Toys "R" Rated

Movie-based action figures are no longer just kids' stuff.

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From ax wielders to knife slashers . . . collectibles are shedding their innocence.
From ax wielders to knife slashers . . . collectibles are shedding their innocence.
We've come a long way from the days when 20th Century Fox gladly signed off on a deal to let George Lucas keep the merchandising rights to Star Wars because it didn't think there'd be any money in it. In 1997, the Hasbro toy company paid Lucasfilm in excess of $600 million to continue its contract for Star Wars toys through the next three films. In 20 years, the landscape of movie tie-in toys had changed dramatically. But the big corporate checks weren't the only difference. Much as the rock band Kiss had long since realized that kids who grew up to its music now had disposable income to spend on $250 Kiss leather jackets, so too had a generation of kids raised on the original Star Wars figures come of age. And they were still buying toys. "Tom," a Toys R Us employee who asked to remain anonymous, states that male customers aged 30-45 account for about 70 percent of the store's action figure sales and says "Almost every morning we have a couple of [adult] collectors waiting for us to open."

When the brand new toys for Episode I were released for the first time last spring, it was like a record release party for the newest, hottest CD: The toys debuted in stores nationwide at midnight on May 3, and customers -- a good many of them adults -- were lined up around the block in most cities. Since then, the frenzy has died down, and the Episode I toys have been widely seen as underperforming. (Toy companies such as Hasbro are notoriously secretive about actual sales figures, but go into any toy store and count the Episode I toys on clearance. It'll take awhile.) But that's not because adult collectors don't buy toys anymore; rather, it's because there are now companies that cater more to their interests. After all, if you're a kid who grew up with Star Wars and moved on to grunge and Quake II, why buy a toy based on a disappointing kiddie-oriented prequel, when you can buy toys of . . . Winona Ryder as android Annalee Call from Alien Resurrection? Mel Gibson as The Road Warrior? Or even Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, complete with bucket-of-blood and severed-body-part accessories? All available at your local toy store, no less -- right next to the gazillion unsold talking Jar Jar Binks dolls.

It's been a long, strange trip for R-rated movie toys. The first such wide release was a 12-inch action figure based on the 1979 Alien, which ignited such parental fury that Kenner quickly stopped making them. Roger Ebert even condemned the toy on national TV, while lashing the toy's silvery fangs out in the direction of hapless co-host Gene Siskel. (That toy today is worth around $500.) In the '80s, during the slasher movie craze, several items based on popular teen-killer Freddy Krueger made it to toy stores, including a glove with fake "knife-blade" fingers and even a Christmas tree ornament -- although a talking Freddy doll was quickly pulled from the shelves after parents complained. By 1991, however, when Kenner decided to try again with action figures based on the R-rated Terminator 2, no one batted an eyelid. By 1993, it had put a full line of Aliens figures back into mainstream toy stores. As Toys R Us's Tom puts it, "I guess the public's a little more accepting of that now than when Alien came out and people were fainting in the theaters."

It took a maverick entrepreneur to take things to the next level. Comic book artist Todd McFarlane, who had split from Marvel Entertainment in a highly publicized creative control dispute, decided that he wanted a toy line based upon his gruesome zombie-from-hell superhero Spawn. When told that he'd have to tone down the property -- or worse, relinquish a degree of control over the character -- McFarlane balked and decided to make the toys himself. Some five years later, the Spawn toy line is still going strong (1999 was McFarlane Toys' best year yet, with a 10 percent growth over the previous year), boasting toys with such features as dripping entrails, removable intestines, and corpses that pop out of graves at the touch of a button. Ken Reinstein, spokesman for McFarlane Toys, claims that Todd doesn't endorse violence, but sees the toys as "a conversation starter."

