Where were you when the LEGO Star Wars theme launched twenty years ago? For me, it began with the January 1999 LEGO Shop-at-Home catalog. The front cover promised “LEGO Star Wars action” on pages 6 and 7, and it did not disappoint! My eyes widened at the sight of LEGO versions of the X-Wing and TIE-Fighter. As soon as the sets hit store shelves, I gathered my allowance money and purchased the Landspeeder as my very first LEGO Star Wars set. Now as an adult, I find the story behind the beginnings of LEGO’s first licensed theme just as exciting.
The foundations for LEGO Star Wars arguably existed long before the launch. Space exploration was a big topic of interest in the 1960s and 70s, giving rise to hit space-themed TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. In 1977, Star Wars was released and became a blockbuster hit. During this period, LEGO too began embracing the space age and released the first Classic Space sets in 1979. Instead of lightsaber battles and dogfights, the initial emphasis of LEGO was on exploration. Conflict would eventually make its way into LEGO space sets with the introduction of the thieving Blacktron I faction in 1987. The relationship between these defined “good guys” and bad guys” was relatively tame, keeping in line with founder Ole Kirk Christiansen’s commitment to not make “war toys.”
It was within this context that the proposal for LEGO Star Wars was introduced by Peter Eio, then President of LEGO Systems, Inc. Star Wars Episode I was on the horizon, and Eio saw an opportunity to capitalize on its anticipation by partnering with Lucasfilm. In North America, Eio was seeing a boom in licensed toys, and recognized the LEGO Group was not involved in the business of making sets based off of films or TV shows. Eio harbored concerns that LEGO would be left behind if they didn’t take some measures to adapt to this growing market.
In actuality, Lucasfilm had expressed interest in working with LEGO for a long time, with some employees of the film company even being lifelong fans of the brick. In the March-April 1999 issue of LEGO Mania Magazine, Lucasfilm model maker Grant Imahara commented on his love of LEGO and how he still owned and cherished his Galaxy Explorer. Grant even dressed up as C-3P0 for the first LEGO Star Wars TV commercial.
While the feeling at Lucasfilm was one of excitement, LEGO executives were less than enthusiastic. After Eio pitched his proposal, he remembered “their initial reaction to Star Wars was one of shock and horror that we would even suggest such a thing.” For them, the very idea of LEGO Star Wars came into conflict with the company’s anti-violence stance and a tradition of developing ideas in-house.
Since LEGO’s brand image was a concern, Eio pitched the idea as a fantasy battle between good and evil. He also spearheaded market research with parents that showed they reacted favorably to the theme. Even with this data in-hand, some executives were still dead set against against the idea. But then owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen ultimately intervened and gave LEGO Star Wars the go-ahead.
In 1998 after nearly six weeks of negotiations, LEGO and Lucasfilm signed their licensing agreement. The partnership was formally announced on April 30th via Lucasfilm. Then Managing Director of Lucasfilm, Gordon Radley proclaimed, “We are very proud that the new Star Wars construction toy line will be developed and marketed by a company which is praised everywhere for its quality, creativity and imagination. We are also honored that the LEGO Group has chosen us as its first business partner in the film industry.”
Development of the product line quickly followed, leading to prototyping and refinement of new sets, elements and minifigures. In February 1999, LEGO Star Wars was announced at the New York International Toy Fair. To promote the occasion, they distributed an exclusive shadow box featuring dueling Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker minifigures. Folding open the flap revealed yellow lettering declaring, “We’ve joined forces to create our most stellar product launch ever.”
The first product wave appeared in the January 1999 LEGO Shop-at-Home catalog and consisted of five sets based on the original trilogy. The sets depicted some of the most iconic vehicles from a galaxy far, far away: the X-wing Starfighter, TIE Fighter & Y-wing, Landspeeder, Snowspeeder, and Speeder Bikes. According to the catalog, these sets would be available to ship as early as March 1999.
A second wave of sets based on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace were released slightly later to coincide with the film’s release that May, introducing eight more sets to the line. These included the Gungan Sub, Mos Espa Podrace, Anakin’s Podracer, Naboo Fighter, Droid Fighter, Sith Infiltrator, Lightsaber Duel, and Naboo Swamp. The line brought with it notable additions to the LEGO part portfolio, including the first new minifigure hairpiece in 20 years (for Qui-Gon Jinn) and the first specially designed minifigure head (for Jar Jar Binks).
Since the theme’s success was paramount, LEGO went to great lengths in promoting it. There were elaborate store displays including animated cardboard cut-outs of Darth Vader and Darth Maul using the force to raise and lower LEGO bricks. Major department stores like the U.K.’s Hamleys had access to huge LEGO display models built by master builders.
There was plenty of print advertising, including sets packaged with catalogs sporting original trilogy and Episode I-themed covers. Special comics were printed in LEGO Mania Magazine, the magazine of the official LEGO Club. In the March-April comic, the LEGO Maniac mascot even lent Luke a helping hand.
A series of contests were also aggressively advertised. Wal-Mart ran a “Jedi Lightsaber Building Contest” in which three winners from three age categories could walk home with set 7101 Lightsaber Duel and some other Star Wars swag. The biggest contest was LEGO’s own “Galactic Challenge Building Contest” which was advertised in the LEGO Mania Magazines and at major retailers. The parameters were to “build a LEGO model that could improve life on Earth or in a galaxy far, far away.” One of the prizes was a life-size LEGO Star Wars character model signed by George Lucas, himself.
September 1999 witnessed the release of the Mindstorms Droid Developer Kit, with R2-D2 being the primary model. Instructions for additional models were included, such as likenesses of another droid featured in Episode I as well as a Gungan sub. One of the included droids even paid homage to LEGO with the nearly identical-looking name, L-3G0.
At the end of its massive launch, LEGO Star Wars had exceeded the LEGO Group’s expectations and proved to be a major victory for the company. According to the book Brick by Brick, “first year sales exceeded the company’s initial forecast by 500 percent,” and 1/6 of all sales could be attributed to LEGO Star Wars products. Even with the success, this likely lulled the LEGO Group into a false sense of security regarding its financial future but that’s a story for another day.
Since then, LEGO Star Wars continues to have a strong presence in the LEGO Group’s portfolio with more than 700 sets having been released over the past two decades. What started out as a massive risk paid off handsomely, setting the precedent for an onslaught of future IP licensing agreements. At twenty years old, LEGO Star Wars can be considered a classic theme in its own right. Here’s to twenty more!
What were your first memories with LEGO Star Wars? Share your experiences in the comments below.