Friday, October 2, 2015

Funko POP Culture: Where Geeks Unite

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Pass by any hobby shop or corner toy store and you’ll see it—rows and rows of collectibles, boxed in little uniformed cuteness, the only toy line where Batman, Elsa, Lumpy Space Princess, and Sheldon Cooper are side by side. It’s the magic and wonder of Funko’s Pop! Vinyl Figures, and because nobody can resist the call of their adorableness, Funko has succeeded in uniting toy collectors and geeks all over the world.

Where it all began

Big square heads, black beaded eyes, and standing poses 3.75 inches tall—these are what people everywhere are going crazy for. Washington-based toy company Funko has stuck to this template because it works. All of the figures are classic, charming, and hard to resist. The collectibles have gone from beloved comics characters to television actors, and even sports athletes and music icons, which is why the toy line has made Funko Pop collectors out of everyone—geeks and non-geeks alike. Practically every franchise has a Funko Pop version, with the company securing 180 licenses including Star Wars and StarCraft, and it’s hard to believe how it all started.

"We were in the $40 million range for revenue last year — and $28 million of that was from Pop figures alone," says Brian Mariotti, the company CEO. They may be doing more than well these days, but back in 1998, it all began when Mike Becker, an enthusiast, collector, and T-shirt designer, decided to produce a replica of the Big Boy restaurant mascot. Because the vintage coin bank that he wanted was ridiculously overpriced on eBay, he launched his own company from his house where Funko was born. With initial franchises like Popeye and the epic Big Boy mascot, Funko sold hand puppets and bobbleheads until 2005 saw Becker’s disinterest in his own line.

Enter Brian Mariotti—addicted Pez dispenser collector and ex nightclub owner. He told Becker he’d keep the key employees in the company if Becker would sell Funko to him. "I don't think he thought much was going to come of [it] because I had no experience, but we were always looking for that next product other than a bobblehead to brand us as a company," says Mariotti. This was exactly what he did at the San Diego Comic Con in 2010, when he brought prototypes like Batman and Green Lantern to the comic con. "The early results from my fan base were fairly negative. They didn't like the look, the feel...the fact it didn't bobble," he shares. “We started off with five characters in the DC Comics line. I brought them to Comic-Con in 2010, and got a horrible response from our diehard bobblehead fans. But we were getting all these unique people in our booth — mainly women — that had never been in there before. And I knew at that point we had a hit on our hands.”

Something for everyone

The rest, as they say, is history. Funko started to gain more licenses, steadily growing what would become the biggest pop culture collection that spans the widest spectrum of enthusiasts from every fan base. “At first we had to call licensers and kind of beg them,” says Mariotti. “Now it’s kind of become a badge of honor to become a Pop.”

As the “gateway drug for collectibles”, the Funko Pop collection looks great on a display—box opened or not—and is affordable at approximately Php 500 per piece. The rarer ones go for Php 950 to even Php 2,000. "When licensors see that your products are getting into the marketplace and there is a coolness factor to them, they want to be a part of that," says Mariotti. "There's something that's going to get somebody hooked. Whether it's the X-Men or Breaking Bad — or heck, Huckleberry Hound — we're going to find some pop culture phenomenon that's going to get you into the hobby. And then we're going to keep you coming back." And true enough, the toy line has been (Funko) popping all over the world.

Ben Butcher, vice president of creative, says that variety is key. “You have to have the huge Walking Dead or Game of Thrones items that everyone wants, but you also need to do Firefly or Dodgeball. There are fans looking specifically for that and we might be the only company offering something to have on their desk. It’s very important that we’re not just going for the big home runs.” Perhaps that is the secret to Funko Pop’s success—that there is, indeed, something for everyone, uniting fans from every corner of the pop culture world. After all, who wouldn’t want a Popped version of their fave characters to geek out on, what with that lovable template that the Pop vinyl collectibles have? “The most common pushback is to adjust the eyes or the mouth. Even if a licenser loves Pop, they may not know what their comfort zone is of their characters being brought into our world,” Butcher shares. “[Warner Bros. is] a licenser that wanted to do it but were really uncomfortable going stylized, and so we dipped our toe in the water. Once they could hold one of these finished products in their hand, they got really excited, J.K. Rowling got excited, and so now we’re trying to dive in more and do a lot more variants and exclusives that you want to go hunt and find.” A Harry Potter Pop alongside my Pop for Harley Quinn, Stewie Griffin, and FRIENDS’ Chandler Bing? Yes, please!

Thankfully, Funko has found a formula and template that will stay relevant and never go out of style. “We’ve established a form that we believe will be around for a decade or two, much like action figures have been since the ‘50s and bobbleheads since the ‘30s. There are six Star Wars movies in 30 years, and suddenly there will be six new ones. There’s just a proliferation of great context in TV, video games, and movies that really is going to keep Pop relevant for years to come,” Mariotti continues.

Given the sheer amount of fans just scrambling to get their hands on new releases every week (just ask any retailer on how long their pre-order lists are), I’m sure everyone will agree with Mariotti with a resounding “yes”. After all, once you (Funko) Pop, you just can’t stop!

*This article was first seen on The Philippine Online Chronicles HERE.

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