Deciding to target collectors closer to his own age -- i.e., those who grew up with movie action figures and who might buy toys marketed directly to their current demographic -- McFarlane Toys went shopping for movie licenses and produced Movie Maniacs, a line of contemporary movie monsters that not only put Freddy Krueger back on toy shelves as an action figure, but also placed him in good company alongside Leatherface, Friday the 13th's Jason, and the two sex-crazed homicidal aliens from Species II. Some parents still complained, but this time it was of less consequence. Being a privately held company, answerable to no one but Todd himself, McFarlane Toys pressed onward. The new horror figures did quickly vanish from the shelves, but it was because they sold out. According to Bill Martin, president of McFarlane Toys, there was very little retailer resistance, although a toned-down, "nonbloody" series was developed for certain stores. The bloody versions, naturally, were the best sellers. Alex Levitan, who has been a salesman at Santa Monica, California's Puzzle Zoo for five years, says that McFarlane Toys are easily their most popular lines, noting that many higher-income collectors will buy them in bulk, while the average collector "buys one, comes back, and buys another one later."

Seeing the potential market, direct-to-video horror company Full Moon developed a toy line based upon its schlock-horror Puppet Master series and saw its first few action figure releases double in value by the subsequent year. Hasbro even had a Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks G.I. Joe doll ready to go, but canceled it quickly when the movie started winning praise for not having merchandising tie-ins.

In 1999, at actor Johnny Depp's request, McFarlane Toys released figures based on Sleepy Hollow, one of which was a likeness of Christopher Walken with interchangeable severed heads. Director Tim Burton attended several promotional events for the toys, and Reinstein hints that Burton and McFarlane struck up a friendship that may yield further fruit somewhere down the line. Yet the most controversy caused by a McFarlane toy all year came from the talking Austin Powers figure, which uttered the phrase "Do I make you horny, baby? Do I?" An outraged mother was furious that the toy forced her to explain to her 11-year-old son what "horny" meant. (Good luck trying to explain "The Spy Who Shagged Me.") According to Reinstein, this incident caused sales to shoot up "dramatically," generating "massive international coverage" and increasing awareness of both the company and the license (Austin Powers: Series 2 followed earlier this spring).

So what's next? More shock value? Porn action figures? Not quite yet. Now that McFarlane Toys has proved that there's a market for toys aimed at the "mature" movie fan, some other companies are making like KISS and producing higher-end material: Flatt World Figures, for instance, is coming out with super-articulated action figures of Antonio Banderas as Zorro and Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, each priced at around $60. (There's already a market for such things in Japan, where Medicom Toys regularly produces $150 likenesses of Aliens, Predator, and Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd; Japan-based Toys McCoy, meanwhile, has done some very pricey Indiana Jones and Steve McQueen dolls.) And Puzzle Zoo does a brisk trade in Nightmare Before Christmas dolls and figurines from Japan, all of which start at around $50.

As for McFarlane Toys -- well, they're making up for lost time, filling in the gaps on films from Gen X's past that haven't yet seen toys. Christine Finch, vice president of licensing for McFarlane, states that the competition for older licenses has increased since McFarlane Toys started pursuing them. In addition to the ongoing Movie Maniacs series, which will next feature plastic likenesses of Edward Scissorhands and Evil Dead hero Ash, this year will see toys based on the Paul Newman hockey film Slap Shot, Strange Brew's McKenzie brothers, and a line based on the cult anime film Akira. Sculptor Clayburn Moore, who might be considered the Hugh Hefner of action figures due to his tendency to make toy lines "suggested for mature collectors 18 and older," loaded with well-endowed and scantily clad female figures, has inked a deal to make toys for the animated Heavy Metal: FAKK 2.

Warner Bros., meanwhile, hopes to boost its fledgling toy department with toys based on The Matrix and The Road Warrior, licensed to the relatively new N2 Toys. Perhaps it should be noted that WB Toys' Monica Bouldin emphatically states that these action figures "are not considered toys; they're collectibles. Nowhere on the package does it say that they're toys." Other than the "WB Toy" logo, of course. And what was it Shakespeare said about a rose by any other name? Regardless, although nothing has been announced yet, don't be too surprised if Warner Bros. mines its past further for "collectibles" based on cult hits like Blade Runner. When questioned about this, N2 Toys President Ron Hayes would say only to "keep your fingers crossed." Hayes wouldn't get too specific about licenses he's pursuing for fear of driving up the bidding prices, but notes that he's always looking for "classic intellectual properties" and "films with interesting characters and heroic feats." The Val Kilmer-Carrie-Anne Moss movie Red Planet is next on his agenda.

So, having paved the way for toys based on R-rated properties, what would McFarlane Toys most like to do down the line? According to Finch, "Dr. Seuss and anything sports-related."

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