Once again, McFarlane Toys has bucked the industry trend. As announced in a news article on their site last Friday, McFarlane will not be attending Toy Fair 2003. They give two reasons: first, that Toy Fair has become "a public relations and media event," and no longer serves its original purpose of allowing retailers to place orders; and second, their "Spawn.com headquarters" is in the process of moving to a new facility in Phoenix which will feature a showroom for media, buyers, and fans. There will a "big splash" on Spawn.com every year - I can only assume this means the site will do its usual announcement of upcoming lines around the same time as Toy Fair.
Adrian over at Action-Figure.com has already written an in-depth piece on how this will affect the industry. He claims it will mostly be negative, for three reasons. First, McFarlane is an industry leader, and without its presence at Toy Fair, the toy industry will be robbed of an important liason between the collecting community and the mainstream media. Second, one of the benefits of Toy Fair is that it allows smaller, independent toy magazines and websites an opportunity to get a lot of information on the year's upcoming toys in one fell swoop; with the exception of a well-off magazine like ToyFare or Tomart's, few outlets will be able to afford a trip to Phoenix. Finally, he cites McFarlane's decision to release future news primarily through its own website and PR department as a troubling development that is indicative of a growing trend toward self-publicizing throughout the industry.
Personally, I think it's a bad move. Part of me is suspicious that this is just Todd up to his old tricks, trying to generate publicity by making controversial decisions (remember the SDCC debacle a few years back?). There could be some monetary issues behind the scenes; I do buy the claim that McFarlane's display stages are costly, and between this new headquarters, buying the licenses to every major sports league as well as The Matrix, and the Gaiman debacle, the company may not be flush. But if there is a monetary motivation, it seems childish to turn around and say, a la Pee-Wee, "I meant to do that."
But ultimately even the monetary argument sounds weak; sure, McFarlane might lose a little face by not having a fantastic display, but they'll have the prototypes anyway. The only real financial problem could be the Manhattan office space mentioned in the news article; if Todd is in dire financial straits, downtown office space would be a good thing to jettison. But again, it still doesn't mean McFarlane can't make the Fair.
I guess my real objection is to the assumption that the media will be eaux seaux happy to spend hundreds of dollars to get to Phoenix. Action-Figure.com, Aftimes.com, and Toymania.com - all news sources that provide far more up-to-date and consolidated information than any paper magazine ever will - cannot afford such expenses, and as such they will be forced to live off the bones Spawn.com throws them (that, or hire a few independently wealthy journalists). What this basically amounts to is complete control of the product and its image by the manufacturer. This is essentially the tactic currently being employed by Mattel on their Masters of the Universe line. What's the significance of that connection? It means that McFarlane is officially switching gears from a small, collector-friendly toy company to, dare I say it, a corporation. This is not necessarily a bad thing - Mattel has treated the diehard MOTU fans well, although there's always a very clear sense that they're doing so mostly because it's in the own profitable interest to.
By dropping out of Toy Fair, McFarlane Toys is dropping out of the larger industrial and journalistic community at large. The fans will become increasingly alienated from the toy creators and will be communicated to only via spokespersons (though ironically, Mattel treats its sculptors on the MOTU line, the Four Horsemen, with much more respect than McFarlane has ever offered his anonymous talents) and by the website. Put simply, it's a shame, and I can only hope that an outcry from the fans will persuade McFarlane Toys to reconsider their decision.