By Simon Woodhouse
You may remember Star Wars. It was this little Sci-Fi film that came out in 1977, made a buck or two, spawned a couple of sequels, and then twenty years later did the same thing again. If you were the right age at the right time (I was nine years old in 1977), then Star Wars meant more to you than life itself. But it wasn't just a film. Whether George Lucas (the movie's writer/director) was a canny businessman, or just a lucky chancer, we may never know, but rather than taking a huge director's fee from Twentieth Century Fox for making the film, he instead opted for forty percent of the merchandising rights.
As film merchandising wasn't much of a money-spinner in 1977, most toy companies weren't interested in Star Wars prior to the movie's release. Eventually Kenner Products took on the job, but totally underestimated demand. Christmas 1977 came around, and there was virtually nothing in stores for Star Wars mad children to demand from their parents. When it became apparent just how popular the film was, Kenner decided on launching a range of three and three quarter inch high, quite detailed action figures. Usually there's a one year lead time from concept to production for this sort of toy, which meant nothing to satiate the ravenous masses for a good few months. But in what must be one of the cleverest marketing ploys ever, the toy company persuaded people to buy empty boxes. Each box contained an Early Bird Certificate, which could be redeemed against the first four action figures that were due to be released in early 1978. Having started with the kind of fanatical following that drove people to buy empty boxes, it's not surprising Star Wars action figures are still so highly sort after today.
From the first four figures released in 1978 (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2), a whole army of little plastic people has followed. The original movies may have grossed over three and a half billion dollars in worldwide box-office receipts, but that figure pales into insignificance when compared to the nine billion generated by the merchandise.
In years gone by, getting hold of original Star Wars action figures meant attending lots of conventions and collectors fairs. These could be scary places, especially if you're cornered by an obsessive fan who wants nothing more than to talk about the rarity of the double-telescopic, original Darth Vader, still-in-box action figure. However, thanks to Ebay, it's now possible to get hold of even the rarest figures, and still remain at a healthy distance from the obsessive fan. Though it's easy to knock the hardcore fans (and fun too), they're the ones that help make the collecting a little easier. Decent traders grade their figures according to one of two scales. First of all there's the C rating, which starts at C10 (mint condition) and goes down to C1. But anything below C5 is probably not worth bothering with, i.e. the kid who owned it thought it would be fun to see how long it would last in the microwave. The AFA scale grades perfect figures with a score of 100. Serious collectors don't look at anything below an AFA rating of 70.
Pivotal to the original trilogy, and so therefore a good place to start your collection, is the character of Luke Skywalker. Prices for this little guy vary, but if you want him out the box and still holding his telescopic light sabre, expect to pay about $14. Prices start getting a little scarier if you decide you want your action figure still in its original packaging. The same Luke Skywalker, still with light sabre and in a good condition box, will set you back about $280. That's a whopping 1900 percent increase in price. So now you've got an action figure, you might want a vehicle to put it in. How about getting Luke's landspeeder, the floating car he drove across the desert in the original Star Wars. Without a box, this is available on Ebay for about $12. But still in its box (and you'd better sit down for this), it'll be about $390. That's right - without cardboard wrapping - $12, with cardboard wrapping - $390. This price was paid in an Ebay sale I watched whilst writing this article, but what's more astounding to me, is the fact the landspeeder was in a factory sealed box, which means to say its never been opened. So all those people who've owned it over the years have never seen it. Aren't they worried what's in the box isn't actually a landspeeder at all, but just something that makes a satisfying rattle when the package is shaken?
As you might expect, these kinds of prices attract the wrong sort of person, someone who has been seduced by the dark-side of collecting - the faker. Certain figures are more expensive than others, but the price isn't dictated by the character's relevance in the movies, rather it's more to do with how rare the action figure itself is. One of the most sort after prizes is a vinyl-caped Jawa, still in its box. These little guys don't often go for anything less than $300. Unfortunately they're also one of the most faked of the action figures. But fear not, because the hardcore fans know just about everything there is to know on the subject of action figures, and they love the internet too. A bit of research will soon tell you if you're about to buy a bargain or a dud.
For me, collecting these things isn't about the dollar value, or whether they're in the box or not. I like them purely for the nostalgia element. I remember buying these figures first time around, though in 1978 they were considerably cheaper. If only I'd kept them, and not melted Luke's head with a magnifying glass, or put Chewbacca in the liquidizer, then I'd still be able to get the same warm, nostalgic glow without having to break the bank.