'Star Wars' products are on track to set sales records

"Star Wars" stuff is zooming off the shelves this holiday season.

The newest film in the space opera franchise, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," just opened. But for months, the long-awaited movie has sparked merriness among merchants and manufacturers — especially toy companies.

"Star Wars" is on track to generate $3 billion to $5 billion in merchandise sales in 2015 alone, analysts predict. That would surpass the record debut years for the films "Cars 2," which earned $3 billion in retail sales, and "Frozen," which took in $1 billion, according to the Licensing Letter, a trade publication.

Toy sales could clock in at more than $1 billion on the wholesale level, experts said. That's a huge score for toy makers, who can rake in a big chunk of their annual revenues during the holidays as parents check off their kids' wish lists.

FULL COVERAGE: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

"We're excited about what that means for us," said Dave Brandon, chief executive of Toys R Us, which is devoting ample floor space to "Star Wars." "If the movie is successful, we will likely see significant sales."

The mastermind behind the hoopla is Disney, which acquired "Star Wars" producer Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion. Since then, the Burbank company has focused its merchandising savvy to turning the latest film into a blockbuster in theaters and store aisles.

Paul Southern, senior vice president of "Star Wars" licensing at Disney, said the company had a more "targeted" strategy this time around, bringing on licensees that could create quality products that would appeal to a particular slice of consumers.

"They are very strategically focused either on a different demographic or psychographic," Southern said. "We can be very sophisticated in the way we target our consumer."

With "Force Awakens," for example, apparel has been rolled out specifically designed to appeal to women and girls, including quirky pumps with heels shaped like lightsabers or Yodas.

Disney has also inked deals with local companies in Japan, China, Brazil and other countries to create toys and other merchandise designed to appeal to that region's tastes.

"The Japanese toy market is one of the biggest in the world, and it was previously serviced with toys designed for Western markets," Southern said. This time around, Japanese toy makers will "develop toys for the Japanese."

Analysts said Disney is using its considerable global reach to squeeze every last dollar from "Star Wars."

"They have rolled everything they learned from previous films into the 'Star Wars' campaign," said Glenn Demby, executive editor of the Licensing Letter. "They do it better than anybody else."

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The selling blitz kicked off in August, months before movie tie-in items usually hit shelves, with an 18-hour online marathon called Force Friday that spanned the globe.

"Star Wars" appeals to a fan base that spans young and old. "It's not your typical demographic in terms of product, which has a six- to seven-year span," said Jim Silver, editor in chief of toy review site TTPM. "You have a collector base that has a lot more discretionary income. If they have to have it, they have to have it," no matter the price.

About 31% of shoppers who planned to buy "Star Wars" products as gifts for the holiday season intended it for someone 6 to 10 years old, according to a survey conducted by Fluent Inc., a brand marketing and advertising technology firm. But many adults will also find "Star Wars"-related presents under the Christmas tree — 28.1% of shoppers said they were buying merchandise for someone 21 and older.

"The licensing goes into all kinds of categories … from bathroom accessories to even fresh fruit," Demby said. "It's a massive amount of stuff."

And Disney will get a cut of it all. Southern declined to discuss financial information, but analysts said that under most standard licensing agreements, a company typically gets an upfront sum and a guarantee of future payments that will be generated by a slice of sales.

New franchises, which are a risky bet for licensees, often get royalties of 10% to 12%, experts said. But since "Star Wars" is a proven property, Disney probably negotiated royalties of up to 20%. (The company, analysts said, already negotiated for higher-than-normal percentages of movie ticket sales from exhibitors.)

Hasbro, as Disney's main toy partner, stands to score.

"It's a really big and important part of our business," said Joe Ninivaggi, who oversees the "Star Wars" brand for the Pawtucket, R.I., company. "This year, our line is more diverse and broad than it ever has been."

In 2013, Hasbro inked a $225-million deal with Disney to stay on as the main toy partner for "Star Wars" through 2020; Hasbro shelled out $75 million upfront, with the rest due as the sequel films are released.

Already, about 150 products linked to the latest movie are out, with more to come. Ninivaggi says Hasbro tries to "stay ahead of the curve" with innovative new products, such as a remote-controlled BB-8 droid that retails for about $120.

"In some cases we may develop at a high price point that blows out all the stops," he said.

Jakks Pacific is also anticipating sales of its 18- to 48-inch large-scale action figures, known in the toy industry as "big figs." The Malibu company also won licenses to make other playthings such as plug-and-play video games and pinball machines.

"For a toy maker, it doesn't get any cooler than this," said John Blaney, an executive vice president of marketing for Jakks. "'Star Wars' is an important piece of the overall portfolio."

Of course, much depends on the quality of the new film and whether audiences take to the new characters, analysts said. Merchandise sales tied to films are driven by shoppers who want to take home a piece of the movie-watching experience.

Many viewers disliked Jar Jar Binks, a character first introduced in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" and who later appeared in "Attack of the Clones," said Silver of TTPM. That created a problem for merchants that had bet big on toys based on him.

"Sales were significantly lower for 'Attack of the Clones,'" Silver said. "Nobody was interested in Jar Jar Binks action figures."

But toy makers say they aren't worried.

"There's going to be differences in customer demand threshold in terms of if the movie is received fantastically well versus if it's not well received," Blaney of Jakks Pacific said. "But I personally don't think the success of this film will dictate the future of the 'Star Wars' franchise."

After all, Blaney pointed out, Disney plans to release a new "Star Wars" film every year until at least 2020.


Twitter: @ByShanLi


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A version of this article appeared in print on December 19, 2015, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Licensed products awaken fans' demand" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe