‘Star Wars’ Force Friday: Notes From the Midnight Toy Launch From Someone Who Survived It
I arrive just before 7:00 p.m. and Paul is already in line. Well, technically he’s not in line. Technically he’s just sorta hanging out in front of Target, minding his own business. He’s not lining up for Force Friday, no sir. He wouldn’t do such a thing, especially since management came out and made it very clear to everyone that there would be no lines until 8:00 p.m., asking the early arrivals to disperse. Paul’s just another customer. Ignore his Ewok shirt. Ignore his fiancee’s Darth Vader-themed outfit. This is not the line you’re looking for.
This isn’t Paul’s first rodeo. Within minutes of meeting up with him, he’s telling me all about the previous Force Friday event he attended back in 2005. Back then it was timed to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. That was back in the dark days, back before Lucasfilm was acquired by Disney, before J.J. Abrams was handed the reins of the world’s most beloved film franchise, and before people had faith in a Star Wars movie again. This edition of Force Friday marks the worldwide rollout of new toys and merchandise associated with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Wars fandom, burnt so badly in 1999 before willingly walking back into the soul-chafing flames of the prequels twice more, is ready to believe again … and they’re ready to open their wallets to prove their devotion.
The vibe in the line is positive. Everyone remembers The Phantom Menace, but everyone knows it’s going to be different this time. It has to be. Paul’s enthusiasm is infectious. He passes time on his iPhone, working out strategies for obtaining that Sphero BB-8 toy that took the internet by storm. Ashley, his fiancee, partner-in-crime, and loving enabler, says she can pick one up in the morning, provided he find the best place to acquire one. Paul would get in line early tomorrow morning himself, but he has a vital meeting at work, which could not have come at a more inappropriate time – how dare real life interfere with Star Wars?
As Paul heads off to track down a store manager — a line needs to officially be formed eventually — I chat with Ashley. She’s not as big on Star Wars as the man she’s going to marry, but when Jurassic World merchandise began to flood stores, he stood by and helped feed her dinosaur obsession. She’s returning the favor. They even took a break from their date the previous night to scout out this Target, the only store in the area doing a midnight Force Friday event. They grilled the managers on duty. Did they have a game plan? Would things be organized? How safe would it be?
You can’t blame them for being a little obsessive about this. They could have chosen to line up at Toys ’r Us or Wal-Mart, but they deemed the former too disorganized, the latter...well, Wal-Mart. As Star Wars fans willing to line up hours in advance to get first dibs on the new toys, they had to know they were doing the right thing. They had to have a gameplan.
As a former retail employee, I understood their worries. I survived my fair share of Black Fridays and post-Christmas sales. I know what it’s like to see a line of people wrap around a store and know that they wouldn’t think twice about trampling you for an action figure. I never worked a Force Friday, but I do know that Star Wars fans are a very passionate bunch.
Paul is on top of potential anarchy. The store’s chief liaison to the slowly growing non-line is the store’s Asset Protection Specialist (translation: security guard), a guy named David. He’s composed and deadly serious. I wager that he’s former law enforcement or military. He’s not going to take any shit, especially from a bunch of nerds and he’s not happy about our continued loitering.
But Paul is the line’s alpha nerd, our ambassador. We may not be first in the non-line (another group has been here since 6:00 p.m.), but he’s taken charge. He’s our Luke.
At 8:00, David escorts our non-line, now numbering 15, into the store. We will spend the next four hours waiting in air conditioned comfort. As we line up alongside electronics section, a shopper asks an employee what’s going on.
“They’re lining up for the new Star Wars toys,” he responds.
“Ugh. Why would anyone do that?” she says, her face crinkling with disgust. At this point, I’m already starting to agree with her.
David isn’t authorized to talk to me about Force Friday or the store’s plans for the evening. The only person allowed to go on the record is his manager, who later says the store is expecting 500 people to show for the midnight release.
And thus the waiting game begins. The voice of the villainous Kylo Ren is revealed through an online video showcasing the talking version of his action figure and we all huddle around an iPhone and listen in. Meanwhile, everyone refreshes Amazon for that Sphero BB-8. Ashley even calls a local Bed, Bath and Beyond to see if they will have it in stock. “BB-8?... He’s the one that looks like a bowling ball...” Eventually, she manages to find an employee who can confirm: Yes, it’s in stock. Ashley hangs up and huddles with Paul, plotting tomorrow’s move. They will have that BB-8. Nothing matters more.
The sole family in the line searches for ways to entertain themselves. The father, wearing a Rogue Squadron shirt, busies himself on his iPhone. His kids, representing a new and weird generation of fandom with their R2-D2/Mickey Mouse hybrid hats, make a mess of the Disney Infinity selection. The youngest girl can’t stop hugging the glass case showing off the four foot tall stuffed Chewbacca that will be raffled off later in the evening. It’s adorable. I declare that should I win the raffle, the massive Wookiee will be hers.
Over the next four hours, we run out of things to talk about and the mood takes a turn for the grumpy. The 10-minute loop of commercials and clips from The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls playing on the nearby televisions grate within three repetitions. Waiting in line sucks.
