In light of the recent 3 3/4 Green Lantern movie figures hitting retail, some discussion has begun about Mattel’s usage and potential loss of the DC Universe license. This article is by no means intended to instigate or perpetuate the idea that Mattel is in trouble of losing the DC license. However, it’s purely an examination of what could happen and perhaps why it could happen.
First and foremost, it was the 3 3/4 Green Lantern toys that brought this to my attention. The reason was surprisingly simple and yet layered with levels of complexity. I had seen the toys before, but never really examined them much. Upon noticing them at a Target, in a very small section, I wondered if perhaps I might pick a couple up. The first thing that alarmed me was the high price, at around $8. This was particularly disappointing after seeing the new price hikes on JLU figures taking them to $20 for a 3 pack. Second, I noticed that the figures sported only a paltry half dozen or so points of articulation. Admittedly, the Movie Masters line has tons of articulation, but I was confused as to why the 3 3/4 line does not have that same sort of care.
Ultimately as I strolled around the toy aisle, I realized that Mattel had arguably the smallest presence of any movie line and altogether had the smallest presence in the boys aisle. Despite the depth of the DC license and the fact they have a big movie launching this summer (Green Lantern), the rollout was weak. This was at Target, Mattel’s biggest retail supporter, no less! The articulation issue seemed to be icing on the cake, as if only marginal effort was put into a line that in theory should have had massive support. I was not alone in my sentiment that Mattel seemed to have missed an opportunity here.
Rumor has it that Mattel’s DC license runs up in 2012 and I began to wonder, will someone else try to take it? If I was unhappy with Mattel’s rollout for Green Lantern, is DC happy with Mattel’s current product?
I can’t pretend to know everything that DC comics looks for in it’s product. I have no idea if they’re more interested in having a certain type of product or if they have a scale or distribution preference. However, I do think it’s fair to speculate that one of the key criteria for any company would be brand recognition. What can Mattel do, that makes DC characters and products more viable in the marketplace. We can examine that in simple terms and see if there are other toy companies out there that might potentially be better at fulfilling those needs.
Mattel has seemingly been plagued with issues of distribution, tooling, price and quality. On the flip side, Mattel has delivered largely unparallel character selection, sculpting and collector appeal. However, which would be more important to DC?
Immediately everyone thinks of what would Hasbro do with the DC license? Many will also point to various failures that Hasbro seemed to have with the DC line during their run at it in the 1990’s. However, it is important to note that Hasbro never had the expansive license that Mattel currently has.
Here are a few other key facts to keep in mind:
In the early 1980’s Kenner was able to beat out the much larger Mattel in a bidding war for DC characters because Kenner was more willing to put dollars and tooling into a new DC line.
Although Hasbro inherited the DC license from Kenner when the two companies merged, Hasbro never did much with the license. The “Kenner” wing still mostly controlled the releases for most of Hasbro’s run with the license. In fact it was Hasbro that relinquished the DC license when they felt essentially that they had sold the extent of the Batman and Superman figures that there were to sell.
DC has in the past licensed parts of the DC brand out to different owners. In the mid 90’s, Mattel actually had the rights to Wonder Woman, while Hasbro had Batman, Superman and some others. DC has also licensed it’s characters out to it’s own DC Direct as well.
So let’s just for the sake of argument, rule Hasbro out. While I’m certain that they do in fact see some benefit to the DC licenses, let’s just pretend that they aren’t interested. So are there toy companies out there in a supposed shrinking toy market, who would like to have the DC license? Meet the contenders!
1. Jakks Pacific – Largely known for their WWE toys and large share of the toy market as a result (until they lost it to Mattel), this company has been very aggressive in it’s boys branding. When Jakks lost the WWE, they licensed TNA as well as NWA to produce wrestling figures. Jakks may also have an ax to grind, as they perhaps feel that Mattel essentially stole their bread and butter in the WWE. Likewise, Jakks has shown some determination to remain a presence in the toy aisle, with their Pirates of the Caribbean toys taking up a large chunk of most toy aisles across the country. Jakks has given Pirates an immense rollout, not only in 6 inch and 3 3/4 inch figures, but with roleplay toys, vehicles, playsets and games. Jakks also knows the collector market, having a lot of experience in their WWE and UFC lines, catering to adult audiences.
