Comic-Con is one of my true annual highlights, I look forward to it every year like a child looks forward to Christmas. Aside from my duties as a staff photographer at SDCC, I occasionally get to conduct interviews. Today, I finally get to publish one of my all-time favorites. I got to sit down for a few minutes with Funko’s main design man, Reis O’Brien. As you’ll soon see, he’s one of the most down to earth toy collectors and designers out there, and he has a true passion for the hobby. I hope that you enjoy reading as much as I did conducting the interview.
To set the scene, we set off to sit down upstairs, because their booth was MOBBED for the entirety of the show. We grabbed a couple of hot dogs (another thing I love about SDCC), and found a quiet corner to chat about his love of all things Conan the Barbarian.
Captain Collector: Fans seem to really be into the ReAction and Legacy figures currently. The ReAction line seems to be exploding all over the place, Legacy not as much. Can we expect that to change?
Reis O’Brien: Well, I’ll say it like this: with ReAction we always meant to go big, and make a huge splash. Legacy was always supposed to be a slower, more nuanced pace. It was never meant to be the onslaught Reaction is, and even that is going to calm down a bit in 2016.
Captain Collector: Narrow the focus a bit maybe?
Reis O’Brien: We are going to go back and stick with the more retro stuff, which works better for it. We experimented with some of the newer licenses, and we found that they weren’t that big of a hit, they didn’t work as well for that form factor.
Captain Collector: As compared to say, the new Gremlins ReAction line, which seems to be a huge hit?
Reis O’Brien: Exactly. Gremlins makes sense. Jaws makes sense. It’s what this line was always intended to be. Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Is this weird? Does this make sense? Let’s try it.” We’re learning, we’re still figuring things out. We’ve decided to restructure a bit.
Captain Collector: When the line started, it seemed like the focus was to bring cancelled toy lines back to life, like with Alien. Could we see more of this in the future?
Reis O’Brien: There’s a lot of them, but unfortunately just because it got cancelled back in the day, doesn’t mean there’s a big enough fan base for it today. Alien was the apex example of what worked.
Captain Collector: That line was cancelled because of parents’ reaction to the movie and toy back then.
Reis O’Brien: Exactly. The Dark Crystal got cancelled for various other reasons. The problem with lines like the Dark Crystal and the Last Starfighter is that if we gave them the “Alien” treatment, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be as big a hit as Alien was. But we’re going to give it a good try.
Captain Collector: The Dark Crystal was announced, already, correct?
Reis O’Brien: Yes, it’s on the list. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that fans will buy them. There are a lot of vocal people out there on the internet. People will come to us and say “Such-and-such line was cancelled”, and it‘ll be something that isn’t even connected to a movie, and they just aren’t feasible.
Captain Collector: I get asked about Dark Crystal quite a bit, does this mean it’s still in the plans?
Reis O’Brien: We hear about Dark Crystal a lot, and several of the folks at Funko are BIG Dark Crystal fans. We want to see this line come to life. There are some concerns about how well it’ll sell. We may have to look at limited release, smaller numbers. It’s one of those lines that’s got to be spot on, and this is another reason we’re looking to slow the pace of ReAction down a bit. We definitely want to get this one right.
Captain Collector: Would you try to replicate the cancelled Kenner line, like you did with Alien?
Reis O’Brien: Yes. We might not completely replicate them 100%, however. We’ve spoken with some of the original sculptors of that line, and even they agreed that they were a bit rushed on the project back in the day, and improvements could’ve been made. We’d like to discuss it a bit, and see what could be tweaked. They’ll be in the same flavor as the cancelled originals, for sure. I want to use the original card art, and include the “Build a Crystal” feature that they advertised originally.
Captain Collector: I belong to a fan page just for those cancelled prototypes.
Reis O’Brien: So yeah, we’ve got our hands on some of the cancelled originals, we own a couple, we’ve borrowed a few to study, so it’s moving forward, it’s just moving forward a little slower than we’d originally planned. We want to do it right.
Captain Collector: I’m definitely excited about it. You only get one bullet in the chamber on this one, as it were.
Reis O’Brien: Exactly! Right? If this misfires, it’s not good.
Captain Collector: Jaws seems like it’s a huge hit out of the gate. Lots of pent-up demand for these characters. I have to ask, is there a chance for Legacy figures?
Reis O’Brien: You know, that’s actually a rights issue. A lot of the stuff we’d like to do in six inch we can’t because other companies have the rights. I just don’t know yet on Jaws for sure. Also, I just don’t know if they’d do as well as Legacy figures. Because the ReAction format makes the Jaws figures so charming.
Captain Collector: I can definitely respect that! I think there’s a huge demand for realistic versions of these characters. Maybe not as articulated?
