Over the past decade, Funko has morphed from a bobblehead maker into one of the most diverse collectible companies around both in terms of licenses and styles. The company currently produces the squat, wide-eyed Pop Vinyls, fully detailed Legacy Collection action figures, Kenner-esque ReAction toys and plenty of others like Fabrikations, Mystery Minis and the newly launched Vinyl Sugar imprint.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Funko probably has a collectible for anyone. In addition to DC and Marvel offerings, the company also creates licensed products based on “Firefly,” “The Flash,” “Doctor Who,” “Garbage Pail Kids,” “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Taxi Driver,” “Breaking Bad,” “Harry Potter,” “Futurama,” “Orphan Black,” “Heroes of the Storm,” “Frozen” and hundreds of others.
CBR News talked with Funko Vice President of Creative Ben Butcher about the company’s evolution, what Vinyl Sugar brings to the table and how they decide which licenses to go after.
CBR News: Funko started out making bobbleheads and has expanded into a company with more licenses and styles than many other places. What do you attribute that growth to?
Ben Butcher: Persistence and aggressive passion. Vinyl figures were a strong passion and once Pops took off it afforded us lots of other opportunities to expand and grow.
Speaking of growth, going into this year’s Toy Fair Funko announced a whole new umbrella of offerings under the Vinyl Sugar name. What separates the Vinyl Idolz and Vinyl Vixens from Pop Vinyl or Mystery Minis?
The main difference is the objective. With Vinyl Sugar we are searching for different takes outside of the Funko aesthetic and other in-house designs that don’t necessarily appeal to the mainstream aesthetic. More Art vinyl in terms of design approach but still feeling like an extension of Funko.
What has the fan reaction been like to the new items shown off at Toy Fair, including the Vinyl Sugar launch?
The reaction has been fantastic. Vinyl Idolz and Dorbz have been fan favorites and we are already seeing great sell-through on the Vinyl Vixen line. Super Deluxe will be shipping in a few months and we expect great things from that line as well.
Would you say the Vinyl Sugar brand is going after different kinds of licenses than the Funko ones?
We have such a wide range of licenses that there will probably be some crossover between Funko and Vinyl Sugar but when we have a more niche or cult favorite license, Vinyl Sugar will allow us a unique opportunity to explore those types of licenses in new and different ways.
The whole idea for Vinyl Sugar was to allow us to continue to explore new styles, work with different artists from around the world. Funko is really establishing itself with the collectors and there are certain expectations that come with that. As artists and fans of many different looks and styles we wanted to make sure we always have a platform for exploration and new ideas. Not everything will have a universal appeal like Pop does but there are still so many fun and exciting ways to bring story and characters to life.
Can you talk about the origins of the ReAction line? Companies have done a lot of retro figures harkening back to the MEGO days. What made you want to do something more in line with the Kenner toys?
We saw the original “Alien” line that Super 7 created and saw a lot of potential to go bigger and broader with the line. With our resources and licenses we worked out a deal with them to allow us to take over the production of the line. We still consult with Super 7 and try to maintain the original vision as much as we can. The interest has been fantastic and we continue to develop more fun ideas for this line.
The ReAction line exploded with variety right out of the gate, but Legacy figures have been a bit more slow and steady. Why is that?
Legacy figures are a completely different line of figures both in cost and development. Highly articulated 6-inch figures are not easy to get licenses for since other companies have a lot of them locked up for their toy lines. They also take much longer to develop due to their accuracy and complexity. It is a category we want to continue to grow but with the current challenges, it will be a much slower release. Likeness and complicated sculpting make for a longer development cycle as well as a longer approval process with the licensors.
The ReAction “Jaws” shark was on display at Toy Fair. Do you see more expansion into larger figures or vehicles in that scale?
We would absolutely love to explore larger figures or vehicles in the ReAction line. It will really come down to whether or not there is an appetite for these larger offerings amongst the ReAction fan base. If the “Jaws” sharks fly off the shelfs we will gladly explore more.
Can you briefly explain the process of getting a new license? Do you work up possible figure presentations for potential new partners or do you show them what you’ve done in the past as examples?
Every license is different. Nowadays a lot of licenses come to us based on them being fans of our products. Outside of that it is really about persistence and building relationships with the companies that own the licenses. Sometimes it requires a presentation of concepts but a lot of times it is just a conversation.
To get a little more specific about getting one of these lines done. How was it making the “Firefly” figures happen, especially the Legacy ones?
Legacy figures are a very different process than anything else we do. There is much more time spent on the development side to insure that we capture the likeness and details the best we can. The approval process can also be a more involved process due to actor likeness rights and other factors that don’t come into play when you are working with stylized figures.
“Firefly” in particular was a rather smooth process. We gathered as much reference as we could find on each character, sent them on to our colleagues at Gentle Giant who then dug even deeper into the details and created on model sculpts that required only a few back-and-forths with minor changes and adjustments. Once we had approved sculpted, articulated and painted figures we sent them on to our factory to execute for us. While they are handling that we work with the licensor to gather logos, images and any verbiage we need for packaging and get all of those files ready to go. The final step is getting the approved production samples in box ready to go.
What information do you look at when weighing whether to attempt a new license? Is it riskier doing a new, less-proven property than something with a lot of history behind it?
It is all about how passionate we are internally and how passionate the fan base is for the licenses. We have many different outlets to help gauge interest in a particular license and as long as it will be slightly popular we will take a chance on it. Not every license needs to be huge and robust. We pride ourselves in developing products on many licenses that most companies wouldn’t touch and love the idea that we can make something for almost anyone.
From a design standpoint, does Funko work with digital or more traditional sculpting?
We are 95% digital sculpting. We only use one traditional sculptor in China who has been with the company from the beginning and has an amazing talent for executing in the Funko style.
You’re also working with Marvel on the Collector Corps subscription boxes. How did that come about?
The Marvel Collector Corp idea was a perfect example of having a great partnership with a licensor. We were toying around with some direct-to-consumer ideas to expand our product capabilities and when we were discussing this with Marvel the idea of a Marvel exclusive subscription box came about. We loved this idea immediately and began working on how we could create something unique and special that would resonate with the die hard Marvel and Funko fans. This is an idea that we have just scratched the surface on but will continue to grow and get even better. There are endless possibilities for us with this format and we are really enjoying creating an all inclusive experience for the fans.
The first box featured the Pop Hulkbuster Iron Man. Will future offerings coincide with big screen offerings like this?
The subscription service will be every other month, so a total of 6 per year. When there is a big blockbuster film we will absolutely tie into that but we will also be looking to dive deeper into the Marvel vault and give the fans an opportunity to receive products of classic characters and story lines that may not be offered in the retail setting. This is where we can really connect with the die hard Marvel fans.
Funko collectibles seem to appear everywhere, from the rooms of characters on TV to the set of “Mike & Mike” on ESPN2. What’s the most surprising place you’ve see them appear?
We are surprised anytime we see Funko products appear online, in movies, and on TV. It’s something that we do not initiate which makes it even more satisfying. We like to think that all of our hard work and attention to detail are resonating with people everywhere. We are always appreciative and humbled to see our products appear in places we would never expect.
Is there a license you’d love to get your hands on and what Funko format would you like to see them in?
My secret passion would be “Hudson Hawk” but I seem to be the only fan of that strange movie. “Dark Crystal” has been my number one but we acquired the license last year and have slated it into our schedule. Old ’70s TV shows like “M*A*S*H,” “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Magnum P.I.” would be pretty awesome as well.
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