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Points of Articulation

Poe Ghostal
Armchair Toy Fair Coverage - '05

Each successive Toy Fair has been more focused on the independent companies, and 2005 was no exception. NECA and SOTA especially made quite an impact with their Cult Classics and Now Playing lines - between them, the two companies seem determined to fill the gaps left by McFarlane's Movie Maniacs line. The biggest surprise was probably Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko, though SOTA's announcement of a highly-articulated, 6"-scale Micronauts revamp is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

I'll be curious to see how well the Micronauts line does. Mattel, a huge company with very deep pockets, failed in their efforts to bring back Masters of the Universe, a line that had a lot more potential for collector nostalgia than Micronauts. However, Mattel wasn't marketing toward collectors - they were targeting children, and that, I think, was a mistake.

Children do still buy (or get their parents to buy) action figures - and it's telling that the two most successful lines with children, Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are made by the big companies (I'm not certain how well ToyBiz's various Marvel lines sell, but I suspect not quite as well as SW or TMNT). But SW and TMNT are a rarity; videogames have usurped the toy market primacy action figures held even a decade ago. A toyline as goofy as Masters of the Universe simply didn't have much of a chance in today's market, particularly with the poor marketing decisions made by Mattel. The Four Horsemen, who designed the new MOTU line, created a wonderfully dark premise for the new line, where the bad guys were in charge and the good guys, rather than being defenders of the bright and shiny kingdom (which played fairly well in the Reagan era), are rebels fighting the dark forces (a more appealing conception in today's post-Matrix, post-9/11 world).

My point is, it's really no longer possible to create the sort of huge, all-encompassing, mega-popular, massive moneymaking action figure line that flourished in the '80s because

  1. videogames have largely replaced physical toys; and
  2. the rise of cable television means kids' interests have diversified - there are no longer three or four big network or syndicated cartoons to base a toy series on. Now there are dozens, even hundreds of different properties.

I think it's a shame many kids don't play with action figures anymore, but I suppose when I was collecting action figures in the '80s, my parents thought it was a shame kids didn't play with Slinkies or baseballs.

For us action figure collectors, the upshot has been a slow restructuring of the market. Instead of gigantic lines by huge companies like Mattel or Hasbro, the real meat of the market is in small companies like SOTA, NECA, Mezco, Palisades, and even McFarlane. These companies make well-sculpted lines based on relatively obscure licenses. They release figures in relatively small numbers and at fairly high price points; however, these prices, while annoying, are not as much of a problem for the older collector as they would be for children. The fact is, the profit margins for companies like Palisades and SOTA are razor-thin as it is. McFarlane Toys is able to keep their prices down because they've been around longer and have had time to build successful manufacturing relationships. As they grow, other companies will (in theory) do the same.

Personally, I much prefer smaller companies to larger ones. There's a lot of evidence that corporations work best when they're small; the larger it gets, the more bloated and inefficient it becomes, until it reaches a point where risks just aren't taken and innovation is stifled (hence the late MOTU). Small companies have produced three of the most amazing action figure lines I've ever seen: SOTA's Street Fighter, Palisades's Muppets, and Mezco's Hellboy.

I honestly doubt that larger companies could create these lines. And you can actually watch the process of how the product of a growing company begins to fail in the trials and tribulations of ToyBiz's Marvel Legends line, as long-suffering Jesse Falcon tries to walk a line between case assortments that will make sure kids get the figures they want and collectors will have enough of the obscure characters.

In any event - back to Toy Fair. This year, more than any other, we saw the triumph of the independent companies, as evidenced by the slew of obscure licenses. Forget Donnie Darko; did anyone ever think we'd have action figures from the movie The Warriors? Or American Psycho? How about figures based on the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft? For years, McFarlane Toys told us we couldn't have Hellraiser toys. Now, after several series of figures from NECA, we may see a playset!

Palisades has a 4" line of figures from Army of Darkness. Army of Darkness, people! I think the money from the merchandising of that film long ago surpassed its budget and box-office take combined. Palisades will also be giving us toys based on a comedy cartoon show pieced together from footage from a failed '70s cartoon (Sealab 2021) - to say nothing of the resurrection of Invader Zim, who, like Army of Darkness, has had far more success in its merchandising afterlife

As for Toy Fair itself - I'm still irritated by Mezco's unexplained decision to forbid photography of their Hellboy and Goon lines. I'd like to point out the immense disparity between the public relations of the independent companies; some, like SOTA and Palisades, are phenomenal, while others, such as McFarlane and, lately, Mezco, deal with their fans almost as an afterthought. While some claim that Palisades's catering to fans hurts their business, I think that's outdated corpthink. If Mattel had listened to (or at least treated) the MOTU fans better, the line might have been profitable.

NECA also forbid photography, though their press department seems to have been more forthcoming than Mezco.

Overall, this turned out to be one of the more exciting and interesting Toy Fairs of the last few years. The collectors' market has truly come into its own, though, sadly, the children's market seems to be shrinking. But this has allowed the smaller companies to get a foot in the industry door, and that, in the long run, will be good for the industry as a whole.

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