Two employees from the in-store Starbucks arrive and take pity on the crowd with a massive tray of cookies and tiny plastic cups of milk. The line devours this offering as the snack-bearers tease us about the events ahead. Apparently, the Star Wars merch in the back has been under careful watch. No one has seen anything. It’s all so very exciting! I don’t have the heart to inform her that all of the toys have been revealed online already; she’s having fun. Someone else in the line bursts her bubble. Sorry, Cookie Girl, we appreciated the effort.
Not long after the snack break, we watch employees start to create barriers around the special Star Wars section with shopping carts. Not long after that come the carts filled with toys and clothes and books and board games. The employees toil behind their walls of red, wheeled plastic – they only have three hours to assemble the entire display. My retail PTSD kicks in. I feel their pain.
I excuse myself to go the restroom, but I don’t actually have to go. I start snooping around the store for details and, from afar, I can see the Target employees unloading the toys and shelving them. Anyone who even tries to take a peek is shooed away. If I can get close and tell the line what I have seen, I will be a hero. I have to play this smart.
I call my fiancee. She’s at home, assembling boutonnières for the wedding in three days while I’m at waiting in line to buy plastic aliens and space wizards.
“I need you to fake a conversation with me so I can look like a regular shopper and approach the toy section without arousing suspicion.”
I get close enough to see an 18-inch Captain Phasma doll. Paul is very excited to hear this.
Paul’s friend Glenn tells me all about the mad rush for Phantom Menace toys back in ‘99. He was there. He witnessed inflatable kiddie pools filled with Wattos and Captain Panakas. He saw adults shoving each other to scoop up toys. He saw one hapless shopper fall into a vat of Jar Jar Binks figures. Enveloped by plastic and cardboard, he thrashed about and struggled to stand. The symbolism is not lost on any of us.
We can roll our eyes at Force Friday all we want – at least there are no kiddie pools.
I can’t help it. I’m starting to get a little excited.
I don’t plan to spend a lot of money, but if I’m going to stand in line for five hours, I might as well snatch a few of those hyper-detailed “Black Series” action figures. It’s all in good fun. Why not have a tiny plastic John Boyega or Daisy Ridley on the workspace? I’m here! I’m at the front of this 50-person line! I have a Target credit card!
Constantly refreshing Amazon pays off for Paul and Ashley. The Sphero BB-8 goes up for sale. They snag one. It is sold out a few minutes later. It is the biggest victory of the evening.
At 11:04 p.m., the first group in costume arrives. They won’t be the last. These guys are dressed in Jedi robes and wielding glass lightsabers. They are soon followed by a guy in a homemade Kylo Ren costume and later by a woman covered in red and black body paint. She spends the next hour or so posing for photos.
The line is booming now and I am kind-of-sort-of having fun. If I was alone in line, it may be a different story, but I’m with friends and their tireless excitement is infectious. As an excuse to spend a lot of time with people you enjoy, Force Friday isn’t all that bad.
By 11:30 p.m., the line is huge. Hundreds of people deep. Suddenly, showing up five hours early looks like a smart plan. I’m ready to buy some stuff. You’ve worn me down, Force Friday. You’ve won.
The line begins moving at 12:00 a.m. It goes to hell at 12:01. The first guy in line scoops up all of the Black Series figures available in the first Force Friday staging area. While a Target employee begs him to stick to the one-item-per-customer rule, the group behind us rushes ahead and clears out just about everything else. For the next 20 minutes, men, women and children scramble to find anything they stood in line to obtain. Most of them aren’t so lucky.
The remaining Black Series figures go first, but the smaller action figures are wiped out almost as quickly. The LEGOs go next, as do the more expensive toys like Poe Dameron’s X-Wing and the non-Sphero (i.e., cheap) remote control BB-8s. No direct fighting breaks out, but toys are snatched from weak grasps, unattended shopping carts are raided, and everyone seems deeply unhappy. There is no joy to be found in this spree. The loose, calm organization of the line has broken. Everything worth buying is gone.
In the aftermath, I find myself holding a Black Series Stormtrooper. It’s a cool toy – detailed and posable, a nice find. Everyone else wants this figure, but this one is mine.
And then I hear a kid talking with his father. Does he see the Black Series Stormtrooper? That’s what he came here for. That’s all he wants. I look at the toy in my hands. I love Star Wars. I love Stormtroopers, at least as much as you can love a faceless space Nazi with terrible aim. But I don’t want this. I don’t need this. It means nothing to me.
So I offer the Stormtrooper figure to the kid and his face lights up as he takes it from me. At least one of us can go home feeling like this whole thing was worth it.
I didn’t win the giant Chewbacca, by the way.
On my way out of the store, David asks me how things went. I lie and tell him that things went great. “People seem really happy,” I say. But I add that the Black Series sold out quickly and that was definitely a problem. He looks at me blankly. He has no idea what the Black Series even is. It’s not his problem.
Paul had a great time. He admits that the actual Force Friday part of Force Friday was a terrible experience marred by underwhelming stock, poor line management, and other customers being total jackasses, but he tells me he has no regrets. He got to get excited about Star Wars around people who love Star Wars. The toys were just a bonus. This wasn’t a celebration of capitalism or greed – this was a celebration of sharing the things you love with the people you love.
He also swung by Wal-Mart on his way home to pick up the things he missed at Target and made out like a Corellian smuggler. Classic Paul.