LOS ANGELES • For die-hard Star Wars collectors, a fan convention in Orlando, Florida, over the weekend was a must-attend event.
The annual Star Wars Celebration this year was the only place where Walt Disney Co licensees sold a new Luke Skywalker action figure, limited-edition Stormtrooper helmets and other coveted merchandise.
With such an array of new products and exclusive items, Disney is not simply rewarding passionate fans.
It is also recognising the role that collectors play in stoking excitement around one of its most important franchises.
Star Wars items were the United States toy industry's top-selling line for 2015 and last year, with US$1.5 billion (S$2.1 billion) in sales over the two years, research firm NPD said.
Disney, the world's largest entertainment company, bought Star Wars' producer Lucasfilm in 2012 and began developing new movies in the science-fiction franchise.
The company then expanded the range of related products to attract both casual and serious collectors, working with licensees on everything from US$8 bobbleheads to a US$7,000 life-size Darth Vader figure.
NPD reported that about 3 per cent of Star Wars sales last year came from collectibles, defined as certain types of trading cards, action figures and other products for collectors.
Mr Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of toy review website TTPM, estimates that the share of sales to collectors is much higher, as much as 33 to 45 per cent, based on industry data about purchasing habits, the age of buyers and the types of products bought.
"Some fans buy every figure made and various poses of the same character," said Mr Paul Southern, senior vice-president of Star Wars licensing at Disney's consumer products and interactive division.
For well-heeled collectors, Disney licensees offer limited-edition, high-end items billed as works of art and promising to replicate what is seen on-screen.
Companies such as Sideshow and Hot Toys offer statues, for example, that Mr Southern said "capture every detail".
Offering exclusive merchandise at events such as Star Wars Celebration and San Diego Comic-Con, as well as at Disney theme parks and in Disney stores and other retailers, helps stir fan fervor.
At Star Wars Celebration, limited-edition items included Hasbro's Luke Skywalker figure in X-Wing pilot gear and two assassin droids from Japanese company Kotobukiya. Funko is selling new bobbleheads, including a Princess Leia figure.
Collectors said the items are usually produced in batches of hundreds or thousands.
Attendees may spend hours in line to score the hottest items, according to collector Jake Stevens, who said he once waited four hours to buy a Darth Vader action figure that uttered lines recorded by actor James Earl Jones.
This year, some manufacturers have created online lotteries for spots to buy products.
Adding to the appeal, many of the newest products sport a 40thanniversary logo to mark the four decades since the 1977 debut of the original Star Wars film.
Disney will release the eighth episode in the movie saga, The Last Jedi, in December.
Industry experts said collectors help spread a type of enthusiasm for franchises that companies cannot generate through traditional advertising or marketing.
Collectors are active on social media, in website forums and on podcasts. They share details about their latest finds and where to pursue new merchandise.
A day before the start of Star Wars Celebration, enthusiasts were already circulating photos of Hasbro boxes arriving at the venue.
"A huge percentage of those collectors are the franchise's biggest fans, advocates and social media influencers," said Mr Marty Brochstein, a senior vice-president at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association.
"They're the kind of fans who help create buzz at the core, which radiates to the population at large."