TG Blog #1 - King Grayskull - Secret Origins
Anybody seen this?
Pretty cool IMO!
I’m a toy fan. That’s no secret. It’s pretty much the reason I applied to work at Mattel. I’m also a big movie fan (I was a film major in college, well at least one of my majors was film, I’m an overachiever sometimes). One of the things I love about movies is hearing the behind-the-scenes info and the DVD format was perfect for this because it gave us “Director’s Commentary” with insights and secrets behind some of our favorite films.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of MOTU, I thought it would be a blast to take a look back at MOTUC (circa 2008 – current) and create a blog reflecting on each figure released to date. It is rare for one brand manager to work on a single line as long as I have so I’m in a cool position to share ramblings on both the origins of the brand and a look behind each figure. I don’t remember every detail of every figure, and I’m sure as we get closer to current releases I will have more clarity. But for now, much like getting the director’s commentary on a DVD, this blog is my attempt to offer that same concept but for a fantastic collector toy line – Master of the Universe Classics!
Each entry will focus on one figure, starting with King Grayskull from SDCC 2008 and going all the way up to the current monthly or quarterly release coming out this year. I hope by the end of 2012 to be caught up with all the figures. There won’t be an exact rollout of these blog entries as I’m going to write them in my “spare” time. But look for them every so often as we take a trip down memory lane and reflect back on the greatest collector toy line of them all, MOTU Classics!
So where did it all start?
Well, back in 2007 I was new to the Action Play Marketing group. I had just moved over to the group from the Hot Wheels packaging team where I was a writer on basic cars and track sets. I was moved over to the Marketing team to help start up more robust collector lines as I was a collector myself (in addition to helping to launch the DCUC line with the WB group!).
One of the first things at the top of my list was somehow through **** or high water getting a MOTU line up and running for collectors. MOTU was my favorite line as a child and getting to work on a MOTU line (or line extension) was a dream job. Basically I wanted to make the MOTU line I always wanted, meaning highly articulated, fully detailed and huge character selection. Yes, that sounds 100% selfish, but remember, as a fan myself my plan was that if I was pleasing myself (as a HUGE MOTU fan), likely I was pleasing most fans (not every fan obviously) but I used my own “requirements” for what a collector MOTU line should be as a jumping off point.
First stop was SDCC.
We were a year off from SDCC 2008 and I really wanted to find some way to bring MOTU there. The 200X line had “ended” about 4 years earlier but we still had all of the tools and molds for this line at our factories. I was a HUGE fan of this show and the line (I remember waiting in line at SDCC myself for a Keldor and She-Ra figure and being very upset I only walked away with one She-Ra the year she came out. So much for having a second one MIB!)
A lot of folks were a bit unsure whether we could launch a MOTU line without any new entertainment and relying on collector interest only. Others were very supportive of the idea. In the end, what we decided was to try one figure using shared tooling.
There were quite a few characters that never made it into the 200X line and the original idea was to just pick up where the retail line ended and keep pumping out 200x style figures using what shared tooling we could use. Very early on, King Grayskull became the character we wanted to do as he would be a great SDCC item since he was “He-Man” but was not really “He-Man,” appealing to both hard core fans and ideally casual new buyers as well.
The original idea was to use the 200X Ice Armor He-Man body buck since it had the cape and boots we wanted. A new head would give us this figure perfect to “close out” the 200X line. King Grayskull was not originally intended to be the start of a new line but rather the “final” figure in the 200X line (or if he hit perhaps the start of a 200X collector line).
Design started looking over the concept and management approved King Grayskull as the SDCC exclusive for summer of 2008. We reached out to our vendor to dig up the old Ice Armor He-Man tool and were about to call the Horsemen to ask about creating a new head.
But then fate stepped in.
The Horsemen showed up at SDCC 2007 a month later with an all new concept for a He-Man figure they created on their own independently. You all know what I’m talking about because we slipped it into the display case just to see what fans thought!
This was a highly detailed, fully articulated figure that used the proportions of the vintage line but updated with today’s standards (set pretty high by a certain 6” Superhero line that was legendary and marvelous).
The best part about the Horsemen’s new pitch was the figure was designed to heavily use shared parts. I can’t overstress how important this is for a collector line. Tooling is INCREDIBLY expensive. So finding a way to incorporate shared tooling from day one was the only way a line could work. AND what was great was the vintage line was based on shared tooling, so reflecting that in a collector line actually worked without it looking like the line was going cheap.
The sneak peak in the case was a huge hit with fans at SDCC 2007 and we quickly came back to El Segundo and scrapped out plans to use the Ice Armor He-Man buck and instead thought, “what if we used this new buck for a whole new line of MOTU characters?”
