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The release of the new Star Wars movie may still be months off, but Disney unleashed its full marketing "Force" as it launched hundreds of toys and other items related to the film Friday.
A hamster-sized BB-8 droid and an updated Millennium Falcon spacecraft emerged as some of the most talked-about new "Star Wars" toys as fans dressed as Imperial Stormtroopers and Sand People thronged to stores around the world.
Fans in Australia and Japan had first bite at the cherry as stores opened at midnight, before fans in Europe and the U.S got a chance to load their trolleys.
"This is my Star Wars lightsaber!" said fan Cheyenne Garcia in New York. "I can't believe it's been so many years of Star Wars. It's incredible."
The roll-out is part of a huge merchandising effort by Disney, and toy makers including Hasbro and Lego, ahead of the December release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" — the first in a new "Star Wars" trilogy — which brings back original 1977 cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.
Dubbed "Force Friday," thousands of toy stores worldwide encouraged fans to dress up as their favorite "Star Wars" characters as the new lightsabers, Lego models, action figures and spaceships went on sale.
An orange and white cylindrical BB-8 droid that can move, talk and can be controlled through a smartphone app was trending on Twitter on Thursday, hours before stores opened in Europe or the United States.
The marketing push behind the new film is unique because it's so far ahead of the movie's U.S. release, 116 days to be exact. But analysts say it can work because Star Wars is such a popular franchise.
Leaked images of action figures of characters that have not even hit the big screen — like Sarco Plank, some kind of alien desert nomad that has only been glimpsed in a Vanity Fair on-set shoot — are only likely to fuel consumer demand, says Steve Pasierb, CEO of the Toy Industry Association.
"It's pretty rare, but in the age of social media, you can get those characters out and create buzz around these things in ways that you couldn't in the past," Pasierb says. "There's something easy to tap into, which is the Star Wars mystique which is some 30 years old."
Industry analysts at PiperJaffrey say they expect some $3 billion worth of Star Wars merchandise will be sold this year and that sales next year could be even larger.
Even in a non-movie year, Star Wars merchandise has consistently sold well — $2 billion annually around the world, according to Pasierb. So it's not so far-fetched that Disney will exceed that in the publicity-blitz filled weeks ahead of premiere of the first Star Wars movie since Episode III in 2005.
Toy makers both big and small are gearing up for a big rush on Friday, then another wave of sales as the holiday shopping season gets going and the movie's Dec. 18 release date draws closer.
Hasbro Inc., which has been making Star Wars toys for more than 30 years, planned to unveil more than 100 different items Friday.
The Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based toy maker's offerings include Furbacca, a Chewbacca version of its Furby toy. It's also selling several different versions of lightsabers that feature the glowing daggers noticeable in the movie's previews.
While most of the people buying Friday will be the die-hard collectors who have to have the hot items first, sales momentum will continue into the holiday shopping season as nostalgic parents introduce a new generation of kids to Star Wars, says Rob Maigret, Sphero's chief creative officer.
"There's just this evangelism that exists for the movie, because this movie is part of our lives, because we all have some sort of connection to it," Maigret says.