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Points of Articulation

Rustin Parr
Top 10 Ways Mattel Can Screw Up BTTF

So, the other day word leaked out that Mattel had landed the license to make Back To The Future toys. We passed the news on to our own Rustin Parr, a notorious BTTF fan, and his response was... unprintable. But if you know Rustin (or follow our Twitter account) you have a pretty good idea of what he said. It was succinct and to the point, and in two words summed up all of our feelings about the move.

Clearly this isn't news Mattel wanted out yet. It was gleaned from a press release - one put out by Universal Studios, not by Mattel itself - and because they have yet to master even a basic level of online presence, they still haven't given even a brief comment on the news. No doubt they were planning some big, shocking reveal, but the cat's out of the bag and they haven't even managed to scrape together a quick "hey, wow, look at all this cat fur all over the furniture."

Diamond Select has made some cool BTTF toys, but we already knew their original license was expiring at the end of the year. So, in conjunction with Rustin Parr, here are the Top Ten Ways Mattel could screw up the Back To The Future toys.

  1. Put them on Matty Collector
    Mattel's online store is the joke of the industry. It's been active for nearly two full years now, and yet every month it still experiences all the same problems it had on Day One. There is no clearer evidence of Mattel's perpetual inability to learn from its own mistakes than that site. You could have built a better commerce site in 1997 using Geocities' WYSIWYG page editor than the world's largest toy company has been able to buy in 2010. Hell, Rustin returned a broken toy to them in July and the best they can do is send weekly emails about "trying to track down more info."

  2. Try to reuse parts
    Poe may love the He-Man figures and their small pool of bodyparts, but even he's had to admit that all four Ghostbusters using the same generic body is less than ideal. If there's one thing Mattel loves, it's cheaping out on production, because the company was built on the back of Barbie, and they still think in those terms: every Barbie body is the same, and their bottom line relies on people buying that one body over and over in order to get a new pair of shoes or a specialized accessory. But Back to the Future absolutely won't support it. You might be able to do Doc and Marty in their radiation suits, or retools of Marty's jean/T-Shirt look but that's about it. Yes, lots of characters just wear similar kinds of clothes, but even in 1955, George McFly, Marty and Biff have drastically different physiques, to say nothing of the difference in height (again, look at the awesome attention to such detail on the Ghostbusters). But this is Mattel, so look forward to a Marty looking Biff in the eyes.

  3. Mego knockoffs
    One way to get around having to pay the Four Horsemen to sculpt new bodies for every character is to use those stupid doll bodies Mattel developed. There's no explaining why so many companies are trying to make Megos now (we blame ToyFare - Twisted ToyFare Theatre fooled everyone into thinking Megos were fun), but they're all just terrible. The idea of a doll with superhero clothes is insipid, but the factories that make Barbie dresses and hats could easily be switched to making Marty's vest or Doc's labcoat, and that's clearly what Mattel sees in the style. Who cares if shoppers hate it? Since when have the demands of the customer mattered one whit to Mattel? And while the existing Mattel fake-Megos are pretty crappy at least they have cool source costumes - beyond Future Marty and Future Doc we're looking at just "People in Clothes." A concept which Bif Bang Pow has already shown to be offensively horrible with their ghastly Lost fake-Megos.

  4. Cartoon likenesses
    While we're on the subject, think about exactly what Mattel is doing with the Ghostbusters dolls - it's not the movie, it's The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. Did you know Back to the Future had an animated series, as well? You shouldn't, because it was awful. There were 26 episodes, and although Christopher Lloyd played Doc Brown in live-action segments that bookended the show, only Mary Steenburgen (Clara) and Thomas F. Wilson (Biff) were desperate enough to voice their old characters. The show's only redeeming quality was that it led directly to Bill Nye getting his own show on PBS, and we'd rather get toys of that than the clumsy early-'90s character designs of the BTTF cartoon.

  5. Scale
    Mattel's proved before that they won't necessarily go with the smart choice: MoTU Classics are too big to fit with MotU 2002 and DCU? Ghostbusters is too small to integrate with McFarlane and NECA movie toys? We can guess what size Mattel is likely to pick, but past experience shows they have a dangerous unpredictability and all the keen awareness of a man humming with his fingers in his ears. So what size will the toys be? Six inch, to fit with the disappointing Ghostbusters toys? Seven inch, to fit with every other damn line of movie toys? Twelve inch, to appeal to no one? Four inch, to better accommodate vehicles and playsets? No matter what size they pick, someone will whine about it, but a truly bad choice has the potential to push buyers away.

