Re-opening “Opening the Vault”
As Power-Con’s Creator Relations Manager, I’m frequently in contact with the talented individuals who worked on He-Man and She-Ra. During my conversations with these charming people, it quickly became clear that their insights and perspectives on our favorite brands should be shared with the fandom. Thus, we are “re-opening” the old “Opening the Vault” segment here at He-Man.Org and expanding the original concept of “Opening the Vault” to also include interviews with creators other than those who worked solely on the mini-comics and comics. In the coming months, I’ll bring you interviews with many of the creators behind the toys, comics, and cartoons we all love.
Let’s kick things off with some in-depth thoughts from a man who played an instrumental role in the vintage Masters of the Universe toyline, Mr. Mark Ellis! We often hear from the artists, writers, actors, and directors behind Masters of the Universe, but rarely do we get a look at the marketing and business side of the brand. Mark Ellis is something of an “unsung hero” where the vintage MOTU toyline is concerned. He was gracious enough to share his memories and perspectives with He-Man.Org.
Interview with Mark Ellis
by Danielle Gelehrter
February 27, 2013
When were you employed at Mattel, what was your position there, particularly as it relates to the Masters of the Universe toy line?
I was hired by Mattel as the Director of Marketing for Male Action Toys, Games, and Novelties with my primary task being to develop a male action figure line that was not dependent on a movie, comic, or any licensed figure.
Why did Mattel want to do a line that was not a license?
By way of history, Mattel enjoyed success with a male action figure line called Big Jim in the early 70’s. With the introduction of the TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man in 1973, all male action toys that came out were licenses. The most famous of those being Star Wars, for which Kenner got the license.
Mattel was having little success with its licensed products like MegaForce or Clash of the Titans. We would spend $500,000 for the license, $500,000 in tooling, and $1mm in inventory, only to see the film open and close in the spring. Retailers would ask Mattel how they were supposed to sell those figures if nobody remembered the movie by the time the toy buying season started.
The solution Ray Wagner, Mattel’s President, came up with was to develop our own characters and not be dependent on a license or its timing. To develop such a line was a daunting task. So he asked Human Resources to hire somebody with experience in developing packaged goods for a large national firm, toy experience, and a MBA to lead that development; so I went from developing Stir-N-Frost cake mix to He Man.
How was Masters of the Universe developed?
To be clear, the task was not to develop He Man and the Masters of the Universe, the idea was to develop a male action figure line. Three research projects were started, which when combined, would tell us:
. the theme of the new line
• how the line would be played with
• the composition of the line, and…
• what elements made characters more popular with boys.
A “usage and needs” research was done to explore how and why children played with male action figures. Importantly, that research showed 5 year olds, when playing with a male action figure, put the words of their mother into the boss figure. So you would hear them say, “You do this because I told you to do that.”
What became clear was that for a five year old, power was a central issue because seemingly they were always being bossed around. Psychologically, they wanted to be the boss. They wanted the power. This then was manifested in the figure by making him “the strongest man in the universe.” The idea is, if you are in charge of the most powerful man in the universe, then this feeds directly into the “why” of their play. As the line developed, the phrase “I have the power” was born to emphasis that point.
While those research projects took place, the brand did a complete review of the toys Mattel had introduced to see what worked and what was missing. In addition, a review of Mattel’s most successful toys was done to identify desirable elements to incorporate. The initial structure of the line was set (8 figures, 2 vehicles, and a playset). In addition, the necessity for the figure to “do something” was identified. That resulted in Paul Cleveland’s (former Mattel engineer and VP of Marketing) suggestion of a Battle Action Waist. That is why the figures were 5 ¼” tall. We needed that size to accommodate the mechanism. Analysis also suggested the figures should have great detail and many color breaks to increase their perceived value. This too is why the package included “extras” with the figures.
Which people were instrumental in the success of Masters of the Universe?
Mattel got to be the number one toy company because it hired remarkably talented artists, sculptors, creative designers, and preliminary designers. Many people added specific elements to the toy line that, in total, served to make it a huge success. Roger Sweet was the person in Preliminary Design who came up with the figures for the theme test. I believe the name He Man came from Roger. Mark Taylor brought the characters to life with his amazing drawings. Bob Nall came up with the package art, which is copied on many products to this day. The figures were of a unique size and stature, towering over Star Wars figures due to Tall Paul’s invention of the Battle Action Waist.
How did you come up with the name?
