How Merchandise Governs the Star Wars Franchise (AREO Magazine, 11/29/17)

(This article originally appeared in AREO Magazine. To view the original version, click here.)

Despite being the seventh feature film in the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was first one debut in December instead of May. This proved to be a highly lucrative change for Disney and Lucasfilm for one simple reason: merchandising. Merchandise has always been Star Wars’ bread and butter. The change in release date helped to bolster merchandise sales, with the franchise now piggybacking on the holiday season zeitgeist of consumerism. As the western world gears up for Christmas or Hanukah, it also gears up for the newest Star Wars movie. In 2015, when The Force Awakens breathed new life into the series, Star Wars was cited as a major influence in global license merchandise revenue reaching a total sum of $250 billion. In 2016, Star Wars was again responsible for license merchandise making over $260 billion. Coming off of last year’s Rogue One and approaching the release of The Last Jedi, one can only assume that Star Wars will again push the 2017 merchandise total even higher.

Merchandise has always been an integral part of Star Wars. The beloved 1987 parody, Spaceballs, had a whole scene spoofing it. Yogurt, Spaceballs’ caricature of Yoda, takes a second to explain that this is “where the real money from the movie is made.” He displays a variety of products, starting with “Spaceballs: the T-Shirt” and ending with “Spaceballs: the Flame-Thrower.” The rather obvious statement being made here is that consumerism drives the film, rather than any kind of artistic vision.

Gary Kurtz, who served as producer for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, saw this happening early on. Return of the Jedi originally had a much darker ending, which involved a rebellion in pieces, Leia struggling with queendom, Han dead, and Luke riding off into the sunset. Instead, the film actually ended with a jubilant celebration between the main cast and the Ewoks, cuddly teddy bear characters.

In an interview with the LA Times, Kurtz explained that as toy sales increased, George Lucas’ priorities were beginning to change. “It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that’s not the best thing for making quality films. The emphasis on toys, it’s like the cart driving the horse. If it wasn’t for that, the films would be done for their own merits. The creative team wouldn’t be looking over their shoulder all the time.”

At a certain point, the consumerism of the franchise can begin to eclipse the story the film and franchise at large has to tell. Looking at The Force Awakens, one almost feels as though the film’s new droid, BB-8, was designed first and then the plot was built around him. Much of the reaction to the unveiling of BB-8 in the first Force Awakens trailer were centered around how cute BB-8 was.

Many people owned BB-8 toys or other products before The Force Awakens even debuted. The Last Jedi is beginning to have the same kind of merchandise campaign with a new character – a strange hamster-like bird creature called Porg. Like BB-8 before him, Porg merchandise is already starting to line the shelves of the Star Wars sections in department stores. (Naturally, department stores have a subsection just for Star Wars merchandise.) At a certain point, it begins to feel as though the movie is just a commercial for a Porg plushie or a remote-control BB-8. And The Last Jedi won’t even settle to just have one excessively adorable and bankable character; in addition to Porg, The Last Jedi will introduce BB-9e, which is an evil version of the BB-8 droid. (Or, he’s as evil as Star Wars characterizes him, meaning he’s painted black to contrast with BB-8’s vibrant color.) Just like BB-8, BB-9e is being sold as a little remote-control toy.

Compare the plush-like character designs of Porg and BB-8 with the new characters of the prequel movies – Darth Maul, Jango Fett, General Grievous, the Clone Troopers – though the main products were different, the merchandise was just as fundamental to the release of the film; all those characters make for easily marketable action figures. Last year’s Rogue One tried something similar by introducing new Storm Trooper uniforms, the kind that would make a kid say, “Wow, I want to collect all the Storm Trooper action figures!”

Every holiday season since the franchise was revamped, there always seems to be a plethora of new, hot, Star Wars items, whether it’s the Darth Vader toaster or that Chewbacca mask that went viral after one woman found it hilarious. With a new Star Wars movie coming out every December until at least 2019 – though likely every December going forward, as there are already plans for a new trilogy of films – Star Wars products are going to be pervasive every holiday season.

Merchandise is useful – and I would even say necessary – for big budget franchises. Higher sales numbers of toys and plush and the like cause higher studio involvement and investment. Most of the spectacular moments in Star Wars would not have been possible if not for a larger budget afforded by the sales of action figures and Star Wars-related toys. Great action sequences in the original trilogy – the Battle of Hoth and the escape from Jabba’s Palace – likely would not have been possible if not for huge action figure sales after the original film. The same remains true today. The best moments of spectacle in The Force Awakens probably wouldn’t have been possible if not for the sure investment that the character design of BB-8 and Captain Phasma would sell toys and action figures.

The ultimate criticism here is that the studio and the franchise just throw these cute-looking characters at the audience as a means to sell toys and merchandise, without any depth of character. By putting an emphasis on characters that are entirely visual, the film risks characters that are shallow and not particularly compelling. I will be rather surprised if BB-8 or Porg has any kind of significant arc or substantial characterization. This isn’t just the case for the cute characters; look to The Phantom Menace’s Darth Maul, or Boba Fett before him, whose only real purpose was to look menacing and inconvenience the protagonists. They’re flat, they’re shallow, they’re exclusively visual. Is it too much to ask that if a film has to make its characters cute and marketable, that it makes them compelling and interesting as well?

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