In 1992, Playmates
toys developed the action figure line for the Star Trek license. The license encompassed a series of shows that had lasted over three
decades, and was loved by millions of extreme fans. This was not the first time action figures had been produced for
these shows by a company, but it became the most successful.
In 2000, Playmates
Toys developed the action figure line for the Simpsons license. The license involves a show that is now in it's second decade of
programming, and is loved by millions of extreme fans. This is not the first time action figures have been produced for this
show by a company, but it is certainly the most successful.
How are these two
lines similar, and how are they different? And how can that information give us insight into the possible
future, pitfalls to avoid, and successes that are possible in the Simpsons
To boldly go...
Star Trek has become the
most massive licensing juggernaut in history. Sorry, Star Wars fans, but Star Trek has included four major
television series, soon to be five, an animated Saturday morning show, and
soon to be TEN movies! The
original show was the spark for the first large Sci-fi conventions, which
are now regular events across the country. And the fan base is so rabid, so eccentric, that a full-length film
on some of the more unusual members was produced to rave reviews.
Playmates picked up the
license and started producing toys in 1992. Other companies had came before - most notably, Mego and Galoob had
produced a variety of figures - but none had done it with the level of
fervor or commitment that Playmates exhibited.
If you have a 'complete'
collection, including all major variations and sizes, you could easily have
over 300 figures. They produced
figures in 4.5", 6", 9" and 12" formats, along with
various vehicles, ships and playsets. Many
obscure characters were produced, along with variations on the main
characters such as Picard, Kirk, Spock and others.
In it's early days, as
many as 250,000 of a single figure were produced, but by the end of the run
in 1999, figure runs were in the 10k neighborhood.
He's dead, Jim...
So what caused the
downfall of the Star Trek line of action figures? While it is certain that there was no one thing that brought about
the end, there were two major factors that came into play. One of these was inevitable, and the other a bad decision on the part
The inevitable factor was
the decline in rabid Star Trek fandom. The most dedicated fans followed the Original Series and the Next
Generation. Neither Deep Space 9 nor Voyager were ever able to garner the
same type of dedicated followers, and that translated into poor sales on all
DSN and Voyager toys.
While there has always
been some rivalry between Star Trek and Star Wars fans, when it really comes
down to it many people are both. This
was true with action figure collectors as well, and most people that had
been buying Star Trek figures began to be drawn away by the fresher and more
exciting Star Wars figures that were being released starting in 1995.
These external factors
began to deplete the market share for the Playmates action figures. They were looking for something to breathe life into the line, and
they made a terrible mistake. They
chose to used limited editions.
Now I'm not talking about
exclusives. Playmates had used
exclusives with success, and Hasbro has had terrific success with them as
well. Exclusive simply means
that you'll have to obtain the figure from a particular retailer. Since the retailer chosen were almost always huge - Target, Kaybee,
Toys R Us - there really was little trouble in finding the pure exclusives
for most serious collectors.
The beginning of the end came in 1994, with what was known as the 'Red Data'. Technically, this was Data as seen in the episode 'Redemption', but
since he's wearing a red uniform (which he never wore in the episode),
calling him Red Data was simpler. These
figures were produced as an exclusive, but a very limited one, since it was
through an odd retailer - J.C. Penny - and the retailer didn't order a large
quantity. It's estimated that
only about 5500 were produced, and many collectors who had been completists
were suddenly having trouble finding a unique figure.
This was upsetting to
collectors but not the end of the world. If you were still a diehard completist, you could spend a hundred
bucks and get a Red Data. There
were a few other figures like this over the next couple years, but it was
still not entirely unreasonable, cost-wise, to have a complete collection. And while collectors complained, they weren't reacting at the level
of their buying habits...yet.
In 1996, Playmates came up
with a marketing scheme that would cause pain and backlash for quite some
time to come. They produced the
now infamous 1701 series of figures - Captain Picard from Tapestry, Yar from
Yesterday's Enterprise, and Barclay from Projections. The number of figures, 1701, was intended as homage to the number
assigned to the Enterprise - NCC 1701. But limiting a figure to less than 2000, when there were still
thousands of diehard collectors, was a tremendous mistake.
The backlash was almost
immediate. It was so strong, that the production run on Barclay was
upped to 3000, but it was too little, too late. Prices on the Tapestry Picard reached $1,000, and even today is one
of the most expensive figures from the 1990's on the secondary market, still
pulling in three to four hundred dollars.
