Meet the Designer Behind Four Decades of Star Wars Toys
Mark Boudreaux has dined with C-3PO and counts the bounty hunter Boba Fett as a personal friend. When geeks of a certain age ask for his autograph, it’s usually because of his deep connection to the Millennium Falcon. The 60-year-old father of two has designed every toy version of Han Solo’s spaceship. In fact, Boudreaux is the only person who’s been creating Star Wars playthings since the very birth of the merchandizing behemoth unleashed by George Lucas in 1977.
The latest miniature version of the Millennium Falcon, designed once again by Boudreaux and retailing for $140, is the centerpiece of Hasbro’s new line of toys and games coming out before Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first film in the series to be produced by Disney. The new toys went on sale with a wave of publicity on what the marketers have dubbed “Force Friday.” When the movie premieres in December, it will be the seventh episode in the most lucrative film franchise ever, with an estimated $25 billion in box-office and merchandise revenue. And that’s probably shortchanging it.
Boudreaux has been behind the scenes all along, crafting Star Wars merchandise since he was a 21-year-old industrial design student at the University of Cincinnati. He landed a paid internship in January 1977 at nearby Kenner Products, which at the time was best known for making dolls based off The Six Million Dollar Man television show. (Yes, the same ones Steve Carell fawned over in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) A month later, Boudreaux was in a conference room when an executive walked in with a VHS cassette. “He put in the tape, and it was the trailer for Star Wars,” Boudreaux recalls. “We just went bonkers. We had never seen anything like that.”
Neither had anyone else. The film was released in late May 1977 and grossed $1.2 billion in today’s dollars—good for second all time, after Gone With the Wind—and spawned a fan base like no other. One of Boudreaux’s first assignments was helping Kenner figure out how to deal with the unexpected box-office smash despite not having any products to sell. This was almost four decades ago, a simpler time when movies weren’t the carefully orchestrated and licensed consumer bonanzas they are today.
Kenner scrambled but soon realized there wouldn’t be any Star Wars toys ready in time for Christmas. “It was discussed internally that we should have something that folks could put under the tree, to build that excitement and anticipation,” Boudreaux says.
The solution was selling an empty box marketed as the “Star Wars Early Bird Set,” a sort of IOU from the company that could be redeemed for a real toy later. Kenner, which was acquired by Hasbro in 1991, actually made a television commercial for what amounted to a piece of cardboard that could be folded into a toy display stand. In a sign of just how much of a sensation Star Wars was becoming, parents bought the cardboard in droves. Kids could then send away a certificate from the box to receive four action figures by June 1.
It’s safe to mark this moment as the unofficial beginning of the Star Wars collecting mania. Many of those same kids who unwrapped an empty cardboard box in 1977 are going to be lining up for the first crack at The Force Awakens toys going on sale today. Any collector lucky enough to be holding on to an unredeemed early bird box now can sell the collectible for about $8,000, according to recent EBay auctions.
Boudreaux, who was eventually hired full time by Kenner, next worked on the original Millennium Falcon toy. Back then, without the help of computers, the process was more arduous. Designers used photos from Lucasfilm as a primer for drawing schematics, which would be rendered in wood and sculpted in wax by hand before becoming a plastic toy. “If you wanted to make changes, you couldn’t just push a button and spit out an image,” Boudreaux says. “You literally had to redraw it.” Producing the miniature spaceship from start to finish took about a year.
From the beginning, the toymakers working on Star Wars saw their jobs as more than simply producing plastic replicas of what fans saw on-screen. They wanted to expand the story, leading to what they call “off-camera” features. “Maybe there was a button on the dashboard that was never pressed [in the films],” Boudreaux says. The toy version could give life to that inert button. For the next-generation Millennium Falcon toy, one such enhancement is a cannon that pops out of the ship and shoots a dart made by Nerf, a Hasbro brand.
“What would be a great, dramatic feature that kids would fall in love with, that would make a great moment in a commercial?” Boudreaux explains. “A big Nerf launcher popping out of the Millennium Falcon is like, ‘Wow, we never expected that, but isn’t that so cool?’”
Now here comes the only exclusive spoiler in this article about the plot of The Force Awakens: There’s no pop-up weapon akin to the Nerf cannon in the version of the Millennium Falcon that appears in the new film, which hits theaters on Dec. 18. And no, Boudreaux admits, even his position as a senior toy designer at Hasbro hasn’t given him enough clout to see the film. As a self-described Star Wars geek, just like all the hard-core fans hoarding toys, he can’t wait to see his muse on the big screen again.
Boudreaux is already making toys for Rogue One, the first spinoff movie for the Star Wars universe, which Disney is expected to release in December 2016. His goal, of course, is to work on Episodes VIII and IX, completing his third trilogy. It’s a toymaking career Boudreaux doesn’t take for granted. He’s a genuine celebrity at places like Comic Con, and he’s made friends with actors from some of the films. Boudreaux has even put his own likeness on the faces of generic action figures, including an anonymous rebel soldier from Return of the Jedi.
“I realize that the position I’m in is once in a lifetime,” he says. “That’s not lost on me.”