The name Roger gave the character was He Man and that name was perfect. However, there was a question about the line name. Many wanted it to be Power Lords since that directly said the key word “power.” After much wrangling, it came down to the last minute and the (new) company president Glen Hastings put his foot down and said it was to be Masters of the Universe and we all said, “Yes, sir!” He thought that Power Lords could be misconstrued with a religious meaning.
According to a DC Comics editorial in 1982, you were involved in the development meetings for the comic. Can you describe what happened?
In the fall of 1982, we started making presentations to toy retailers of the entire Mattel line. I made the presentation for Masters, explaining the research, and showed them all of the elements of the line. They were very impressed. At the end of the first presentation, they (I recollect it was Child World) asked me, “What marketing program do you have in conjunction with another company that is not just TV advertising?” I answered their question with a question, “Did I tell you about the He Man comic we are doing?” That answered their question, but it left me with making good on what I had said. After the presentation, I called DC and Marvel, made appointments. I flew to New York to persuade one of them to do a Masters of the Universe comic. When I showed DC the figures, they were excited about making the comic and said yes. That was the birth of the Masters of the Universe comic. While it was a thought bred from necessity, it was a good marketing idea, which we eventually included with all of the figures in the form of a mini comic inside the package.
Were you involved in the creative part of the comic’s development?
We told DC about the research for the product line, the powers of each character, and the importance of power as a theme. The fact of the matter was that we were toy people, not comic people. All of the credit for the storylines in the comic goes to them. We did do a series of TV commercials, hich I thought hit the exact right notes. Although forgotten now, these commercials were instrumental in the initial success of the line. I would think they were inspirational for the guys doing the comic.
With regard to commercials, they are actually fondly remembered by fans. Do you know who produced the epic-sounding music for those?
Sorry I can’t remember off-hand the people involved. I remember going over the storyboards, and the direction given to the Ad Agency was to have the music sound like a Gregorian Chant.
What about the Prince Adam / He Man idea? Were you involved in that?
Others developed the Prince Adam / He Man storyline. I will say that at Mattel, we were careful to make sure the sword fit into the characters hand. An idea was proposed when we were doing the television commercial for the line that involved a split sword. That is why He Man’s and Skeletor’s swords fit together. We later dropped that idea in the development of the commercials.
Can you talk about the shift in direction from a more barbarian look to what was marketed?
Preliminary Design did the original figure for the theme test, one of which was the barbarian. After the research came back on the theme, work began on developing the line. Engineering and the art departments took over the development of the characters. Each character was modified a few times, each time being a little less barbarian and finally to what was produced. In developing the original line, you have to remember that we were introducing it without the benefit of a movie, comic character, or TV show. It was on its own. From the Usage Research, kids when they are 5 and 6 want to know if the character is good or bad. So over time, changes were made to make He Man more clearly good and Skeletor and his cronies made to look quite different from the good guys. I do remember changing He Man’s hair to be blond because my boss had blond hair. I had a chart on my office wall to keep track of who was who, and what their special powers were so that everything we did in the commercials and packaging was consistent.
Oh, it might be of interest that initially, Skeletor outsold He Man, in case any fans wanted to know whether good or bad was more popular.
How did the animated series come about?
After the first meeting with DC, I got them to mock up a comic so I would have it to show at the next line presentation to toy buyers. A few weeks went by and we made the second presentation to the toy buyers (I believe it was Toys-R-Us). I made the presentation and at the end, in a final flourish, said, “We have a comic.”
Unfortunately for me, they were not impressed. They pointed out that 5 year olds couldn’t read. It was an “Oops!” moment, to which I sputtered things about kids liking to look at the pictures, and then I stammered “… did I tell you about the two one hour TV specials we are running?”
Immediately after that presentation, I made appointments. (sound familiar?) First was Hanna Barbara. I pitched them on doing two, one hour specials. That meeting did not go well. So I made an appointment with Filmation. Lou Scheimer, the head of Filmation, was really impressed with the prototypes. He asked me about our television budget for commercials and whether it was all network TV or did we buy spot TV as well? He came up with the idea of doing a full animation series and not a special. His brilliant thought was that since we were buying spot TV anyway, we could develop the shows for syndication, and approach a station not just with a TV show to run, but also with ad dollars. This was a unique and great combination at the time.
After the initial meetings with DC and Filmation, we (the brand group) turned the management of those elements over to Marketing Services at Mattel. From my point of view, they were great elements of a marketing plan. They were going to be spaced out giving the brand a boost in years II and III and beyond. At that time “boys toys” accounted for half of Mattel’s sales, so the brand management team had to quickly turn our attention over to developing new toys for the following year’s toy line.
How did the movie get developed?
