When the original Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, unprecedented demand for action figures tied to the blockbuster movie caught toy maker Kenner Products off guard, and it was forced to sell IOUs to the brand's earliest fanatics.
This year, however, don't expect a shortage. The galaxy is fully stocked.
Star Wars parent Walt Disney Co. (dis), toy makers including Hasbro (has) and Lego, and major retailers are gearing up for what could be the biggest licensing event of the year. What's at stake for them? At least $1 billion in retail toy sales for 2015, according to experts, with all gear tied to the film expected to ring up $3 billion to $5 billion globally.
"This is going to be a $1 billion property" for toys, says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy-focused website TTPM.com. "That's going to be quadruple what it is in a non-movie year."
To celebrate the occasion, Disney has planned a global live toy unboxing event for this Friday, debuting many of the toys that are inspired by characters and sequences appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – the seventh feature film based on the property. But in a sign of just how powerful Disney's marketing juggernaut has become, the film doesn't even debut until Dec. 18th in the U.S. Toy experts say they've never seen a rollout of this magnitude.
"For the entire toy industry, it is one of the most exciting new launches," says Laurie Schacht, chief toy officer for toyinsider.com. "That is a no-brainer."
The Star Wars winners
Disney is the clear ruler of this intergalactic phenomenon. In 2012 it paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm, which was completely owned by founder George Lucas. With that purchase, Disney gets to reap all the benefits of the Star Wars box office performance, as well as licensing fees for all accompanying toys, apparel, video games, and even drones, among other gear.
Among retailers, market leaders Toys 'R' Us, Walmart (wmt), and Target (tgt) are clearly the best positioned. They are the biggest sellers of toys in the U.S., a category that will see rising gains in the months leading up to the film. Excitement for the Star Wars brand should extend well into 2016 because the film is being released so late in the year.
Courtesy of Hasbro
Hasbro, which also works with Disney on Marvel properties and takes over the manufacturing of the Disney Princess line next year, is the clear winner among toy makers. After the Disney-Lucasfilm deal, Hasbro in 2013 agreed to guaranteed payments of up to $225 million to Disney for the rights to manufacture Star Wars-related gear, shelling out $75 million upfront, with the remainder due as sequels are released.
There's a reason Hasbro is willing to put up serious money for the licensing rights. Take a look at the toymaker’s 1999 results, when the Star Wars “prequels” debuted. Hasbro's annual revenue soared to $4.23 billion from $3.3 billion the prior year, bolstered by two big hits: Furby and Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Star Wars gear accounted for 36% of Hasbro’s U.S. revenue in 1999. The prior year? Just 13%.
But unlike Lucasfilm, Disney is spreading the wealth this time around. Today, more than a half-dozen toy makers have gear tied to the film, including Mattel (matt), Jakks Pacific (jakk), and Spin Master. Disney is also working with Lego again. Aside from Hasbro, the Danish building block maker was the only other notable toy company to work with the studio for Episodes I-III in its first licensing deal ever.
Experts say the competition will elevate the quality of the toys that hit retail shelves.
"In 1999 it was basically Hasbro and Lego," Silver tells Fortune. "The product lineup this time out is better. You have a lot more companies involved."
The early buyers
Toy experts agree that the earliest toy sales will likely skew toward adult collectors who grew up loving the earlier films and remain obsessed with the property today. The collector market could account for as much as 40% of toy sales overall, though as the Christmas holiday nears, more toys will likely be purchased for kids.
Retailers have been gearing up for the excitement. Toys 'R' Us global chief merchandising officer Richard Barry says the retailer is planning to sell its own exclusive toys tied to the brand, as well as carve out serious shelf space for Star Wars. That includes dedicated feature spaces at the front of stores to showcase Star Wars gear – valuable retail space that Toys 'R' Us doesn't intend to rotate any time soon.
"We are putting our flag in the ground," says Barry. Toys 'R' Us is also planning to double the shelf space it typically allocates to the brand. On Thursday evening, the retailer adjusted its stores to showcase the latest gear in time for Friday's opening.
What if the new movie stinks?
There is one promise that retail executives and toy manufacturers can't guarantee. Will Star Wars: The Force Awakens be any good?
Episodes I-III were wildly profitable, but gear tied to The Phantom Menace could have sold better if major characters – like the much-derided Jar Jar Binks – had been a bigger hit with fans. Star Wars gear will fly off shelves regardless of how well the movie is received by fans and critics, but experts say the performance will be even stronger if the new titles are well received.
Take Frozen as an example. Disney Princess movies always generate strong licensed sales, but Frozen's Elsa and Anna dolls sold so well because the property resonated so strongly with young girls and many adults.
"The better the movie is, the better the story is for licensing sales," says Marty Brochstein, senior vice president at the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association.
Disney has been tight-lipped about much of the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and toy insiders say they’ve been held to exceptionally strict embargo standards in terms of seeing merchandise and film materials. At New York's toy fair last February, almost no Star Wars gear was presented to the media and many smaller buyers. Hasbro did have a few items on display – but with security guards looming over the new toys.
"I've never dealt with something under embargo like this. Ever," says Schacht.
The force will begin to reveal itself today.