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Points of Articulation

yo go re
An Open Letter to Art Asylum

There was some discussion, recently, about the future of your Star Trek toys. Enterprise figures clog the shelves and the Star Trek: Nemesis line is still easy to find. Retailers are shying away from upcoming waves, which might leave the Federation adrift. But Star Trek fans insist that they want these toys, and they would obviously lament the passing of the license. So, Art Asylum, you must ask yourself the best way to make the line profitable.

When making figures from a movie or television series, any toy company must deal with some simple facts: there are popular characters, there are secondary characters, and then there are all the rest. There are characters who will appeal to everyone, there are characters who will appeal to dedicated fans and there are characters who will appeal only to die-hard completists.

There are several ways to deal with this inherent limitation: 1) Do what Mattel and Hasbro always do, and try to put out some version of your main character in every line. Endless variations of Batman, or He-Man, or Luke Skywalker. Try to sell your toys on the outdated misconception that kids only want to play with the main character.

2) Just muscle through, like Playmates. They put out the plainclothes version of the entire Simpson family in the line's first series, tried to do variations of Bart and Homer in every series after that (wisely, they stopped that very quickly) and are now scraping the bottom of the character barrel. The Sarcastic Man is not a must-have figure on anyone's list. They're now looking for ways to re-release those old figures.

3) Change it up. This is what Palisades is doing with their Muppet figures, and what any smart company should be doing. They could have put all the main Muppets in the first wave: Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo and their best friends could have easily been shipped in one or two waves. Instead, Playmates is playing it smart; they're playing the variation game, but they're doing it early. The first Gonzo they produced was in his "Gonzo the Great" costume; the second one, in a later wave, is in his normal suit and comes with Camilla, his favorite chicken. By spreading out the standard versions of the main characters, they're giving their line legs.

I, personally, am not a huge Trek fan. I've bought only one figure so far. Just one. The Klingon Borg. He looked cool. I, like most people, don't care at all about Enterprise. Also like most people, I didn't see Nemesis. I did, however, talk to a few Star Trek fans to get their input on the subject of toys.

Right now, you're making several distinct Star Trek products: action figures, star ships and the replica props known as "Trek Tek," and none of them are inspiring tremendous sales.

Trek Tek
This is a waste of time, money, materials and shelf space. Average shoppers have no interest in replica phasers, tricorders or anything else. Meanwhile, the fans who attend the conventions dressed in uniform want the high-end metal versions, not disposable plastic. Trek Tek can only lose money: low-cost mass market versions won't sell enough units to justify stores' expenses, and direct-sale limited editions will price themselves right out of the realm of possibility.
The replica ships aren't a big draw. At all. Vehicles and playsets have always been the hardest part of any toy line in which to create retailer interest - they're large, so they take up more shelf space, and they're expensive, so less people will buy them. Forget the obscure specialty ships, I'm talking even about the Enterprise itself. While diehard collectors might want a certain ship from their favorite film or episode, those collectors are a small small small market; the ships don't appeal to casual fans. If you're going to make ships, big isn't the way to go.
The figures are where the profit hides. If you can make the figures that people want, and make sure that those figures are available, they'll sell.
  • Enterprise, as a TV show, is so far an unmitigated failure, so making more figures based on that would be ridiculous; retailers can't move them now, so they're not going to order any more.
  • The original series has retro appeal to the fans who watched it yeas ago, but they're not the toy-buying community - at least not most of them. The original series has potential to do well, but it's not your best bet.
  • The Next Generation is the show that's on cable every night, that gets big marathon showings during every holiday. TNG saved the property, and it's the one that has the most fans. This is a good area to mine. Yes, Playmates did a complete Next Generation line, but they sucked. It's time for some quality figures.
  • Deep Space Nine is being released on DVD all this year, so it already has a bit of surrounding buzz. I'd put its chances for success right on par with the original series.
  • The less said about Voyager, the better. It might sell better than Enterprise, but not by much. Yes, Playmates' Voyager line is still doing well in the secondary market, but only because it's rare, not because of some huge demand for product.
  • Specialty lines like your "Borg Assimilation" might get a few random toy fans, but not enough to keep this line going - Trek fans have developed an emotional bond with the characters on the show, so that's what they want. Specialties like this are a great place for creativity and imagination, however, so I don't want to see them go away entirely.
For now, forget about the deluxe figures with the big electronic bases that drive the price up and out of an acceptable range. Come back to bases and playsets when the line is healthier.

