Toys tied to movies existed long before Star Wars, but George Lucas’ 1977 space opera changed movie merchandising forever. Lucas always wanted toys to accompany the movie, but response from manufacturers was tepid, because investing design resources and factory output in a movie that may or may not be popular was a risky move. Even Kenner, who signed up to make action figures and other toys, vastly underestimated what a hit Star Wars would be.
Star Wars released in May 1977 to rapturous approval, becoming an overnight sensation — and kids didn’t just want to see the movie; they wanted toys. Kenner were caught flat-footed at the demand, finding that they wouldn’t even have figures out for the lucrative Christmas period of that year. To do nothing would have meant losing out on millions of dollars.
So they made a decision that was, by all accounts at the time, completely ludicrous: They sold people an empty box. The Early Bird Certificate was a box containing a cardboard display stand featuring the characters from the film, stickers, and a certificate for kids to mail away to Kenner to receive four figures in 1978: Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Princess Leia and Chewbacca. The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public’s mind, ready for their 1978 release.
That was only the first of many controversial and sometimes disastrous moves from the toy industry regarding Star Wars. Read about the ups and down of Star Wars toys over 38 years at io9.