End of the Action Figure Era 2.0
I suppose the bubble had to burst at some point, but the oddly candid news coming from Matty Collector this month seems to confirm what most had suspected for a while now – the unprecedented toy licensing boom is coming to an end. It probably won’t be next year, but I suspect Matty Collector may be put to bed by 2013.
This would cap almost 14 years of one of the biggest toy booms in recent memory. Unlike the previous toy boom in the 80s, one that catered to mass market half hour cartoons, this toy boom seemed determined to cater to those same children – now in their 20s – giving them all the toys not delivered when they were growing up. It was a stunning run, with some truly surprising lines.
Let’s just do a quick rundown of some of the licenses that got toy treatment: Hellraiser, The Devil’s Rejects, Reservoir Dogs, Ghostbusters, An American Werewolf in London, Puppet Master, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Escape from New York, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Child’s Play, Kill Bill, Darkman, Terminator, The Simpsons, South Park, The Warriors, Die Hard, Edward Scissorhands, Jaws, King Kong, Robocop, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pumpkinhead, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lost, Austin Powers, and on and on. That’s not even including all of the 80s toy lines that were revived in the same period: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (twice!), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and G.I. Joe, all which were given wide releases back into major store chains.
I would argue that McFarlane Toys (Todd Toys, originally) started the whole frenzy back in 1998 with the first release of their Cult Classics line, which featured well-sculpted versions of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Leatherface, and the one no one bought – Species. The reaction (and sales) were enough to convince other toy manufacturers that there was money to be made mining every cult/horror/sci-fi IP from the 70s-90s. McFarlane, NECA, and Mezco lead the race. In a curious development, only one major toy company – Mattel – decided to jump into the pool. After the mass market collapse of the Masters of the Universe revival line in 2005, they came up with an inspired idea: Mattycollector.com. This specialty website would be dedicated to creating fan favorite toy lines without the business concerns of mass distribution. They launched with two proven winners: another go at He-Man and DC Comics. A third bombshell line, Ghostbusters, was added a couple of years later. This would actually be the second attempt at a Ghostbusters line, after NECA released one set with no Ghostbusters (?) just the ghosts.
Mattycollector.com also created a smart system of subscription services, where you could “subscribe” to a toy line and get every figure released that year mailed to your home. It was more like a figure-of-the-month club, but it guaranteed you the whole collection and helped Mattel figure out how many figures needed to be produced and if their was enough demand to make the line in the first place.
Over the last couple of years, you could begin to feel the industry become tired. Many of the licenses had become over exposed (Army of Darkness, Freddy), and several found their way to the bargain bin within months. This month, for the first time ever, Matty Collector had to push back their deadlines for their subscription service because of lack of demand. One line, Club Infinite for DC comic characters, barely made it and arguably the most popular line, Club Eternia for He-Man, sold its fewest subscriptions to date.
So what’s the reason behind this? Could it be just another trend that finally flamed out? Personally, I think it comes down to two reasons: First, the thrill of it faded. To a certain extent, these things were like a time machine. Men now had the income to get their hands on toys that they either never received or were never created in their true figure collecting days. To get that Destro figure or that Peter Venkman was to change a bit of history. Second, it became too expensive. On average, these figures cost between $15-$20 a piece pre-ebay. If you get a subscription on Mattycollector, you’re looking at a commitment of several hundred dollars. All for glorified action figures. In the midst of a recession this deep with no end in sight, that’s a tall mountain to climb.