Q&A: How The Other Half Lives, Maybe Some Newness, Retro Figures, and More Packaging

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's Monday, so read some Q&A! Are we suffering from brand fatigue? I don't think so, personally. Should we expect Hasbro to do a Pre-Order Program for a Death Star Playset? I wouldn't hold my breath. And there's more! Also, more adventures in spying on how the Hot Wheels half lives at the end.


1. Brand-Fatigue has been on my mind a lot this over the past year. Is what I or, if I may be so bold, we are feeling magnified in our microcosm of toys & collectibles or has Star Wars finally reached a saturation point with the masses? More over, when it came out that we'll start getting a Star Wars movie every year starting in 2015... well even just that announcement wore me out. Do you foresee this as a sort of "bombardment" that will water down the resonance and popularity of Star Wars - OR - is this following of the successful Marvel model the best what to keep the brand relevant and alive in todays short-attention-span culture?

The heyday of this line was fueled by speculation on a grand scale, which finally came crashing down in the early 2000s in a big way. People are still interested, but are without anything of interest. It's also possible we're entering a post-action figure culture, which we saw happen with comics and trading cards. The days of the $60 video game could be waning too. It's impossible to know for sure.

What we saw in 2012 was a delightfully messy convergence of things that didn't work. The Phantom Menace has been historically underrepresented because it didn't do well. We saw items pulled from the line and never released, plus reissues of things that were cheaper on eBay from the previous release. There were few figures easily found which were really Star Warsy - Darth Vader was in pretty short supply, and the Movie Heroes wave 1 was about as yawn-inducing as they come. (Well, it's right up there with 3 3/4-inch Black Series Wave 1.)

Seeing that the readers for this column have been level, I have to assume people are interested even if they aren't buying. Just based on what was shown to us for Q3 and Q4 of this year I more or less expect the line to hit a similar snag in that I don't know if people will jump at more prequel stuff and no "new" stuff from a TV show or another aspect of the franchise. Other toy lines don't tend to suffer from the same stuff with few to no changes, but it's possible a more expensive 6-inch line and a cheaper 4-inch line could come together to actually grab two different audiences. I hope that it does.

Marvel has a large pool and had the benefit of basically starting fresh with a 3 3/4-inch line a few years ago. Star Wars has (depending on how you count it) 18-35 years of baggage and there's still juice in the brand. It's not what it was, but unless they find a way to engage a lot more people at a lower price that may not be possible to bring back.



2. Being a long time star wars collector, like many, I have seen an evolution of the star wars figure.

First, we had the Kenner line. These figures had only 5 points of articulation, terrible paint schemes, and rarely looked like the character.

From this we had the "salt shaker" imperial royal guard and emperor. Episodes 2 and 3 come along and the figures improved vastly. We got multiple points of articulation, ball jointed ankles and wrists, excellent paint schemes, great accessories, and cloth capes and cloaks. Granted the price jumped a bit, but for a great figure, that was more than acceptable. We have seen the vintage line go from "galactic hunter" exclusives to everyday figures. A great figure for an extra dollar or two.

I have been turned off lately by hasbro, not because of lack of stuff to collect, but for the lack of originality of any new star wars figures lately.

Here is my question. Why would the Star Wars line, who has jumped leaps and bounds, go from great articulation to a mere 5 points of articulation?

Help me explain why, we as collectors, should pay the same price (or more in some places) for rehashes of the same boring figures. Everyone has over 100 vaders, Obi Wans, and Yodas, except our figures are highly more evolved than the neanderthal figures that are being released. How can hasbro justify the same price point for lesser quality?

You should always vote with your dollars and buy what you want. This is the statement that tends to get me the most angry letters. Last year, fans really did say "we don't want this" and Hasbro basically had to reboot the line. I think this might be the right move, because rising costs in China (which are largely out of Hasbro's control) dictate that what we want now costs more.

After a long time collecting, there are some things Hasbro needs to keep cranking out to hook new kids and other stuff to keep old people interested. Last year we didn't see the balance mix quite right, and after 2,000-3,000 figures it's probably not reasonable to expect Hasbro to cater to the fan that buys everything. The number of people who own a complete set of action figures is not a large one anymore... and I defy anyone to determine what that set is, anyway.

