SDCC 2012 Panels - Behind the Plastic

Every year Dan "Julius Marx" Pickett hosts a panel titled "Behind the Plastic" featuring a veritable "who's who" of Action Figure makers which it makes it one of my most anticipated panels of the Con. By this point, everyone has made all their reveals and announcements so this serves more as a "state of the industry" discussion, typically with mixed results. However, this was easily the most best "Behind the Plastic" of recent memory!

Panelists, left to right (though I was so into the panel I somehow how completely forgot to take a picture of the group):
-Daniel Pickett, ActionFigureInsider.com/GeekShallInherit podcast
-Jean St.Jean, Jean St.Jean Studios
-Chuck Terceira, Diamond Select Toys
-Jim Fletcher, DC Collectibles
-Scott Nietlich, Mattel
-Jerry Macalouso, Pop Culture Shock Collectibles
-Jeff Trojan, Playmates
-Jesse Falcon, Marvel
-Brian Stevenson, Spy Monkey Creations
-Jeremy Sun, Spy Monkey Creations

Be it from exhaustion, disinterest or shyness the panelists and the discussion can typically fall to two or three of the more outspoken folks talking while the rest sit silent and be a sort of "dance around" the same concepts coming to the same answers most of us already know or could intuit. Then when it gets to the Q&A portion, fanboys who don't "get it" will choke up the time and interest with specific questions to specific panelists about their lines or figures ("When will you a ___ figure?" etc). While that kind of thing is inherently and sadly unavoidable, for whatever reason this year the group of most familiar faces, but with a couple new ones, was lively, chatty, funny and interactive amongst each other. The energy level was remarkably high, based on past year and this all made for a fantastic panel and really interesting discussions. I was very "into" the panel so my notes were a bit briefer and the recaps probably will read dryer than the reality of the talk. That's probably fine because the value in the panel was more in the lively interaction than the things said, though there certainly is some interesting stuff to be had.

Dan begins by noting this is the 10th annual "Behind the Plastic" panel. Also, Jason Lenzi of BifBangPow, and Dan's co-host of the GeekShallInherit Podcast, was supposed to be on the panel but was, instead, at the BBC party trying to meet Matt Smith, the current Doctor Who. To start things off Dan asks everyone to introduce themselves with name, title and how long they've been in the industry:

-Jean: sculptor, 20 years
-Chuck: Director of DST, 10-12 years
-Jim: Creative Director at DC Entertainment, 15-20 years
-Scott: Manager of Mattycollector brands at Mattel, 6 and a half years
-Jerry: started in mid-90s as a sculptor, founded SOTA and now Pop Culture Shock
-Jeff: Manages TMNT at Playmates but has worked at a lot of the companies over the years
-Jesse: Director of Licensing for Marvel but technically works for Disney, 18 years
-Brian & Jeremy: founded Spy Monkey which has been doing mass production stuff for about 1 year

To get things started Dan comments on how, in the last year, we've seen an increase in "pre-funded" toys (for instance on Kickstarter or the Matty Hoverboard), and is that something we'll see more of in the future. Jerry says he'll be trying it with a line of action figures at the end of this year which will take everything he had wanted to do with SOTA's attempted relaunch of Micronauts, but sadly won't be Micronauts since Hasbro now has that. They'll design, plan and sculpt everything but not go into production until they hit their goals. Scott agrees, pre-funding helps eliminate a lot of the risk and also helps gauge interest, "are fans louder than they are numerous." Jim hopes it'll start a trend of getting more new and different things out. Brian points out that most Kickstarter projects usually fail so Spy Monkey has put a lot of thought into this as they too plan a Kickstarter toy line for the fall. They are also planning on doing all the work up front so that as soon as the goal is hit they can go immediately go into production because some of the failure comes from people who don't understand how much time and energy go into making toys after doing the initial concepts drawings. Thus, the projects die in the lag time after launching their Kickstarter. Jean says he see's a lot of similarity between this kind of thing and whats happened in the music industry. It could completely change the marketplace and puts more of the "what gets made" decision in the hands of the fans, who can then allow for more niche things and make it easier for non big company folks to make figures.

