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‘Star Wars’ toys are the force that binds the galaxy together

In 1974, a year after his film “American Graffiti” hit theaters and not long after he finished the rough draft of the screenplay that would become “Star Wars,” George Lucas told an interviewer, “If I wasn’t a filmmaker, I’d probably be a toymaker.”

Ultimately, of course, he became both. In giving birth to the “Star Wars” universe, Lucas created not just a series of beloved movies but also a vast sci-fi sandbox in which kids could spend endless hours playing. Over the last four decades, revenue from “Star Wars” merchandise has far exceeded what the movies have earned at the box office — estimates for licensed product sales since the first film in 1977 range from $20 billion to $32 billion. As any Gen X-er who ever played with a prized collection of Kenner action figures on a ‘70s shag rug could tell you, toys have always been the force that binds the “Star Wars” galaxy together.

FULL COVERAGE: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

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Steve Evans, design director of the Star Wars line at Hasbro, was one of those kids. Now 42, he can remember seeing “Star Wars” at age 5 while on vacation in Los Angeles with his family from his native England.

“I was instantly hooked,” he said. “My grandmother got me the Millennium Falcon that Christmas, and it went on from there.”

Today, Evans oversees designers charged with creating an array of toys — from action figures to vehicles to Nerf blasters to build-your-own lightsaber kits — to meet the demands of a wide range of “Star Wars” devotees, including some whose childhoods may be a distant memory. (With vintage Kenner action figures in their original packaging fetching hundreds if not thousands of dollars among collectors, “Star Wars” toys are clearly not just kids’ stuff.)

One member of Hasbro’s design team, Mark Boudreaux, has been crafting “Star Wars” toys since the beginning of the franchise. He still recalls seeing the first “Star Wars” film in 1977 as a 21-year-old industrial design student at the University of Cincinnati and intern at Kenner Products.

“One only had to see the lines wrapped around the block — that was a good indication that Lucasfilm and Kenner had a hit on their hands,” he said. “I remember that it was all hands on deck, not only for our team but for the entire company.”

The technology involved in designing “Star Wars” toys has evolved considerably from those early years, when action figures were hand-sculpted from wax. “We use 3-D software called ZBrush, where we do all our sculpting digitally,” said Evans. “We also have the benefit of having a lot of the props, characters and costumes digitally scanned and provided to us so we can maintain that accuracy and authenticity.”

For the latest movie in the franchise, “The Force Awakens,” Hasbro has worked closely with Lucasfilm at every step along the way, carefully coordinating the rollout of toys that began Sept. 4 — dubbed “Force Friday” — so as to avoid spoilers in marketing the picture, which opens Dec. 18.

“We’re very respectful of Lucasfilm’s need to make sure the story is revealed the way they want it to be,” said Evans, noting that he hasn’t read the “Force Awakens” script. He laughed. “I probably don’t know as much as you think I do.”

Over the years, some have bristled at the never-ending toy-ification of the “Star Wars” franchise. (“The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire,” Gary Kurtz, who produced “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” told The Times in 2010. “It’s a shame.”) But with “Star Wars” merchandising sales projected to top $5 billion in 2016 and sequels and spinoffs planned for years to come, the appetite for those toys shows no sign of abating.

“It is a real privilege to be a small part of the ‘Star Wars’ universe,” Boudreaux said. “To be able to infuse a part of myself into the product of this great property for the last 38 years is an honor. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

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