So if you don't like it? Awesome. Don't buy it. The companies will learn and react accordingly. LEGO has basically supplanted Hasbro in the minds of kids as far as I can tell, and I assume this is where the action will be for quite some time. Every line has its ups and downs, some people loved the cheaper $4.99 Original Trilogy Collection and others were turned off by it. Thankfully, you've got options and you don't have to buy any of this stuff.


3. Hey. Hope al is well. Do you think Hasbro could, or would, ever follow the Mattel business model for their Castle Greyskull? If Hasbro made a 300.00 Death Star playset that had to be pre ordered, I would totally be in. How does Mattel make that stuff work for them?

It could be a simple numbers thing, but back in the 1990s Hasbro made more of an effort to go direct-to-collector and word through the grapevine was Walmart and the other big stores didn't care for this. Even though Hasbro Toy Shop is a thing today, it's not where the bulk of the volume is and running an online toy shop has a lot of unique challenges (he said as someone who works at Entertainment Earth for the day job). Setting up the infrastructure just to ship hundreds or thousands of orders per day is a pain in the neck, and we haven't even got to the product yet.

Could they? Sure! But they have a different attitude at Hasbro toward collecting and collectors. Hasbro has shied away from direct-to-consumer offerings and to be honest, I prefer it that way. Mattel got to do Castle Grayskull after nurturing an online store for about four or five years, at which point it was really expensive and let's face it: a year pre-order is a long time to wait and it was a blind pre-order for the hardcore fans who plunked down the cash to support the project. It boils down to different corporate cultures and goals, plus other kinds of personalities. He-Man wouldn't probably work any way other than as an online exclusive. Star Wars may get to that point, but by then Hasbro may view the brand as more trouble than it's worth. If you think getting products to stores is tough, imagine trying to get it to customers whose credit cards expire, who move, or other surprises along the way. It's not an area all companies are equipped to handle in bulk.

So far Hasbro has decided not to do this sort of thing and I'm OK with that. With He-Man, there's less you can do: not having any playsets and only one proper vehicle means they have to be creative about how things get done. Hasbro has hundreds of vehicles, many of which are repaints but they're still out there.

It's sort of apples and oranges - were Star Wars a more limited interest collector line, we'd probably have our Death Star, but we'd also be limited to very few figures per year at much higher prices. It's a toss-up. The same kind of thing doesn't always work for everybody, particularly if Hasbro does not want to do it.


4. What are your thoughts on the new Black Series 3-3/4" figures, as far as packaging goes? I don't mind the "spartan" look, and actually like the artwork of the characters' heads on the card, but I'm shocked at the wasted space in the bubble. I thought Hasbro was trying to save money on packaging materials by using smaller cards, bubbles, etc.? I feel they should just stick with the Vintage look and leave it at that, but the new bubbles seem excessive on the Black Series.

Let me kick off by saying packaging is what I throw in the garbage after I buy my figures. It does very little for me, I appreciate the novelty of fake 2010-2012 vintage packaging but mostly what I liked about it was the reduced plastic used in it... the cardboard seems to be a wash.

I appreciate the smaller footprint, but The Black Series 3 3/4-inch packaging may not make it obvious which figure(s) are on the racks due to the design. From where I sit the figures are more likely to be a problem than the packaging, because wave 1 does have all the makings of another glut that stops wave 2 from making it out. As you say, there's wasted plastic but that's more or less the norm for the bulk of kid-oriented lines. If you want to see a real waste of plastic in bubbles, look at Transformers - by switching from vehicle mode to robot mode, the items take up more room. Sure, they look better and sell more, but what about efficiency? (OK, bad example.)

We can armchair quarterback all we want, but Vintage ultimately didn't do what Hasbro wanted it to do, and we don't know how they determine why something worked or didn't - it could be as simple as "the big box stores didn't order enough, ergo it's a failure" when you and I see it as "wave 1 2012 prevented wave 2 and beyond from hitting and I ain't buying more Qui-Gon figures!"

I don't think the new Black Series packaging (and name) will do much other than invite unfavorable comparisons between the 3 3/4-inch and 6-inch lines. Now they're called the same thing, which may invite people to go "This guy is $10, this other guy is $20, I'm getting the big one." It's uninviting packaging that to me feels more disposable and less friendly or inviting. If I saw a black cardboard hole on the toy aisle I guess I might rifle through it, but a sea of it doesn't seem overly appealing. Hasbro tests this stuff to death, though, so regardless of what you or I think, I'm sure a lot of thought went into it before we even saw it. And now, we play the waiting game.


