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Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ Merchandising Campaign: Bigger & Earlier than Anything Before

The timing between movie release and merchandising is a perennial challenge in movie licensing. Historically, merchandise associated with an anticipated blockbuster appears on store shelves around six weeks before release. But several of the entertainment executives we interviewed last spring for The Licensing Letter’s 2014 Annual Licensing Business Survey predicted that this was about to change and change soon. They told us that movie-licensed merchandise would begin to appear in stores earlier than ever this year. Specifically, they predicted that merchandise associated with end-of-year movies would hit store shelves as early as September.Of course, the movie they all had in mind was Disney/Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The expectation among experts and competitors was that the merchandising campaign would be not only earlier but bigger than anything in history.

Blowing the Licensing Window Wide Open

Fast forward to fall and it has all come to pass. Disney has, in fact, thrown the traditional 6-week movie merchandising window open, not just a crack but wide open, to an arguably unprecedented 15 weeks. The first toys and other products for The Force Awakens were released on Sept. 4. Key licensees include Hasbro, The LEGO Group, Mattel, JAKKS Pacific, and Rubie’s.

A Merchandising Campaign of Intergalactic Dimensions

The other prediction about the unsurpassed magnitude of the retail campaign also seems to be coming true. In late August, Macquarie Securities analyst Tim Nollen predicted that sales of licensed products for The Force Awakens, which hits theaters Dec. 18, could reach $5 billion worldwide in the first year. Noting the difficulty in revenue forecasting because of the unique nature of the Star Wars campaign, Nollen wrote that he did use as a comparison Disney’s merchandising effort for Cars 2 while taking into account the strength of the Star Wars franchise, which he estimated has $20 billion worth of lifetime retail sales. Star Wars was fourth of the list of TLL’s most recent ranking of $100 million-plus entertainment properties with $2.2 billion in 2013 global retail sales (Nov. 3, 2014).

“It’s as big as anything has been for us,” said Tom Russo, CEO of Vandor Products, which has been making Star Wars tote bags, beverage containers and lunch boxes for more than six years. “The magnitude and scale of this is like nothing else,” he said of The Force Awakens licensing program.

Fanning the Flames

The duration and magnitude of the licensing program for The Force Awakens makes the most of pent-up demand for Star Wars. While Disney/Lucasfilm has kept interest in the property high in the years between movie releases with TV series, videogames, and the like, the last Star Wars feature film, Episode III—Revenge of the Sith was released in theaters a decade ago. From now on, however, the studio will roll with one feature film a year through at least 2019, including two more episodes of the core story and two spin-offs. Given the large fan base and evergreen nature of the Star Wars franchise, the consistent flow of content might very well be expected to translate to a similarly steady stream of licensed merchandise and revenue for the studio and licensees.

Upcoming Star Wars Movies

Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens: 12/18/15
Star Wars: Rogue One: 12/16/16
Star Wars: Episode VIII: 5/26/17
Star Wars: Boba Fett: TBA 2018
Star Wars: Episode IX: TBA 2019

The Campaign Kicks Off

Unboxing: Disney introduced the newest crop of Star Wars toys with an unusual 18-hour “unboxing” marathon on YouTube, which started at 5:30 pm EDT on Sept. 2 and continued into the morning of Sept. 3. Popular YouTubers in Disney’s Maker Studios network unboxed Star Wars toys in 15 cities in 12 countries around the globe, beginning with the siblings of Bratayley, who unboxed Hasbro’s Blade Builders Jedi Master Lightsabers in Sydney. The marathon included the unboxing of a Lego Star Wars Millennium Falcon, at 1,300 pieces the largest new Lego toy, and Sphero’s BB8 app-enabled droid by Evan of EvanTube HD in New York on ABC morning show “Good Morning America” (Disney owns ABC).

Force Friday: The YouTube event led into retail sales beginning at midnight on Sept. 4, dubbed “Force Friday” by the studio. In a strategy usually reserved for the biggest movie and videogame releases, and perhaps a new iPhone, stores including Target, Toys ‘R’ Us and Walmart opened at midnight to sell toys to the most faithful fans of the Star Wars franchise. Retail highlights of Force Friday include:

  • Disney Stores in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco opened at midnight and hosted special activities and giveaways, as did locations at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
  • Target opened 207 stores at midnight. It also invited fans to share Star Wars memories online at sharetheforce.target.com and made Sept. 5 “Share the Force Saturday” in stores.
  • Toys ‘R’ Us opened all stores at midnight, hosting special activities and giveaways.
  • Walmart opened select stores at midnight. The retailer is selling exclusive Star Wars toys, including Topps’ Galactic Connexions, a trading disc game featuring the Star Wars characters, and a Disney Infinity 3.0 Star Wars Kanan Jarrus figure.

“It’s leading to tremendous pent-up demand,” Vandor CEO Russo said of Disney-created anticipation for Force Friday. As a licensee, he is expecting the publicity to result in “good movement off the shelf right out of the gate, leading to multiple replenishment opportunities before the holidays and even before the movie opens.”

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