Hollywood’s Merchandise Madness


Back when entertainment was art for art’s sake, you wouldn’t have found yourself scanning the shelves of the toy shop for ”Gone with the Wind” action figures or a ”Casablanca” bar play-set. However with the end of the studio era and the rise of film budgets to tell more imaginative stories in the 1970s, merchandising has contributed to the financial success or failure of a film almost as much as their reviews.

It all started in the mid-70s when a film director was looking for studio funding to shoot his “Western set in space”. His previous film had played well to nostalgic audiences, being as it was a reflection on the rock n roll baby-boomers in a small town looking for fun in all the wrong places. From there though, the step up to a big-budget sci-fi film was too much for most reluctant producers. The young director eventually came to terms with 20th Century Fox to make the film, but in what was seen as a fairly rookie mistake at the time, the director skipped on his $500k directing fee in return for the rights to making sequels (which looked unlikely to happen at all at one point) – and more importantly, the merchandising. Luckily for the studio, the hefty directing fee they’d saved on could be reinvested elsewhere; unluckily for them, the finished film was ”Star Wars” – and Lucas now owned everything on the back end.

Everything – that is including a phenomenally successful ”Star Wars” toy line. With vintage action figures and vehicles still changing hands for thousands of pounds to this day, the series of “space Westerns” have also done wonders for the likes of Lego, who bought their very first licence in 1999 to coincide with the new trilogy’s production and are, themselves, on the verge of releasing their very own brand’s movie tie-in at cinemas. Star Wars merchandise continues to pop up in all kinds of places, such is the over-zealousness of advertising execs, who will no doubt be licking their chops at the thought of a seventh addition – despite or perhaps due to Lucas’ production company being sold to Disney; themselves the masters of the shill.

With the success of ”Star Wars”, the rest of Hollywood began chasing down and selling off whatever they could get from their properties – whether original or not. In an effort to cut out the pesky middleman of creativity, some producers even went about this the wrong way round – just ask Mattel, whose line of He-Man figures led to the cartoon series Masters of the Universe, rather than the other way around – once the lawsuit from Conan’s creators was done, that is. The cartoon acted as an advertisement for the toys, as did programmes like ”GI Joe” and ”Transformers”.

Even the more mature source material doesn’t prevent attempts to market their merchandise at younger viewers. Films such as ”Aliens” and ”Terminator 2 ” were big-budget smashes matched only by their extensive toy lines; while for others, you actually have to make a good film before you can expect the action figures to really take off.

Eventually movie tie-ins became as ubiquitous as the high-concept film blockbusters they were created to promote, which to be fair does explain ”Battlefield Earth”. Expect more of the same when the next chapter of the ”Star Wars” saga is released; Mickey Vader posters and all.