Suddenly there was no
longer any chance that you could own a complete collection. Unlike Red Data or some of the other earlier limited exclusives,
there was no chance you'd find one of these at a flea market or a garage
sale - only the big boys had them in their possession, and there would be no
finding one once the few that had shipped were snatched at retail, most
often by scalpers and stockboys. It
was a crushing blow to many collectors, and in the coming months it was
common to find complete collections for sale.
The most damaging part was
that the collectors felt betrayed. Playmates
had set them up, hooking them on a line of action figures that they wanted
to complete, and then handed over a figure to the scalpers and the dealers
that the average collector could never afford. This period of time - 1996 - was the absolute heyday of the toy
scalper, and finding almost any new figure from any line on the pegs was a
constant battle. Something this
rare didn't stand a chance.
Playmates attempted to
recover by offering the figures in a boxed set, and the Tapestry Picard
version from Toyfare as an exclusive, but it was another disaster. It didn't appease those collectors already fed up with the situation,
since they had already been betrayed. And
now the collectors that had paid up to a thousand dollars for a single
figure saw their 'investment' take a serious hit. Playmates couldn't win for losing at this point.
These two factors collided
from 1996 to 1997, and by 1998 the line was pretty much dead. From a time when an exclusive figure of 10,000 was tough to find, the
usual figure run was now only 10,000, and those sat on the shelf. With the license itself pretty much stagnate, with the
pressures from Star Wars and other lines, the Playmates Star Trek license
ended in 1999 with a whimper.
Best action figure line
Playmates picked up the
license for the Simpsons and started producing figures in 2000. So far they've given us four waves of six figures each, and eight
different playsets, along with various exclusives. These
playsets and figures incorporate a new technology, using chips inside the
playsets and resistors on the figures. This allows the figures to say lines from the shows when placed on
the playsets. While this isn't a new idea - talking figures have been
around for forty years - it's certainly one of the best implementations of
In reading the information
on the Star Trek line, you'll notice many similarities. Playmates has used exclusives again, and usually through major
retailers like Toys R Us. While
they are annoying, the dedicated collector can pick them up pretty easily at
the time they are released. They
release many odd and unusual characters, and they like to do variations on
the major players at regular intervals. They produce more than just the line of figures, including the
playsets, and they produce in more than one format or size. The Evil Krusty doll is just one example of how we can expect to see
this branching out take place in the Simpsons license.
There are other more
disturbing and dangerous similarities as well. The Glow in the Dark Homer, released as a Toyfare exclusive, wasn't
that well communicated to collectors, and it slipped by many without them
thinking twice. Unfortunately, it has now become the hardest piece for
collectors to obtain, and the level of frustration over this is starting to
show. Playmates didn't intend
for it to be a 'limited' figure, but since the popularity of the line wasn't
yet fully realized, and many collectors were late to get into the game, it
ended up being a limited edition anyway. Sound anything like Red Data?
We know that Toyfare
magazine will have several more exclusives, and are milking them in an
attempt to bolster their subscriptions. They know they have a hot property, and fortunately Playmates is only
giving them relatively harmless exclusives - certainly nothing like a brand
new figure, but rather repaints or slight re-decos. But the damage potential is there, particularly since the fan base
for the Simpsons line is so similar to the fan base of Star Trek. They are very dedicated, they are often completists, and they will
throw in the towel if it becomes obvious that they cannot complete a
collection at a reasonable cost.
I doubt Playmates will
make the same mistake as 1701, and the current fervor over Simpsons
merchandise doesn't appear to be subsiding on it's own. There aren't any other major, long running licenses out there right
now to dilute the collector dollar, since Star Wars is in a lull and will be
until at least spring of 2002, and Batman is kaput. Given all that, the future looks bright for the Simpsons line, at
least until 2003.
But it isn't impossible
that Playmates could make a major error in judgement - those that ignore
history are destined to repeat it. I
believe that the wounds of their mistakes are still fresh enough that we
won't see a repeat soon, but I believe that it would be in their best
interest at this point to extricate themselves from the relationship with
At first, these exclusives
gave the Simpsons line the exposure they were looking for and so desperately
needed. The coverage in Toyfare
brought in plenty of hardcore collectors, just what the Simpsons line was
searching for. But now it can
actually hurt them, particularly since Toyfare seems intent on hyping the
'value' of their 'rare' exclusives. It
would be in Playmates best interest to disengage at this point, now that the
initial objective has been fulfilled.
So what does all this
mean? I think that there are
far more similarities than differences between the Star Trek and Simpsons
lines, especially in those areas that count toward the success of the action
figures. Ignoring these
similarities could be deadly, but I believe that Playmates is smart enough
to learn from their mistakes.
Ah, but then what the hell do I know. Drop me a line, and let me know what you think.