  6. Vehicles
    Mattel's license includes the rights to make vehicles, and a lot could go wrong, there. Such as:
    1. The wrong size
      This is the company of Hot Wheels, remember: a worst-case scenario would be the Mego dolls, each with a pack-in Hot Wheels car. Imagine a DeLorean, a steam locomotive and Marty's skateboard, all being the same 3" long.
    2. The wrong ones
      DST's DeLoreans are already in a 3¾" scale, a size Mattel has worked with a bit and is well-suited to vehicle-compatibility. But Mattel will want to make their own, and if they go for the most convenient scale, will fans want to buy something they may have already bought before?
    3. Too many
      There are at least four versions of the DeLorean seen in the films, so obviously there's potential for mold re-use there, but again, how many people will want four nearly identical cars (in any scale)? Especially since replicas of the car are all that have been available up until recently, so most of us hardcore BTTFanatics already own multiple sets in multiple scales. How many people can afford to rebuy the lot, especially at Mattel prices? We know Mattel is quick to pull the plug if things don't sell as fast as they'd like, so if one of the time machines lingers, will we get screwed out of the rest?
    4. Too few
      The flipside of that coin, if you only make the DeLorean, you're missing out. We're not saying we need Biff's car, Marty's truck or the ever-present manure wagon, but there's more to the movie than just that one silver icon. Don't believe us? Well...

  7. The Time Train
    As Rustin says, the Back to the Future III Time Train is probably the second most iconic steampunk thing ever, but nobody's ever made it. DST continuously refuses to consider making one in any scale or style. They didn't even make a bank of it, and they loved cheating things by making banks. We're not saying it has to be in scale with the figures - that would be insane, both in terms of production and cost - but it does need to be made, and ignoring it would be a huge insult.

  8. Build-A-Figures
    "You say you want a DeLorean? Well buy all 15 figures and you can build it! Oh, you missed one figure because of our crappy website? Well, we'll be re-releasing it next year, maybe." Mattel's stayed away from the BAF concept when it comes to their online exclusives, but the fact that they're putting the super-rare DCU8 Hawkgirl and Gentleman Ghost out in a two-pack without the Giganta BAF parts just shows that they can sometimes miss the most obvious things. Maybe Western Doc and Western Marty could each come with half the clock face, but that should be about as far as that idea goes.

  9. Accessories
    One of the supposed "selling" points of the recent Egon Spengler release was that he came with a PKE meter. Really? Three cents worth of plastic and paint that could have been included with every Gb figure up 'til now, and it's supposed to be some great new thing? Oh, well, if that wasn't enough there is always the stack of @#%&ing books he comes with! Who comes up with this $#&%!? Mattel is great at cheating us out of value on their online products. Just imagine: February 2011, BTTF2 Marty; November 2011, BTTF2 Marty with hoverboard; July 2012, BTTF2 Marty with hat. Want the world-changing Sports Almanac? Gotta buy the SDCC exclusive - actually, you have to buy it on-site, because the online version will only include the dust jacket that was wrapped around Biff's girly magazine. But don't worry, they'll get to Doc soon enough since they're only releasing one figure every two months.

  10. Just be Mattel
    You don't think so? Every boys' line they've touched has gone up in flames. They're doing okay right now, but will the die-hard fans be willing to add $20... no, let's not forget shipping and handling for each figure, so $30 worth of Back To The Future to the $30 they're already paying for mediocre Ghostbusters and the $30 for misassembled He-Man toys? How much longer can they really continue to bilk collectors despite their bad business practices?

The name "Mattel" means one thing to action figure shoppers: disappointment. They're that rare breed of company that not only has major problems, but also seems unwilling to listen to solutions. We have literally spent 25 years waiting for this news and the sheer fact that initial response to this pairing has universally proved to be, at best, 50/50 in terms of enthusiasm. Arguably the only truly positive thing about this deal is that any hoverboard they make can actually have the screen-accurate Mattel logo on it. But let's just wait and see how they sneak that smartass Matty face somewhere on the Pit Bull hoverboard (if they ever make it). Mattel has consistently shown that they know how to make great action figures over the past couple years, but the only thing more consistent than that is how they'll kill that proposed quality in execution, in production, and/or in release. Like a whale that keeps beaching itself, we can only take them to the water so many times before we just go home, hungry and exhausted.

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