Two years after a $150 rolling robot captured the hearts of “Stars Wars” devotees, Walt Disney Co. is betting fans will shell out the same price for the droid’s dark, evil twin.
On the big screen, BB-9E will face off against the beloved BB-8 in a new “Star Wars” installment in December from Disney’s movie studio. The toy, made by Sphero, is part of a collection of fancier gadgets Disney expects will help give its flagging consumer-products business a boost.
Get ready for a $200 goggles-and-light saber combo developed by Disney and Lenovo Group Ltd. that lets customers duel and play holographic chess; $200 fighter drones from Propel; and a $100 programmable robot kit from manufacturer littleBits Electronics Inc.
“These are all products at a higher price point that we believe are going to help us continue to expand our audience,” said Jimmy Pitaro, the chairman of Disney’s consumer products arm. Pitaro said his strategy is to offer merchandise for customers at all income levels, to reach as many people as possible.
Burbank, California-based Disney is pulling out all the stops for its new line of products tied to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which hits theaters Dec. 15. The rollout has included early reveals of new characters, a big focus on high-tech toys and product releases at 20,000 stores around the world Sept. 1, an event it calls “Force Friday.”
Pitaro’s division, the largest entertainment licensing operation in the world, could use a shot in the arm. Sales peaked with the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in late 2015, and they’re down 15 percent in the first nine months of this fiscal year, as other kid-friendly films such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cars 3” failed to deliver the sales surge of predecessors “Frozen” and “Force Awakens.” Lower costs have allowed the unit to show increased profit for the past two quarters.
Disney, like other companies, has come to realize that modern consumers are looking for experiences as much as things. This year’s marketing effort includes an augmented reality function on the “Star Wars” app that lets people see images of star fighters in the sky above 20 worldwide sites like the Eiffel Tower and the Hollywood sign. It also lets shoppers track virtual images in stores.
There’s also on ongoing push for women characters, in particular “Last Jedi” heroine Rey. Hasbro Inc. this year released Forces of Destiny, an all-female line of $22, 11-inch poseable figures based on “Star Wars” characters that are also featured in short films viewable online.
“We’re basically partnering with Hasbro here to create a new category,” Pitaro said. “It’s not really a doll and it’s not really an action figure, it’s what we’re calling adventure figures.”
Whether all this allows Disney to top its previous “Star Wars” merchandise sales and reignite growth in its consumer products business remains to be seen. “Force Awakens” was the first “Star Wars” film in 10 years, so there was a lot of pent-up demand from longtime fans for new items. “Last Jedi” is the third film in three years.
“It’s ludicrous to think this will do the same volume levels as ‘Force Awakens,’ but it will still be quite a huge number,” said Marty Brochstein, who heads industry relations at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association. “Most companies would love to have Disney’s level of success.”
Most would like to have customers like Harrison Tanji and his wife Danielle Jack, who were among the 30 people waiting in line at a Toys “R” Us store in Los Angeles at midnight Friday morning, when the new products were first available for sale. They spent $240 picking up a Porg plush toy, Funko bobblehead and several Luke Skywalker action figures to add to a collection that already fills a room in their house. Tanji said the crowd wasn’t nearly what it was 18 years ago when he and friends waited outside a Toys “R” Us for a “Midnight Madness” event tied to the released of “Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace.”
There are more stores selling “Star Wars” products these days, he said, and it’s harder to find an item that will rise in value like the earlier merchandise has.
Like Tanji and Jack, many passionate “Star Wars” toy buyers are collectors who look to eventually profit off at least some of their purchases. And given the hour, a lot of the people showing up for an early crack at the new merchandise on Friday were adults.
Mario Santiago, a 22-year-old background actor, arrived at a Target store in West Hollywood, California, at 9:30 p.m. and was fourth place in a line of about 20 people awaiting the midnight debut. He hoped to score some of Hasbro’s Black Series action figures and a Porg, a cuddly new creature he thinks will be a big hit.
“I’m going to be a geek for tonight,” he said.