5. I have some questions about some other action figure lines. At C6, I remember a booth where information was passed out about some retro Alien figures. I think the manufacturer had found the original tooling and was planning to make some figures for a new line. I remember being told they would only be sold in comic book stores, but I don't remember the date. Do you? Also, will there be any 3 3/4 action figures for the new Star Trek and the Lone Ranger movies?

Super7 will be revealing more of its retro ReAction ALIEN line at Comic-Con in July. I'll be taking a ton of pictures - I'm excited! Zica Toys is doing something similar for totally original (but very 1980s) Six Million Dollar Man figures. I want those.

NECA showed 3 3/4-inch Lone Ranger product at Toy Fair but I haven't seen (or missed) pre-orders for these. As such, I am not sure if they're still coming or not just yet. Star Trek Into Darkness has no action figure line announced for it, so if it does come out from someone it'll be a bit of a surprise to us all. Or an exclusive for somebody.



As regular readers know, I've been spying on Mattel's #1 boy cash cow with the one-two punch of Hot Wheels and Matchbox. I've been getting Masters of the Universe for a while and it's interesting to hear how each toy collector group perceives the other, like we saw in Mike's question this week. What we see as a "Why doesn't Hasbro do that?" is sort of an odd, one-off occurrence which, frankly, will likely never be replicated. (Well, maybe we'll get Snake Mountain. I'd buy one.)

There's always a lot of "the grass is always greener" in other hobbies. For example, we don't get "third-party" (read: bootleg/knockoff/unlicensed) large toys, but Transformers does. The quality control is a little different than a mainstream product, and a 4-inch toy might set you back $40-$80, but it's there. I also found out Hot Wheels gets regular mail-in offers... and I'm hoping Hasbro doesn't read this, because these are the requirements:

Buy 20 (20!) cars within a 2-month window at Toys R Us. Not other stores, Toys R Us. Send in 20 cardbacks, the dated receipts, and $3.50 to get 1 car. Want two cars? That's another $3.50, and all of the other stuff. That's a big envelope, a lot more postage, and arguably not quite the bang-for-the-buck that the $6.99 + 5 UPCs mail-ins we get for Star Wars every few years, and I complained about the $7 for those. (That'll not happen again.)

Personally I would rather they not do mail-in offers - I assume more money is made just selling the product - but the mail-ins also have an ulterior motive of working as a sort of a "clearance sale" at full price where you get kids or collectors to snap up a few extras (or in the case of Hot Wheels, a LOT of extras) in the name of keeping their collections complete. At least Hasbro usually didn't ask for receipts... or when they did, they didn't seem to mind that I sent in a receipt for my Teriyaki Chicken bowl I had for lunch that day. (Tokyo Express, baby.)

Another interesting find is the issue of prices and "premium product," which I would say is a toss-up. On the bright side, the basic Hot Wheels car is $1, while (as of today, anyway) the basic Star Wars figure is $9 or so. Proportionally, few if any Star Wars 3 3/4-inch figures go above $20ish, Brian's Toys Jocasta Nu breaking the all-time record for overblown packaging and it's priced accordingly. With Hot Wheels, there are a lot of $2, $3, and even $5 cars at retail plus "elite" 1:64 scale cars (basically 3-inches long, same as the basics) that can be $10, $20, or at times higher. (And let's not talk about chase Treasure Hunts.)

It's a concurrent line of collectibles with a very different way of working things. On one hand, you've got more than 250 cars for $1 each almost every year. On the other, if you're a completist, you've probably got thousands of dollars ahead of you and a lot of pavement-pounding for exclusives.

As far as I can tell the takeaway from this is "don't be a completist." It's bad. If you can help it, remember that the bulk of the rage you're going to feel comes from the few pieces you can't get rather than the dozens/hundreds you can get. If you can let it go, bully for you - and if you can't, well, unfortunately I'm one of you when it comes to Star Wars and it really sucks to be us some days. All I can say is if you can see a piece that makes you furious and just say "I'm keeping the $20!" you're going to be a lot better off.

--Adam Pawlus

Got questions? Email me with Q&A in the subject line now! I'll answer your questions as soon as time (or facts) permit.