The story of how Star Wars saved Lego
Lego needs no introduction. But the famous company was in trouble, not so long ago, with decreasing sales. An alliance with the Star Wars franchise helped turn it around.
YOU MIGHT KNOW the story, but in case you don’t, let us start at Genesis. In 1932, a Danish carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen, started to make wooden toys in his workshop and adapted the Danish term ‘leg godt’, meaning ‘play well’ to brand them. Today, Lego is a global enterprise that appeals to children and even grown men, including your writer, whose fees for this story will be spent on another kit. Interestingly, the Lego group, which today goes to great lengths to protect its intellectual property, is not that original. The Lego bricks, originally called the Automatic Binding Bricks in 1949, were based on the self-locking bricks sold by a British company called Kiddicraft. However, these stackable wooden bricks were then adapted using the wonder material of the age — plastic.
In 1954, Ole Kirk’s son, Godtfred, acquired an injection moulding machine and the rest, as they say, is history, which, by the way, was patented in 1958. There are an estimated 100 Lego bricks for every human being on the planet. Last year, an ode to Lego creativity was released on the big screen. Remember ‘Everything Is Awesome’? (blame me later for that earworm). The movie showcased the fact that the love for Lego construction transcends age groups. Random fact: made from a particularly durable plastic called Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), every Lego brick is compatible in some way or another with every other Lego brick, going all the way back to 1958. My first big Lego set was the Fire Station kit my parents bought for fiveyear- old me in 1983. I have no clue where it is now, but I received so many kits over the years — an airport kit, a train kit and four space kits — that it doesn’t matter. Every time my grandfather or father travelled abroad, all I wanted was a new kit.
Like all children of the 1980s who grew into the teenagers of the 1990s, I moved on to G.I. Joe toys and then the Samurai video-game system (the Indian version of Nintendo) before, like all teenage boys, I discovered teenage girls. In the Playstation-era, Lego was not an ‘it’ thing for kids anymore. Lego was failing, thanks to a mix of low demand and high costs — the brick building was about to come crashing down. Yet, the company is recognised today as one of the world’s most powerful brands, and it was saved by that delightfully amorphous thing that Darth Vader and Yoda talk about — the Force. Nope, the Danish company did not start putting midichlorians into their sets, but they might as well have. In 1999, Lego tied up with Lucasfilm, one of the first co-branding ventures for either company.
George Lucas was about to release the first of the prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace, and a generation of kids, who had grown up with the original Star Wars movies and Lego kits, had become men. Somehow, the seeds for the reinvention of Lego came about at the same time as Jar Jar Binks. Talk about silver linings. The first Lego Star Wars was not, however, from the prequels. Lucas, savvy marketing maven that he is, thought that Lego sets that appealed to older audiences would work better. So, set 7140 was the first version of the X-Wing fighter, which is the space vehicle flown by Luke Skywalker in the climactic scene of the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, in which he destroys the original Death Star. Subsequent models were released every year, incorporating both obscure vehicles and the more famous sets. Sets were also developed for the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, Darth Vader’s TIE fighter and more X-Wing fighters. Lego’s Ultimate Collector Series, highly-detailed limited-edition models for the general public, came out with a 5195-piece set for the Millennium Falcon, which remains the second largest Lego set ever released, after the one for the Taj Mahal. Incidentally, the Taj Mahal UCS set 10189 is available for a mere $4500 on eBay, but the cheapest Millennium Falcon UCS set 10179 will set you back a minimum of $6000.
Thus, a fictional spaceship is more valuable than a plastic version of one of the world’s greatest monuments. Lego’s official website lists a total of 74 Star Wars kits currently on sale, including 15 from the new Star Wars movie. Over the years, there have been over 500 different Star Wars kits produced, and your writer can claim to be the proud owner of six of them, two yet unopened. Every kit comes with a Mini-Fig from the Star Wars storyline, including Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Yoda — everybody, actually. These are incredibly good fun to build, even for a grownup, because you recall the movies and these wonderful vehicles and wonder how they were thought up. Just look at General Grevious’s wheeled transporter, with his four hands all holding lightsabres — crazy. Then there is the fantastic, full-scale Lego X-Wing fighter made by the Lego folks themselves, a scaled up model of the 9493 X-Wing fighter made with an incredible 5.3 million Lego pieces and weighing in at a near-ridiculous 20 tons (including the steel skeleton of the piece).
This awesome machine actually travels from one Legoland to another. Oh yes, I forgot. Legoland is one of the fastest growing chains of branded amusement parks in the world. There are six, and the one closest to India is in Malaysia, although a new Lego land is scheduled to open in Dubai next year. While Star Wars might have been the start of a new beginning for the Danish company, it has gone from branding strength to strength. Classic kits such as the Police Station and other kits under the City branding remain popular with younger kids. Lego has also tied up with other fantasy titles, such as The Hobbit (what would Tolkien make of that?), Chima, Bionacle, Jurassic World and both Marvel and DC — can you forget Lego Batman from the Lego Movie? A Formula 1 series, with tie-ups with Ferrari and Mercedes under the Speed brand has dioramas, such as a Mercedes-AMG pit-stop, as kits. Infant kits under the Duplo brand remain popular, as do the highly advanced Technic and Mindstorms kits, which teach engineering and robotics to teenagers.
The Lego Architecture kits have moved away from the traditional bricks to more advanced construction techniques, for some of the world’s most recognisable landmarks. In fact, Lego is considered the world’s largest tyre manufacturer, thanks to the thousands of kits it produces every day. In the weirdest irony of them all, Lego is today also a maker of video games, alongside its partners. There have been four Lego Star Wars games made for consoles and several Lego Batman games as well. Sure, the games are a bit childish compared to the likes of Fallout, but they’re an interesting way of getting kids hooked to both video games and Lego. Fifteen years ago, Lego almost died. Today, thanks to the power of my wallet and countless others, Lego is doing better than ever.
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