Has Homer reached the Final Frontier?
Posted 06/27/01

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 line?

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 of Playmates.

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 ever...

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 the concept.

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 Toyfare.

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.

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