Reis O’Brien: But then that’s the problem with Legacy figures. You either do it right, or you don’t do it at all.
Captain Collector: Firefly seems like they’re doing really well. Rocketeer, too.
Reis O’Brien: Firefly came out beautiful. Rocketeer is beautiful. But it’s hard. You can’t imagine the battles we have to fight.
Captain Collector: That was actually my next question!
Reis O’Brien: It’s hard when you’re not over there, not seeing every floor manager’s decisions in the factory. Like with Firefly, I sent out a memo that we don’t want the clear joints. Then we got samples in, with beautiful, strong joints, and we approved them for production. Then, they come in, and Mal’s coat is glossy, which I pointed out to be fixed. Then the joints are clear. And they’re done, they’re on the boat! Sometimes it’s just a matter of miscommunication and we try to minimize that as much as possible.
Captain Collector: I think we’ve all heard the horror stories.
Reis O’Brien: It happens. You work with the ones you can trust. They’re not trying to be devious; they just don’t always understand the gravity of the problem. Now, it’s my job to make sure the next time around that they understand, so it doesn’t happen again. I’ve got to make it clear how important this is.
Captain Collector: I think we all know the story of Mattel’s “Sarge” Cars toy, where someone saved a half-cent with the lead paint.
Reis O’Brien: Yeah. It happens.
Captain Collector: Mattel got crucified in the press…
Reis O’Brien: …Not their fault.
Captain Collector: They were sent a fine sample, and the next thing you know the ones on the boat have lead paint.
Reis O’Brien: Yup, it happens ALL the time. It’s the most frustrating thing about the toy business.
Captain Collector: If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you been in the toy business? Did you have any formal training for this?
Reis O’Brien: No, no formal training at all. I’m relatively new; I’ve been in the toy business about five years now. I was a freelance illustrator and a T-Shirt designer, and a lifelong toy collector. I used to make customs. By the time I found a way in to the toy industry, I was primed for this. I understood what it took, so I knew I could do this. That’s not to say that I don’t have a LOT to learn still!
Captain Collector: What recent product in your lines were you most proud of, and what would be your dream project?
Reis O’Brien: I’m very proud of big Trouble in Little China, Jaws, and a lot of the recent releases. Star Trek looked really nice. For some reason, Big Trouble in Little China fired on all cylinders. You have to remember, it’s still a pretty young line, and we were figuring out how it all worked; how much detail you lose in plastic, how much detail you lose in paint. If you recall, the first ones were pretty soft looking. Like the Terminator line. That’s part of the learning process. But now, if you look, we’ve made a lot of progress. With Big Trouble in Little China, when they came in, I thought “This is it. These look like old Kenner toys”. It’s everything we wanted ReAction to be.
Captain Collector: And your dream line?
Reis O’Brien: Conan the Barbarian. 1982. Schwarzenegger. Hands down, it’s my dream project.
Captain Collector: I saw it in the theater.
Reis O’Brien: Oh I never did, I had to wait for it to come on HBO. I would go deep, with like four different Conans, long haired, wheel-pushing Conan, pit fighter Conan, Subotai, Valeria, war paint variants, Thulsa Doom, Rexor, everybody! And let me tell you, that will NEVER happen! I know they’ll never sell! Me and maybe four other people would buy them.
Captain Collector: It’s such a toy-etic line. The designs are pre made! For me, the line I’d love to see get the ReAction treatment would be Rocky.
Reis O’Brien: Rocky! Which I don’t think we can. I think we looked in to it, and we couldn’t get the license for it.
Captain Collector: Perfect re-use of body molds!
Reis O’Brien: I know, right? I know we looked in to that one.
Captain Collector: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about plans for a second series of Jaws figures…
Reis O’Brien: It’s a little early to tell, if it does as well as I think it might, we could absolutely do a second series. I’d want to do another shark, but if we did another shark, it’d have to be the Jaws II shark, with the burns on the face. But there’s still some characters I’d want to do from the first movie, but I can’t see those guys selling real well. It’s tough, but it’s possible.
Captain Collector: You’d have to do other versions of the main characters.
Reis O’Brien: Right, right. Hooper in the scuba outfit, Chief Brody in his police outfit with the shorts. I’d definitely want the mayor in there, with that jacket…
Captain Collector: Oh absolutely! Mayor Vaughn, with that sport jacket with the anchors! It doesn’t get more seventies than that!
Reis O’Brien: Oh, I just love that jacket! I’d want a play set, an Orca play set for sure!
Captain Collector: Reis, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a real pleasure and a tremendous insight into the process of making toys.
Reis O’Brien: Thank you, it was fun!
I’d like to truly thank Reis and the great folks at Funko for not only taking a few minutes out of their Comic-Con to chat with me, but also for all of the cool toys they make. Until next time, Captain Collector out!
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