Star Wars means two very different things for Mego Corporation and Kenner Products. For the Mego Corporation, Star Wars is a reminder of bad timing and painful hindsight. For Kenner Products, Star Wars marks the beginning of a propitious partnership of opportunity that began an action figure legacy the envy of toy companies across the globe.
1977 wasn't all smooth sailing for Kenner Products. In an Imperial nut shell, Kenner didn't have any action figures to sell. Finding itself in an oversized pile of Bantha poop, the company's improvised solution was marketing genius. Either the company somehow rides the swelling wave of Star Wars success, or be swept aside with nothing but a deep regret of sandy irritation. Kenner managed to turn it all around by convincing kids that an empty display box made their dreams come true. Before we go any further though, we need to start with the the company that let it all slip through their fingers: Mego Corporation.
When Mego Had All The Action
The familiar alliance between action figures and their big-screen counterparts was cemented in the '70s. From 1970–1976, Mego Corporation was considered by many to be the most influential catalyst to this union. Capitalizing on the growing market of action figures driven by Hasbro's 12-inch G.I. Joe series, Mego strategically seized upon the growing popularity of figurines by buying up the rights to popular mainstream fictional characters.
Starting with DC and Marvel Comics, Mego rolled out the "Worlds Greatest Super Heroes" line that was in a league of its own. Cutting it's version down by 4 inches, the 8 inch alternative established the new standard size for figures. As the winning formula raced off the shelves, Mego continued to secure deals from Star Trek, Happy Days and The Planet of the Apes television shows to broaden the ever growing tangible fascination for its products.
Firing on all cylinders in 1976, Mego was on a roll by introducing a even smaller alternative that would easily grip peoples interest from Japanese company Takara Co. At 3-3/4 inches, the Microman actions figures emerged as a suitably realistic size in Japan. Renaming it "Micronauts," the cyborg-inspired little bros were earmarked to be the next big thing that would further catapult Mego onto the top-tier podium of the '70s toy industry.
With Donna Summer's "I Feel Love," blasting over the radio, it would have been easy to think that life was always going to be a sweet disco ride of '70s success. Mego's carefully chosen plastic heroes had reshaped the popular culture money wheel into a new era of "must haves" that had the company (unknowingly) in prime position for George Lucas's sleeping giant.
George Lucas Knew 'Star Wars' Would Be Big
The bigger-than-life #StarWars we all know and love today was a great surprise to many during its production. This was because no one really had high hopes for George Lucas's vision of a science-fiction story of faraway mythical knights wielding a magical force. With the efficacy of the film not yet realized, it allowed George Lucas to negotiate for the majority share of sales from all Star Wars merchandising. On his own side quest to make the most of his deal, George Lucas hit the pavement to pedal his Star Wars wears door to door like a vacuum cleaner salesmen doing the rounds.
Knowing Mego's success with its other lines of figurines, George Lucas was keen to try his luck. What happened next, however, is up for debate. There are two versions of how Mego Corporation lost the merchandising deal of the century. You see, at the time both Kenner Products and Mego Corporation were located in the same building in New York. That's where the first version comes into play — the door knock with nobody home.
When Opportunity Knocks
Stepping into Mego's reception, the pressure to make good on his merchandising plan with 20th Century Fox was all on George Lucas's corduroy shoulders. Lucas knew he had to find an interested party. While he anxiously adjusted his corn cob-printed necktie reminiscent of Marge Simpson's kitchen curtains, the receptionist put down the fall to inform him, "I'm sorry, Martin is out of town. Can you come back, say, next Tuesday?" Poor George. It would have been demoralizing for him. Amazingly, this anecdotal story has Mego Corporation — the toy company on the up and up — losing the license to Star Wars because no senior executive was in the office. It's so randomly crazy it almost feels plausible.
The second theory is more in line with George Lucas receiving such a large share of the merchandising in the first place: Mego just wasn't interested. In this more accepted and documented account, George Lucas did actually managed to get past the foyer to meet with Mego representatives. Unfortunately, the owner of Mego, Martin Abrams, did not share George Lucas's vision for his sci-fi movie movie, and let the deal go.