Now at the same time, we were starting up Mattycollector.com (my major project for coming over to the marketing group). If we could get this new MOTU shared parts line up and running it might be the perfect backbone to this new online distribution model.
We hatched a plan to use the new buck system to premier King Grayskull at SDCC 2008 as planned, with the idea that if we reflected the vintage line and created basic human, beast (Beastman/Stratos) and reptile (Skeletor) bucks, we could make a variety of characters with minimal new tooling (heads, capes, weapons, etc…).
I’ll go into detail about the first 6 characters when I get to their blog entries, but for now, a look at how King Grayskull came about.
We had very little assets and very little time. The packaging group came up with the idea of putting him in a castle-like package and even adding in lights and sounds for that extra Comic-Con affect. Yes, he would be a 100% tool, but we were looking at him as an investment that if we tooled King Grayskull, we would essentially have He-Man and the base for countless other figures.
The dice were rolled and we took a risk!
I remember getting the first early sample back and plunking him down on my desk. Wow. We did it! The first new MOTU figure in almost 5 years and boy, was he amazing! I completely credit the Horsemen with the amazing look. Keeping those buffed-up proportions from the vintage line was a stroke of genius. While the original idea was to use the limited shared tooling from the 200X line, having an all-new buck system and starting an all-new line actually made way more sense (especially to upper management) because it gave us the chance to make ALL of the characters again, not just the ones that didn’t make it into the 200X line (like King Grayskull).
At NYCC in February 2008 we announced the figure as an SDCC exclusive with the idea that there was more to come and a whole new MOTU line with “the best distribution ever” and “MOTU would be back on shelves everywhere.” This was my first experience of fans misinterpreting what I meant. A lot of fans took this to mean store shelves everywhere. I wasn’t yet cleared to announce Mattycollector.com as the distribution model (as that was a reveal saved for SDCC in a few months).
What I had intended to mean was MOTU would be back on “your” shelf. Meaning the shelf you keep your collection on at home. And by the “best distribution ever” what I meant was anyone in any country could order these online. (As opposed to a retail-exclusive line. If MOTU was, for example, a TRU line, if you lived in a country without a TRU you were out of luck!). Online distribution really meant the widest distribution possible. I honestly never intended to mislead fans and customers and this was a good key learning to watch what I say as everything I say will be picked apart and possibly misinterpreted! A lot of fans were upset when they learned at SDCC this would be an online line, but I think over time it has worked out. Not having to rely on retailer interest has actually been a great move for this line and what has allowed us to do items without thinking about retailer shelf space.
Anyway, regardless of a few early communication issues, King Grayskull was off to a great start. We even came up with a concept for a “chase” version at the show to help generate more PR and noise by doing a bronze statue version (for the record, this was the suggestion of some of the web masters at He-Man.org who have been a great resource, especially in the beginning when we were getting out feet wet!).
The figure and package really came together nicely. We no longer had rights to use the actual voice from the 200X series in the toy, but luckily we had a recording from a talking figure from 200X that was a sounds-like voice that we owned. The sound studio deepened the “I have the Power” call from this toy to make it more “King Grayskull” and the package was set.
We brought King Grayskull to SDCC 2008 and he was a huge smash. This was also the show where we announced Mattycollector.com itself and that there would be more MOTUC figures coming later that fall. (I’ll get more into that in the next blog entry.) We also made sure to produce a few additional units to sell online to kick off the website. Unfortunately, due to not thinking holistically, the electronics we used in the package prevented us from shipping King Grayskull outside of North America. This was never something we did intentionally, but when you are trying to make a cake sometimes you break a few eggs. This was a big one. We really wanted to cultivate an international audience so it killed me that we had this restriction.
But in the end, despite a few missteps, we had a hit. King Grayskull wound up being the perfect figure to kick off the line since, as I said above, he “was He-Man, but was not He-Man”. He was a figure that was not in the vintage line, but was being done in the new Classics style as an interpretation of what an updated hypothetical vintage King Grayskull would be as updated through the new “Classics style.” Just as the 200X line was a reinterpretation of the vintage line, so was the Classics line. All characters would be in the same Classics look, regardless of where they were from, the vintage line, 200X, POP, NA etc… One all-inclusive line for all figures in a new style. How awesome.
King Grayskull sold out pretty fast online and it was soon clear that we could proceed with a whole line. But how to do them? Singles? Two packs? What would the packaging look like? How deep in character selection could we go?
The future was wide open and no one at Mattel was more excited then I. A skinny little kid from Connecticut who played with MOTU when he was 4 was now helping to make figures. Wow. A dream come true no matter how you shake it. For the very first time, MOTU had actual MOTU fans running the line. We were in for one heck of a ride.