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This 'Star Wars' character altered the toy industry forever

Rey Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Source: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The toy revolution started with a girl named Rey.

Before "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" you would be hard pressed to find a female action figure on the shelves of your favorite toy store.

"[Disney] took a risk and they made a female the hero of 'Force Awakens'," Jim Silver, CEO of TTPM, an online toy review site, told CNBC. "She sold better than just about anyone, except for Kylo Ren, but the villain always sells better."

An accidental phenomenon, female action figures were never supposed to be big sellers. It's why in the last 20 years, it's hard to recall a best-selling action figure that was female.

"They never sold well so companies stopped making them," Silver said.

But the release of "The Force Awakens" in 2015, which pushed "Star Wars" toy sales for Hasbro to almost $500 million, changed that.

Before Rey, kids and collectors alike struggled to get their hands on female characters from their favorite superhero and action movies. Characters like Black Widow and Gamora from Marvel were hard to find or missing altogether from playsets and toy lines. Many angered consumers took to social media to express their outrage over the missing characters.

Even "The Force Awakens" attracted its own share of ire. Initially, Hasbro and Disney were criticized for the shortage of Rey merchandise available in the months leading up to the film's release. However, both companies later said it was a deliberate move to avoid spoilers to the film. Since then, Rey has appeared across all major toy, apparel and consumer product lines.

Now, shelves are lined with strong female characters. At New York Toy Fair this year, companies showcased toys featuring D.C. Superhero Girls (teenage versions of Supergirl, Batgirl and Wonder Woman, among others), Jyn Erso from "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" and Wonder Woman foam roleplay items.

Felicity Jones on stage holding a Jyn Erso figurine during the Rogue One Panel at the Star Wars Celebration.
A. Pruchnie | Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios
Felicity Jones on stage holding a Jyn Erso figurine during the Rogue One Panel at the Star Wars Celebration.

"There's more in the last 18 months than there have been in the last 20 years," Silver said of the number of female action heroes in films and toys.

Of course, there have been a few standout female hero toys like the Wonder Woman dolls that tied in with the 1970s television show and Princess Leia action figures that were part of the original "Star Wars" trilogy. However, very few toy lines have featured female characters from major motion pictures, partially because many of these films feature a largely male cast.

The surge in female hero toys has a lot to do with changes in the film industry, as many of the toys on shelves are modeled after characters on the big screen. In the last decade, the number of films featuring a female lead has skyrocketed.

In 2016, 29 percent of the protagonists featured in the top 100 grossing films domestically were women. That's a 7 percentage point uptick from 2015, according to a report by the San Diego State University school of theater, television and film.

Female-led movies like "Hunger Games," "Twilight" and "Divergent" proved to studios that movies featuring women protagonists could be box office successes. Of course, iconic performances like Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in "Alien" and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in "Terminator" are well-known to film fans, but they were a rarity in the years that they were released.

"Over time, people realize that heroes can come in any size, shape, color and gender," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, told CNBC.

In 2013, "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was the highest grossing film of the year domestically and the first female-led film to hold that title since 1968's "Funny Girl." While 2014's highest grossing film was "American Sniper," female-led "The Force Awakens" and "Rogue One" were the highest-grossing films in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016, according to comScore.

"Consumer and retailer research shows more and more children — and their parents — are interested in the "Star Wars" and Marvel franchises as well as the female characters represented within entertainment," Samantha Lomow, senior vice president of marketing at Hasbro, told CNBC. "In 2015, for the first time, the National Retail Federation reported that Star Wars was on the top 10 toy lists for both boys and girls. Fans and families are at the center of this conversation, for example, voting for strong female characters in both the 'Transformers' and Marvel franchises to become future figures."

Expect to see more female hero toys on the way as movies like "Wonder Woman," "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" hit theaters this year.