But making the toys isn't enough: you also need to make sure that what you have made can not only find its way to store shelves, but also find its audience. This goes back to popular characters, secondary characters and all the rest.

Main characters sell the show, and main characters will move the line. How do you get main characters in every series without resorting to ridiculous variants? The same way Palisades is doing it with their Muppets line: by being smart.
  • Divide the cast of the show into A, B, and C-level characters. The bridge crew would obviously be A, special recurring characters B and everyone else (including variants and Assimilation-style specialty figures) C.
  • Think in terms of four-figure series; this will save shelf space and help insure profitability. Odd-numbered series would have two A's, one B and one C, while even-numbered series would have two B's. Some hypothetical examples of a potential Next Generation line:
    A-level B-level C-level
    Series 1 Worf, Troi Ensign Ro Data variant
    Series 2 Geordi Reginald Barkley, Q generic Romulan soldier
    Series 3 Crusher, Picard Guinan season 1 Riker
    The figures in each series could come from different of seasons: for instance, Season 1 Worf and Season 4 Troi. Variants could include any version of that character (Data's variants could be Battle Damaged, Sherlock Holmes or even Lor).
  • To make sure a variety of characters are shipping, I'd suggest that no A-level character get a second figure until all other A-levels have been produced in some form; if variant Data is in series one, there won't be a regular Data until the rest of the main characters have been released at least once.
With a selection like this, you guarantee that the die-hard Trek fans will buy at least three figures from every wave: the two main characters for sure, most likely the B-Level character, and even maybe the "specialty" figure, since they'll have the chance to see it in stores with the others.
Your market
Some have argued that casual fans don't buy Star Trek toys, and that the line should be aimed at die-hard collectors; this could not be more wrong. The line is already aimed at that insular market, and catering to a minimal audience will only kill the line faster.

No, casual fans aren't buying your Trek product right now, because they don't care about it. However, they bought plenty of Playmates' low-quality merchandise, so they'll buy yours when they see the characters they care about. The fans with whom I discussed this have bought nothing so far not because they don't care about Star Trek, but because they don't care about Enterprise, Nemesis or imaginary Borg.

The claim has also been made that fans who don't like a certain show will put their feelings aside to show their support and complete their collections; if that was true, Enterprise figures wouldn't be lingering on shelves even at clearance prices. Counting on hardcore completists is as poor a strategy as the early-90s comicbook market counting on chromium covers and speculators to keep their sales up. If the hardcore fans were really capable of supporting the line, I wouldn't be writing this letter. Everyone would be celebrating how well the fifth wave of Enterprise figures or the third Nemesis group were selling.

Right now, hardcore "buy anything" fans make up about 90% of Trek toy collectors, but they're obviously not keeping the line afloat - they're not enough. You need to reach out beyond that group, to turn that 90 into a 40 - not by alienating the die-hard fans, but by welcoming in the legions of more casual customers, and putting unpopular lines on the shelves won't do that. The current hardcore audience will, as stated, buy anything to complete their collections (even if it's already been done by another company), but everyone else needs more.

In the hypothetical "four figure" plan, the hardcore crowd will still be served by the third or fourth figures. Let the Kirks and Picards of the shows carry the series, and give the other two slots to the die-hards. They want a ship? Put it on a blister card and call it the C-level "Figure 4." Hell, put four Micro Machine-scale ships on one card and pack it in there.

Currently, the Star Trek toys seem to be directed by the whims and wants of a minority of the market. In order to make this a profitable venture, you need to reach out to the outer realms; capture the minds of the Trekkies who don't buy toys by producing the characters they like; capture the toy fans who don't care about Trek by producing cool stuff as the "specialty" figures. Do both, and you're golden.

I don't think anyone is happy with the sales of your Star Trek toys so far: fans aren't getting the characters they want, retailers can't move what they have, and you are the ones feeling the pinch. Something new has to be tried. The ideas presented in this letter come from outside your current niche market of hardcore completists: from Trek fans who so far haven't been inspired to buy any of your toys.

Just give us fun toys that look really good and beat the pants off everyone else who's tried them before.

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