Toys and Star Wars are inextricably linked forever and ever. Star Wars creator George Lucas famously waived part of his directing fee and retained the insanely lucrative rights to Star Wars merchandise in a deal that has gone down in history as a catastrophic blunder on the part of 20th Century Fox. The studio was skeptical this oddball space movie would resonate with audiences, even if its critters, spaceships, and memorable villains seem like obvious toys in hindsight.
After the first film hit, everything changed. Famously, licensees had to scramble to meet demand for Star Wars goods after the movie became a surprise sensation. Christmas 1977 saw Kenner hawking empty boxes full of promises instead of action figures. Since then, Kenner's 3-3/4-inch scale toys, and yes, the vehicles, have become highly collectible icons of pop culture for nostalgic, well-heeled adults.
Hasbro, which acquired Kenner in the early 1990s, is now turning to the same nostalgic fanbase to fund its future Star Wars ambitions. Using a crowdfunding campaign back in March, Hasbro raised $4.5 million to build what might be the most impressive Star Wars toy ever—a molded plastic recreation of Jabba the Hutt's sail barge from Return of the Jedi.
Tackling Jabba's barge (known as "The Khetanna" in the Star Wars universe) is a move few would have expected. In February, Hasbro debuted a rough, early version of the craft at the New York Toy Fair. All unpainted white plastic with 3D-printed components, the barge was nowhere near what the finished product would look like. That didn't matter—fans were flabbergasted.
"When we announced it at Toy Fair there was this audible gasp in the room … they just couldn't believe it," says Hasbro senior marketing director Kristin Hamilton. Sized to fit the traditional 3-3/4-inch tall action figures, the barge is not quite correctly scaled, but at 80 percent of the correct scale, it's still a whopper.
This 49-inch-long toy is by far the biggest Star Wars ship Hasbro has ever made. And it has a pedigree too—it's designed by veteran Kenner and Hasbro employee Mark Boudreaux.
If you ever zoomed a Star Wars ship around your house as a kid, you probably have Mark Boudreaux to thank. "Mark is one of a kind. He is the 40-year history of Star Wars toys at Kenner and Hasbro," says Steve Sansweet, chief executive at Rancho Obi-Wan, the Guinness Book-ranked museum with the largest Star Wars collection in the world.
The campaign rules were laid out: 45 days, $500 each, 5,000 backers or bust.
The attention to detail on the ship is superb. Under the removable side panels, it hides details not even seen on screen, like a cockpit with two captains' chairs, a kitchen, and a jail cell (complete with the corpse of an Ithorian). Jabba sits tall on his dais, surrounded by alien trophies. Up top, cloth sails fly in a brilliant orange-red just like in the movie.
The Kickstarter-style campaign rules were laid out: 45 days, $500 each, 5,000 backers or bust, with the countdown starting on February 17th. If the Khetanna wasn't funded within the six-week window? "We would have had a very rare single prototype," says Steve Evans, Hasbro's Star Wars development director. Hasbro branded the initiative HasLab, making it clear the company hopes to fund other, non-Star Wars toys in the future.
Unlike the crowd-designed, democratized Lego Ideas project, HasLab has one mission: to create the wildest, craziest toys fans would die for.
"[Crowdfunding] was a natural way for us to bring those dream products to life that our fans have been clamoring for," says Hasbro's Hamilton.
Sansweet, who has penned books about Hasbro's past action figure efforts, was impressed by the the ambitious first HasLab project. "I'd never conceived of anything like that. It was a way for them to do something that they ordinarily would not have dared to do because of the risks involved," he says.
The expectation for any crowdfunded product is that backers aren't just buyers—they're encouraged to participate in the process and give feedback. Despite its long reputation for secrecy, Hasbro gave backers a peek behind the curtain, and the opportunity to watch a prototype sail barge inch closer to production. "This was a partnership between us and our community. We needed them, they needed us. It was a symbiotic initiative," Hasbro's Evans told me.