Dan next asks about the creation of more affordable 3D printers and the potential of "print at home" toys, which then led to the discussion of hand-sculpting vs digital-sculpting. Print at Home would be a total game changer for everything, not just toys (you could get replacement parts for vacuum cleaners, home decor, etc) and would further allow for more creator-owned product to get released. As far as sculpting most of the managers like Chuck and Jim don't really care how a figure gets made as long as it happens on schedule. It's about a 50/50 split on digital versus hand sculpting at DCD but Jerry's work is 80% digital, however he points out that it's just another tool, there is no real cost or time savings with digital (unless you want to take one sculpt and do it different scales or formats). Spy Monkey tried some digital sculpting recently and had the piece roughed out digitally with the plan to refine it by hand, but the by-hand revisions took just as long as it would have taken to sculpt the whole thing from scratch. Then, once they sent it to China their manufacturer was asking questions like "do you want this as a straight line" or "an even edge" and of course said "yes" so that manufacturer tweaked and refined that stuff digitally before production - so what they've found is that digital is best at refining hand sculpting, not the other way around. Jerry also points out that digital isn't perfect and one of the issues it can have, aside of the high cost to "print" (which is why they hand-sculpt their lifesize busts as a digital print of such a thing would cost about $20,000), is that he's now sculpting on the 2D surface of the monitor, so that when things come out they can look slightly "off" as a result of the weird sense of depth when using the computer.

A lot of people on the panel are working on older licenses that could be considered "nostalgia properties," how do they determine when is the right time for that sort of property to come out? Scott just looks at his DVD shelf and thinks of what figures he'd like to have (that's how and why Mattel has the BttF license but there is just no way they can make figures cost out for production). For Jeff, TMNT is ready now because there's been a break. He worked at Playmates previously in the late 90s and in their research they found that kids no longer had any passion for the brand (to a 5-year-old TMNT had "been around forever"). For Chuck budget is a factor (there is rib-poking about Scott and Mattel having much deeper pockets) but really it's just a gut feeling. In fact they weren't planning on doing Universal Movie Monster figures at all until a meeting with the buyer for Toys R Us who very excitedly asked if they were once he found out they had the license. Jesse then asked if Chuck was doing a Wolfie doll from Munsters because he always wanted one when growing up, but sadly DST doesn't have the rights to plush on the license (to which Scott jokes about Mattel trademarking the term "plush").

Dan then asks about what "Holy Grail" licenses are left now, since Thundercats was the big one for so long. Blade Runner, Rocketeer, '60s TV Batman (though its said we'll probably be tired of it next year since so many companies have a piece of that pie now that the rights have been sorted out), Back to the Future (Scott/Mattel simply cannot make figures cost out to produce), and Spaceballs are all mentioned.

Next it was time for Q&A and when the first Questioner stood Jesse pointed out it was "The Collector" from Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. He asked Scott about using the profits from other lines to support BttF. That's not how it works, each line is its own thing. In fact for most lines each figure has a required profit margin that must be hit. For MotU and Ghostbusters they were able to make a single profit margin per year, that way it can be spread out across the whole line for the year which is why some figures have more new tooling while others have less. He then went into the business side of things explaining Profit and Loss sheets. In fact he is constantly fighting to keep the lines going because they can't produce the same amount of revenue as something like Hot Wheels or Barbie, but they take the same amount of resources (money, time, etc). The guy had been given a fee TMNT figure for asking a question but once Scott was finished he gestured to the Vykron in front of him and asked "Is that for me?" After a stunned moment Scott said sure, and the guy went up and grabbed it though someone pointed out he had already gotten a free toy. The whole audience boo-ed him until he went back and put Vykron back on the table, and it took a remarkable amount of boo-ing to cause it.

Next someone asked one of the two "classics" - how do I break in to the industry? Jim mentioned that F.I.T. offers a Toy Design program, and Jesse points out that CalArts does as well. Brian suggests getting to know everyone on the panel, that's what he did going to conventions and picking their brains on the process of making toys to get the knowledge. It's then pointed out there are a lot of jobs in the industry and it's important to figure out which one, specifically, you want and then hone in on it. Put together a portfolio for whatever that job is and just go for it. Also, don't get into the business because it seems fun, it is not - it's a lot of hard work and that comment is a red flag in interviews for Jeff. Jeremy then adds that you need to ask yourself "do you want to be in the industry or do you want to make toys?" He fell into the latter category which is why they started Spy Monkey as a hobby and labor of love while keeping their day-jobs.

And, finally, someone asked the other "classic" - "why don't you make X?" In this instance it was directed at Scott about his suggested Spaceballs line. Fortunately though, we were close to out-of-time so the awkward non-answering didn't last that long but it did kind of ruin a near perfect discussion.

It was a bunch of familiar questions throughout the event but all had fresh answers and lively, engaging discussion. This panel was really good (interesting and fun) and will be forever on remembered as the highlight of this year's Con for me. A big, big thank you to Daniel Pickett for putting this on, for the last 10 years of "Behind the Plastic" and to another 10 years to come!

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