It is a small hidden room, dark and unsuspected, which houses an unexpected treasure. In the middle of the old wooden toys and the first sketchy plastic models of the Lego Museum in Billund, the city in Denmark where the world leader in toys was born, two sliding doors open onto a room dedicated to the Lego Star Wars range.
Tuesday June 28, the release of the video game Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens on most consoles on the market will extend a partnership already eighteen years old, and become so central that the Danish firm founded in 1932 has even made a place for it in its history.
“Lego Star Wars is a brand in its own right, with its own video games, its own encyclopedias. It progresses, even when the saga is not relevant, and Disney is counting on us to recruit young fans ”, explains Stéphane Knapp, marketing director of Lego France. Every year since 1999, Lego Star Wars sets are among the brand’s five best-sellers, and are growing steadily.
Driven by the film’s end-of-year release The force awakens, 2015 was the best year for the range in France. In all, it represents around 20% of Lego’s turnover. And according to the chain of specialty stores La Grande Récré, out of 300 Star Wars toys listed, the fifty or so Lego sets represent three quarters of sales.
In the Lego Museum in Billund, where each of the ten best sellers has the right to sit for a year, the Millennium Falcon is lounging, quiet, in second place, despite its years of service. « Batman and Superman are a passing fad. same Snow Queen begins to run out of steam. But “Star Wars”, him, goes up, and has no competitor to his size ”, estimates Franck Mathais, director of the consumption department of the specialty chain La Grande Récré.
A saving partnership
For Lego, Star Wars is the symbol of a great strategic shift. After having filed the revolutionary patent on intercompatible bricks in 1958 (which has since fallen into the public domain), and after launching the iconic small yellow figurines in 1978, in competition from the 1980s by the American Tyco, the Danish manufacturer has launched, in 1989, its Pirates range, with revolutionary grimaces for the time. Advances in molding machines now allow it to manufacture characters with faces distinct from each other. Lego rushes into the breach to sign with prestigious holders of rights to films, cartoons, or series.
When in 1998, the group, then led by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, signed with LucasFilm, it was the first time that the Danish manufacturer acquired the rights to an already established fictional universe. George Lucas almost invented merchandising. Between the toy and entertainment giants, the alliance quickly bears fruit, as the creator of Star Wars in 2000, shortly after the release of episode I, The Phantom Menace.
“In the two years since our relationship with Lego began, more than 25 million Lego Star Wars sets have been sold worldwide. I have a feeling that there is a perfect marriage between the two. »
For the Danish brand, which was going through a serious financial crisis in the mid-2000s, Star Wars represents both one of the company’s new fundamentals and the model for its recovery. « Star Wars allowed Lego to bounce back at a time when they were struggling to define their strategy; it became a model for them, which they reproduced with numerous licenses ”, observe Franck Matthew.
Far from the manufacturer of toys to build praising the creativity and imagination of children, after LucasFilm, the company signed in the early 2000s with Warner Bros then Sony, to give birth to the little Harry Potter and Spider-Man figures. The following years, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, DC Comics, Snow Queen or The simpsons will gradually join the rich catalog of brick universes now under franchise.
A budget explosion
The development is striking in the figures. In 2005, the family group devoted 256 million Danish crowns (34.4 million euros) to royalties due to its beneficiaries. Ten years later, their budget was increased tenfold, to 2.523 billion in 2015 (339.2 million euros).
In 2005, the first Lego Star Wars in video game. It has sold 3 million copies and is among the top 10 best sellers in the United States, one of the main successes of the group in this year of recovery.
The explosion of the partnership budget coincides with its impressive recovery: 7 billion Danish kroner in turnover in 2005 (0.95 billion euros), 35.8 billion today (4.8 billion euros) , double-digit growth, and accounts in the green for ten years. As for Lego video games under license, they have exceeded 160 million cumulative sales since 2005.
In 2016, the Danish giant is now a bulimic of already established franchises, able to bring together the figurines of rivals Marvel and DC Comics on the same double catalog page, or to launch in the same video game Batman, the Simpsons, Gandalf of the Lord of the Rings, Sammy from Scooby-Doo, the kidnappers of Jurassic World or the hero of Dr Who, in Lego Dimensions, exquisite corpse of partnerships and pop culture universe.
“Licensed universes represent 20% to 30% of our turnover each year. But we have also developed our own universes, like Ninjago, which works extremely well ”, resitates Stéphane Knapp, marketing director of Lego France.
A perfect match
Why such a success? Each association between the franchise and the famous bricks seems to give rise to a fascinating chemistry, observes Franck Mathais, from La Grande Récré.
“It is linked to the rich universe of “Star Wars”, with many ships, fortresses… This fits perfectly with Lego’s niche, which above all recreates scenes. The association is perfect. “
For this, the designers of miniatures and spaceships juggle two specifications, the very restrictive one of LucasArts, but also that of Lego, which uses a palette limited to twenty colors for the characters, with standardized dimensions to ensure intercompatibility with the firm’s other products.
“These are the same instructions as for any Lego toy, underlines Jakob Liesenfield, Head of Design at Lego. Of course, if you build a ship, it must look like the one in the movie, but you are free to add extra elements to it if you know that it will be more fun for the child. ” But designers also know how to pay homage to them. Released in October 2007, the Millennium Falcon was the largest Lego model in history at the time, with 5,195 parts.
For The force awakens, the Danish designers visited LucasFilm in 2014, a year and a half before the film’s release, in order to consult the first confidential information and exchange with the production team. In order to define the facial expressions of each figure, the designers at the design office in Billund needed access not only to the preparatory drawings and photos of each character, but also to their role in the story.
“LucasArts kept this information in a very valuable way. That’s why when we introduced the Kylo Ren Lego minifigure [le méchant], we always presented her with a mask, so as not to betray her secret, explains Jakob Liesenfield. But we didn’t have to know everything 100%. “ Certain figurines never see the light of day.
“There are a hundred characters in a film “Star Wars”, the importance of which may vary depending on the version of the scenario. For example, there is an alien whose Lego version we designed, but which was not marketed. These are discussions with LucasFilm. But we also made a figurine of Max Rebo, the blue elephant species that appears in “Return of the Jedi”, while he doesn’t have any scriptwriting importance, but just because he’s cute, to the fans. “