With the release of Star Wars in 1977, Hollywood learned an important lesson: If summer blockbusters were here to stay, then tie-in merchandising—particularly toys—would have to be part of their strategy moving forward. Fox, the studio that distributed Star Wars, had allowed director George Lucas to retain licensing rights in exchange for passing up a $500,000 director's fee, which turned out to be an expensive mistake. It was one the studio wasn’t about to make twice.
With 1979’s Alien, a space thriller about a crew hunted by a malevolent stowaway, the studio was completely prepared to capitalize on another science fiction sensation. This time, they’d have full control of toys and other ancillary merchandise.
The problem, which seemed to have gone unnoticed by Fox executives as well as toymaker Kenner, was that Alien was not a family-friendly adventure film in the vein of Star Wars. It was a gripping, violent horror film that was rated R and even had to be toned down to avoid an X rating, meaning that the demographic that would be most interested in a toy couldn’t even see the movie without being accompanied by an adult. And that was not exactly the kind of source material that Toys "R" Us embraced.
The tone of Ridley Scott’s film, which was full of dripping goo, face-hugging Xenomorph predators, and other unpleasantness, didn’t deter Kenner from drafting plans for a 3.75-inch action figure line similar to the one they had produced for Star Wars. The real crown jewel of the license, however, was an 18-inch Xenomorph, which featured a protruding tongue, a glow-in-the-dark head, and other unsettling details.
Compounding Kenner’s challenge in marketing this nightmare fuel was the fact that Fox insisted they keep the toy under wraps until the film was released on May 25.
“Nobody knows what the alien looks like yet, and our contract specifies that we cannot reveal the nature of the character until the movie comes out,” Len Balis, a regional manager for Kenner in California, told The Honolulu Advertiser in April 1979. “All I can say is that it’s a real horror. If somebody ever came to my door in an Alien costume I’d be scared to death.”
Kenner planned on the 18-inch figure, which retailed for $16, as well as an Alien board game and a Super 8 movie viewer. If the film was a success, they were set to expand the line in 1980 with figures as well as the Nostromo spaceship.
“Once again it’s a gamble, but we have every reason to believe we’ll have another Star Wars on our hands come Christmas,” Balis said. “This is going to be the hit of 1979.”
Without being able to disclose the alien design, a Kenner catalog for 1979 had to make due with some breathless prose:
“Villainous ALIEN will be executed in a dramatic 18-inch action figure. The ALIEN will be fully articulated at the shoulders and hips for exciting action poses. Kids can easily manipulate ALIEN’s gruesome mechanical jaws. This distinctive creature will be authentically detailed in every respect as seen in the new movie, ALIEN, to be released in May 1979.”
It was not to be. Yes, Alien was the box office hit Balis anticipated, grossing $62 million to become the ninth highest-grossing film that year. (The top film, divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer, was also not particularly toy-friendly.) But that interest did not translate into toy sales. Few children—or their parents—wanted the “distinctive creature” on their shelf, and the range of human characters didn’t have the same interest as the vast Star Wars line. The Super 8 film viewer and board game also failed to resonate. Kenner’s planned action figures for 1980 never materialized and remained largely hidden from view until 2013, when toy company Super7 revived those designs for a retro line. Characters Ellen Ripley, Ash, Dallas, Kane, and a 3.75-inch Xenomorph were released for nostalgic appeal.
Back in 1979, that Honolulu Advertiser story painted a bright picture in the event that Kenner faltered with its Alien line. In 1979, the company was also planning on a doll with diaper rash, a plastic horse that gives birth, and a cow that could be milked—all arguably more horrifying than anything on board the Nostromo.
The most popular toy of 1979? Strawberry Shortcake.