put it sixth behind such stalwarts as Disney's princesses and the Hello Kitty brand from Sanrio Co. Sales could "substantially exceed" that number this year, according to Glenn Demby, executive editor of the letter.

"They're like the maestro," Mr. Demby said of Disney. "They're playing the orchestra."

As part of the marketing leading up to "Force Friday," talent from Disney's Maker Studios will unwrap merchandise hourly in cities around the world on Sept. 3, with coverage on YouTube. At the company's ABC broadcast network, "Good Morning America" will carry the product unveilings on TV and online. It's all a prelude to a midnight kickoff for stores.

More shelves
"It's a cool marriage of technology, social media and product," said Josh Silverman, who heads licensing at Disney consumer products.

Wal-Mart, Toys "R" Us and Target will be hosting midnight events. In addition, Toy "R" Us will more than double the space it gives to "Star Wars" and keep a dedicated section all year.

"This will go all the way through the holidays and beyond," said Richard Barry, global chief merchandising officer for Toys "R" Us.

Hasbro, Disney's main toy licensee, could double its revenue from products such as action figures, lightsabers and toy aircraft to $415 million this year, according to Gerrick Johnson, a BMO Capital Markets analyst. More than half of "Star Wars" action figure sales will be to adults, he predicted.

The toymaker, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, declined to comment.

Disney has expanded its "Star Wars" merchandise offerings since the Lucasfilm acquisition, according to Sean McGowan, a toy analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

While Hasbro is selling action figures, for example, Jakks Pacific has the license to make 18-inch to 48-inch dolls, what the industry calls "big figs." They retail for $20 to $100. "That's entirely incremental revenue," said Mr. McGowan.

In the end, a lot will depend on the public's response to the characters. After sales of toys linked to earlier "Star Wars" films missed projections, Hasbro in 2003 negotiated a longer, less costly licensing deal.

"Everyone was really excited until Jar Jar Binks showed up," said Mr. McGowan, referring to the much-reviled character from the 1999 film "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace."

In 2013, Hasbro agreed to pay Disney $225 million to extend their partnership through 2020 and the current round of films.

Classic "Star Wars" toys were already enjoying double- digit growth this year, according to NPD. Target said overall toy sales rose 12% in the second quarter through July, and that it expects "Star Wars" to drive growth in the second half of the year.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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