2. Spinmasters – Although they’ve been around for years, it’s been quite some time since Spinmasters tried to make a splash. It seems unlikely that they would try to tackle a line as expansive as the DC universe, but their recent Tron toys did receive some praise. They also provided a much larger rollout of toys for Tron in comparison to Mattel’s current efforts with Green Lantern. Spinmasters Bakugan, Tech Deck and Mighty Beanz have also inched out their own slices of the boys aisles. Spinmasters could see the DCU as a chance to play with the big boys.
3. Jazwares – One of the most aggressive players in the boys toy market today is Jazwares. Although Jazwares has found mixed success, one cannot deny their intensity for attempting to move in the marketplace. Jazwares controls very little of the total market however, as their toys are routinely only found in specialty stores and Toys R Us locations. Jazwares hoped to make some inroads with their A-Team line, but had very limited success based on a cavalcade of problems, including the license and toys themselves. One thing that makes Jazwares a likely candidate is their knowledge of the collector market and their willingness to shell out cash to have characters tooled from scratch. Jazwares has also procured several potential big licenses, with Mega Man, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter on the shelves or in the works. They could see the DC license as the tent pole that would put them in Target and Walmarts across the country.
4. Bandai – Japan’s largest toy manufacturer is constantly carving away at the American toy market as well. Bandai already has had huge success with their Ben 10 and Power Rangers toy lines. The former of which, still takes a huge chunk of the boys aisles today and remains one of the most innovative and consistently growing toy lines of it’s era. Bandai recently snatched the Thundercats license up as well. That license has long been rumored nearly impossible to get and also one that was on Mattel’s radar. Bandai’s successes or failures with Thundercats could be a good indicator on their hunger for a larger slice of the boy’s toy market.
5. Playmates – Arguably the trendsetter in the 1990’s, Playmates has taken a backseat role in recent toy wars. Although Playmates attempted a coup a couple of years back with expansive rollouts for both Star Trek and Terminator, neither line proved particularly successful. What’s important to note is that Playmates spent a lot of money and time in procuring those licenses. Playmates also has much more experience than some of the other contenders and with the Ninja Turtles set to have a massive relaunch in 2012, have potential for being a real showstopper in the marketplace. What they do with the Turtles could be the barometer for what potential a DC license under their branding could hold. Playmates has never had a license like DC comics, but no doubt has had their eye on it a few times in the past.
Other Less Likely Contenders:
Mezco – Although Mezco is tiny by comparison, they have shown some interest in the DC line. DC Comics may be willing to work with Mezco, as they have with their Mez-Its and look to expand upon that. Mezco has shown some serious interest in moving further into the toy aisle, with it’s Hellboy licensing mainstream attempt. The real question for Mezco would be if they have enough capital to do a big rollout for the DC license and if DC would be willing to take that risk.
NECA – Although NECA has continued to expand in the toy aisles, they have made little if any effort to step out of the collectibles range. However they have hinted at the desire to expand their sales potential. One thing that NECA has shown an adept ability to do is to target collectors and to profit from licenses that are non-traditional. NECA reaped the benefits of licenses like Twilight and very well could see a chance to break into that next level with the DC universe. Again, it’s a matter of money and ability to put toys into aisles that make NECA a less likely candidate.
McFarlane – Could Todd McFarlane’s toy division be like a phoenix rising from the ashes? Few other toy companies on this list have risen and fallen as far as McFarlane. Although McFarlane largely shut down a huge portion of it’s toy division, they have the knowledge and ability to produce the DC comics line perhaps better than anyone else. With experience not only as a mainstream toy line producer, but also with collectibles, comic marketing and brand awareness. The big question for McFarlane is if they have a passion to make a grab at becoming a industry leader again.
MGA – The most unlikely candidate, MGA is known for it’s Bratz dolls. While MGA has made very few attempts to get penetration into the boy’s toy market, a recent victory over Mattel in a long-standing legal battle could be the catalyst to do so. Let’s face it, this is a very unlikely choice. However, what would be a better slice of revenge than to try and usurp Mattel’s second biggest boy toy line?
So there you have it… A look at the field of potential candidates and some reasoning as to why they might want the DC license and why DC comics might select them over Mattel. One thing to note is that DC would likely be leery to give up their license during a movie year, in fear that a new toy company would not be able to meet the demand in time. In addition, Mattel has plenty of fringe benefits such as an association with Fisher-Price and Barbie that have unique crossover ability that few other toy companies can match. Still, it’s something to ponder and put on your “what if” caps.
Do you think Mattel is doing a good job with the DC license, when all things are considered? Do you feel as though the Green Lantern movie line is getting a comparable rollout of toys to other movie properties? Would you like to see another toy company get a shot at the DC license and if so, who and why? Let us know!