BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When the ninth Star Wars movie and final installment of the “Skywalker saga” opens in the theaters Dec. 19, it also will bring back memories for Paul Palmer Jr. II, an Indiana University Kelley School of Business professor who helped develop iconic toys tied to the film series.
Palmer, a senior lecturer of marketing who began teaching at Kelley in 2010 and self-professed Star Wars enthusiast, for four years was a senior brand manager for Hasbro Inc.’s product line for episodes I and II of the classic science fiction franchise.
After earning an MBA in 1996 from the Kelley School, Palmer went to work for consumer products giant Procter & Gamble as a brand manager, but two years later, the “big kid at heart” left for Hasbro Inc.
“It was crazy,” Palmer said. “We had an opportunity to be a part of the rebirth, for the next chapter in truly an evergreen saga that resonated with fans and moviegoers across a broad spectrum around the world. It was exciting that I could be part of something that I was passionate about 20 years earlier.”
As a 10-year-old growing up on the west side of Indianapolis in 1977, Palmer used to evade theater ushers so he could stay for multiple screenings of “Star Wars. Like so many people, he would go back to see the movie anytime someone would take him. In that era before VCRs and streaming media, he estimated seeing “Episode IV” at least 30 times in the first month.
At Hasbro, Palmer initially worked on several special feature girls’ items — “anything that poops, pees and eats food” — including the McDonald’s Happy Meal Doll. He also worked on dolls and action figures for the movie “Titanic,” the Spice Girls, My Little Pony and Pokémon.
In spring 1999, a few weeks before “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” opened, Palmer was invited to join the team working on the franchise’s toys. He worked with “Star Wars” products until he left to explore other opportunities in another Hasbro division in 2003.
Palmer led the marketing and product plans while managing key licensor relationships with Lucasfilm, Walt Disney and Cartoon Network. As such, he had early access to storylines and initial film footage of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones,” to help decide what characters and items would be among the toys for young fans, those young at heart and collectors.
While working on products for “Episode II,” Palmer met with members of creator George Lucas’ team, particularly Howard Roffman, head of licensing for all Lucasfilm properties. Members of the team were on the set during filming to “make sure that we get good ideas from the movie that would turn into toys.”
His team created more than 60 action figures (including the Boba Fett action figure above, signed by actor Jeremy Bullock), lightsabers and vehicles. But its biggest success was an interactive toy version of the R2-D2 droid, which was named toy of the year in 2002.
“We looked at doing a C-3PO, but because of the way he’s physically structured and because of the gait by which a droid would have to walk, it was going to be difficult to execute that toy in the manner he needed to be,” Palmer said. “The technology didn’t exist and would be too costly, so we went with the R2-D2.”
They worked with a design team in England to develop the technology to bring the 18-inch R2-D2 replica to life.
In 2002, he returned to his hometown to participate in Celebration II, an official “Star Wars” convention at the Indiana Convention Center. There, he was joined by actors Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew (better known as Chewbacca); Anthony Daniels (who was behind the mask of C-3PO); and Bullock, who played Boba Fett in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
In 2010, he returned to the Kelley School as a faculty member and has served as a mentor for students in the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management (Today, he advises members of the IU football team).
In his marketing classes, Palmer doesn’t dwell much on his experience with “Star Wars,” but some of the products he worked at Hasbro are on display near the entrance to the Kelley Marketing Department.
Among the lessons Palmer shares is an appreciation that “Star Wars” is one of the few franchises that resonates today as much as it did 42 years ago. But today it has two kinds of fans – those who consider themselves passionately attached to the original saga originated by creator George Lucas and newer ones who wants some “cool, fun, fresh sci-fi content.”
“The message to a traditionalist is this is the end of a saga that you’ve known and loved your entire life,” he said. “That’s going to resonate with you and I and they can sell merchandise that’s commemorative merchandise.
“However, with someone like my son, even though he knows my link to it, he wants to see a movie that shows possibilities that he couldn’t even envision before. He doesn’t care as much about the nostalgia and making sure that the story arch is complete. He cares about being entertained for two hours and twenty-two minutes.”
While toy merchandising remains an important part of the equation, Palmer thinks there are many other platforms for fans to engage with the Star Wars brand. They include video games and all the content and amenities players can buy within the games to enhance their experience. Other examples include the new “Star Wars” attractions at Disney theme parks.
Palmer looks forward to taking his wife and two children to see “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” on opening night. In fact, he’ll probably see the movie twice – the first time to take in its wonder and then in order to absorb the details.