Even the most compelling Indiegogo or Kickstarter campaign has a lull at some point. In the case of The Khetanna, the 45-day run had one hell of a fallow period, petering out after a solid initial burst. Many, myself included, felt like this campaign might share the fate of the barge's movie counterpart—blowing up in spectacular fashion.
"If it didn't succeed, I don't know that we would have heard anything more about HasLab."
Steve Sansweet of Rancho Obi-Wan
"I kept looking every couple of days and frankly, I was sure this was not going to work," Sansweet says. "I was very pessimistic about it. It's a fairly high price, limited to North America. It looked to me like it wasn't going to make it."
That's when Hasbro upped the ante, showing off more images of The Khetanna, this time fully decked out in screen-accurate paint. The company also announced that each toy would get a limited-edition action figure, and one with significance to collectors.
"Yak Face was a background character in Jabba's Palace and on the sail barge," Sansweet says. "The figure was released in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and even in Canada on a card with a coin. Yak Face was never released in the United States."
Hasbro's Evans waxed nostalgic about the pick. The team could have picked from dozens of other creatures, he says, "but there was something so pure and magical about Yak Face that we couldn't not do it. Yak Face was impossible to get as a kid and we carried that with us through our lives as collectors. Because we were delivering the impossible vehicle, it was a no-brainer."
With the campaign's window closing, Hasbro was still falling far short of the 5,000 backers required—and much more than just a gigantic, expensive Star Wars toy was hanging in the balance.
"About a week before, they were still, gee, 1,500 short," Sansweet says. "Frankly, this was a very important one. If it didn't succeed, I don't know that we would have heard anything more about HasLab." Fans and toy blogs helped spread the word via social media using the hashtag #BacktheBarge, but the needle barely budged.
Hasbro's Hamilton confessed the sail barge was "a nail-biter" of a project. "I think we would have all cried if it didn't make it," she says. "There was a lot of passion for this product internally."
Like in any Star Wars story, the middle chapter is when the heroes are at their lowest point and a triumphant ending is almost inevitable. In late March, barge watchers noticed a sharp uptick in backers. "All of a sudden, the numbers started climbing dramatically. Adding hundreds in half a day." Steve Sansweet was ecstatic—it meant the two Barges he bought for the Rancho Obi-Wan collection might actually materialize. By March 30, Hasbro welcomed its 5,000th backer.
Once HasLab crossed the threshold required to make the product, thousands of additional backers quickly jumped in. "It shot past 5,000 and past 8,000. It warmed my heart and really shocked me," says Sansweet. He and 8,809 other fans were guaranteed to get toys once HasLab reached its end date of April 3.
Steve Evans expressed his relief that, like Luke Skywalker's one-in-a-million torpedo shot, backers won the day. "There was a sense of elation certainly within Hasbro and on the fan sites. It was like a perfect 45-day roller coaster ride. It was emotional!"
Hasbro plans to ship the finished product to backers in 2019, and has taken fan feedback into consideration when finalizing the design. "We introduced it to the fans earlier than we ever would normally," Evans says. "The discussion at conventions, online, and in forums informed how we're finishing off the product, purely because we were able to show it early. That's something new for us."
With one success under its belt, Hasbro is free to tap into its other beloved franchises to give fans products they otherwise couldn't. Whether it's Transformers, My Little Pony, or GI Joe, there are plenty of opportunities to come up with even crazier products. It has yet to be seen whether or not we'll get a banquet table-sized recreation of the USS Flagg or an epic die-cast Optimus Prime.
Sansweet has one dream Star Wars product he'd like to see in a future HasLab: a giant Death Star toy he once saw in prototype form.
"Hasbro asked me to bring a bunch of fellow collectors to chat about the future of Star Wars and how to move forward," he says. "This was 1995 or so. They had this modular Death Star. And of course, [when I picture it] in my mind's eye it was just an incredible piece. I can't even give you the diameter—maybe three or four feet in radius. It had different levels, and each level had scenes from a movie … we were all going, 'Oh my God! That's amazing! When are you gonna make that!?' Those of us who were there talked about that for years afterwards. If they can do the sail barge, they can do something like that too."