The last major marketing event we came up with for year III - IV of Masters was the movie. I met with some studios and found that for a fraction of our advertising budget, we could split the costs with the production house and develop a full feature length movie. Marketing Services at Mattel took the lead to find a producer for the deal. Ed Pressman, a producer, came into the Mattel conference room to discuss his ideas. He spoke clearly about the problems of making a Masters of the Universe movie. His point was that we could not have a movie on Eternia. While Star Wars had moved the art of special effects forward, it would be just too expensive to have the movie set on another planet. His solution was to start the movie on Eternia, but shortly move the action down to Earth, where special effects were not needed (read: less expensive). Ed and the Marketing Services team worked together to develop and get the film produced.
As a side note, I do remember being at the premier of the movie in a tux at the Mann Chinese Theater in Hollywood with Tall Paul (aka Paul Cleveland) and saying “I never thought it would go this far….”
Michael Halperin was hired to write the series bible for the Filmation cartoon. Filmation head Lou Scheimer was also instrumental in setting the tone for the cartoon. Were you involved with this at all? Could you talk about the shift in direction for He-Man once the cartoon came along and what were Mattel's reactions to it?
From a marketing perspective at Mattel, we all thought the comics and TV show were great. After the TV show was launched and was doing well, it became clear that the business of doing a toy line and developing a TV show were different with different needs and tools. In the TV show, a needed tool was comic relief. That was the furthest thing from our minds when the toy line was developed. Filmation, to make a better story, added characters like Orko. So the toy line had to start to conform to the TV show’s characters, because the second wave of users of Masters purchasers were getting the story from the TV show.
Why do you think Masters of the Universe came to a sudden end?
I believe that Mattel circled the firing squad and killed it. When we launched the line, we sold it to retailers in carefully crafted assortments. We knew that when somebody got interested in the line they usually first bought He Man or Skeletor. After that, there was a progression over time of how they expanded their set of figures. What Mattel management did was to change that assortment to whatever they had in inventory. It was, plain and simple, a move to improve the profitability of the company as a whole. The problem with that is that retail shelves started to fill up with toys that would normally be purchased in the third or fourth tier. Therefore, not only were there relatively few He Mans and Skeletors, but the ratios of shipping the other characters were all wrong (actually they were in exactly the wrong order). The factories had more inventory of the slower movers, so those now got shipped the most. With their shelves filling up and people not able to find the tier one characters, retailers decided that the line was slowing down and stopped ordering. That is how the death spiral starts.
Do you recall any particular ideas or concepts that never came to fruition?
One figure that never made it was the sixth figure from the initial line. It was to have been a female. The initial construct of the line was six guys and two girls. We thought that the purchasers were going to be mostly boys. As a result we revised the line and substituted a male figure for the second female figures. The female figure we eliminated had some different concepts / names. One that I remember was Wo-Man.
We were really wrong about the purchases of the line. Girls loved Masters of the Universe and we were blown away when the first purchase study came back and said 30 - 40% of the purchases were for girls. That result set the girls side of Mattel in motion and they developed and launched the She-Ra line.
A marketing idea that did not go far was a life sized He-Man Strength-O-Meter, like you would see at a state fair. It was full sized but from the torso up. I had one made up and still have it. Jewels on the chest of He Man light up the more the handle grip is squeezed. It was just too big to be a practical shelf item at retail.
Do you recall anything about the mysterious Brown-haired He-Man figure? Some claim this was an in-store promotion, others claim the figure came from a Wonder Bread mail-away, but no evidence exists in that regard. (photo provided)
It would be best to look at it in person. I wonder if it had a Battle Action Waist. I did notice that the hands are different from He-Man’s hands. The Mattel hands were carefully sculpted to fit and hold the sword and shield. The figure pictured had two different accessories than He-Man’s and the hands had a different shape.
As with all large scale endeavors, screw-ups happen. After production was authorized, the factories started to turn out the characters in amazing quantities. I walked by Tall Paul’s office one day and he had a set of MOTU figures on his desk. I picked up Skeletor and noticed on his right cheek there was an orange mark. I asked Paul and he deduced that before the paint master was shipped to the factory, apparently it was moved or some stray color was accidently added to make that orange mark. So Paul went down and got it fixed, but not before thousands and thousands were produced with that “error.”
Almost Was: After the movie got underway, there were meetings about setting up a Masters of the Universe theme park or as part of existing park. There were some great concepts for that and it was too bad that they never saw the light of day.
Many thanks to Mark Ellis for taking the time to share his thoughts and memories! Join me next time when I open the vault once again for another in-depth interview.