Whichever version you choose to believe, up until that fateful decision, the size and scale of the action figure industry had been a Midas touch for Mego Corporation. In the end, the opportunity was missed, and George Lucas walked out the door to try his luck with Kenner Products.
Kenner Saw The Potential
Hiding sweaty armpits of apprehension, George Lucas's visit to the Kenner toy company was a fruitful one. Kenner President Bernie Loomis was a man paid to sell toys, and George Lucas's planned deluge of Rebel and Imperial merchandising was an opportunity too good to miss. Kenner signed and George Lucas now had his conduit to cash in on the sales. George Lucas knew he was onto a winner, and even though he had found a willing partner, the scale of what was to come was still not realized.
When Star Wars: A New Hope was released in May 1977, it didn't take long for legions of fans to begin their lifelong love affair with a galaxy far far away. The movie caught the imagination of millions as long lines formed out the front of cinemas. As sales shot through the roof, Kenner found itself joyfully unprepared to meet the demand — kids wanted their Star Wars merchandise.
Christmas was fast approaching and Kenner was unprepared. With nothing in its hands but stage fright, Kenner's 3-3/4 inch action figures were not ready for the rush. The holiday sales were a crucial deadline; however, with designs still being finalized for casting and distribution, Kenner looked unfit to deliver George Lucas's icing on the cake. There had to be something Kenner could do.
What About A Cardboard Display Stand?
Imagine the poor person who had to sell the idea of a pre-order — "Ah, did you just say you don't actually have any Star Wars action figures to sell?" Through nothing more than a cardboard promise, Kenner's answer to its Star Wars overlords was to bundle together a sales pitch truly worthy of the Jedi archives. With jubilant faces of surprise on Christmas morning in December 1977, kids opened their presents not to find Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. Instead, what they discovered was the now infamous Kenner Early Bird Certificate Package. Inside they found:
- A Star Wars Space Club Membership
- One cardboard display stand featuring 12 Star Wars characters
- A New Hope set of stickers
- An Early Bird postcard would lock the sender into later receiving four of the 12 Star Wars characters displayed: Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Princess Leia and Chewbacca
The plan here was to give Kenner some breathing space while the company finalized making the action figures. Parents had no other choice but to buy the empty boxes and greet their kids' confused faces with the necessary level of excitement to sell the package as a happy occasion. To everyone's surprise though, it was a hit. This time it was Kenner's turn to grin ear to ear on what it had achieved.
With the momentum of Star Wars going strong, the Early Bird Certificate Package only added to the chaos. If your children weren't lucky enough to have the Early Bird Certificate, the penny soon dropped around school yards as bragging rights ensued. With the now known backlog of Star Wars action figures, there was no other sure way for kids (and adults) to get their hands on one. As a consequence, the Early Bird Certificate Packages sold out too. Kenner was under serious pressure from the public to meet the demand.
From late January 1978, ecstatic howls could be heard across neighborhoods as the packages finally arrived. The force had awakened the interest (and wallets) of the public as the Early Bird Certificate Package display stands begin to fill. By the time the same toys were available for direct sale, the full range of all 12 Star Wars action figures on the initial display box was available for all to purchase. By the end of 1978, Kenner had sold $100 million dollars worth of Star Wars products. From zero to hero, that faith in George Lucas's dream of a galactic feud had solidified into more green than anyone could of dreamed.
We Now Know The Power Of The Force
From 12 to 3-3/4 inches, the age of the action figure now had found its place among the general public. The force of change was right in front of Mego and the company unfortunately lived to regret missing it. After many failed attempts to win back the action figure market, by the end of 1983, the Mego Corporation closed up shop due to bankruptcy.
By 1980 Kenner Products had learned from the lessons of the past. For The Empire Strikes Back there was no problem with supply. Yes sir, most definitely, would have been the resounding promise that Mr. Lucas knew what is was talking about.
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