Tribulations of the Trade
December 7, 2009

For anyone who is a regular visitor to AFI, I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that the licensing and approval process for action figures is not an exact science. It’s usually fraught with delays, dozens of people who need to have everything run past them, misunderstandings, too many departments missing each other’s information (or lack thereof), and, eventually, changes asked for by the actual talent the figures are based on.  All things considered, we’ve been very fortunate at Bif Bang Pow! in all of our approval dealings, but for every license, every now and then there’s some craziness that stops us in our tracks. Allow me to elaborate.

 

Before I even kick this off, I should state that I’m leaving out all dates and times, but suffice to say, on average, in this process even an email response from a studio or network can take a minimum of two weeks. Sometimes there can be six month delays in getting answers at all, so you can use your imagination as to how diligent we need to be if we ever want to bring our toys to your toy shelves.

The first license we officially could call our own was ‘The Big Lebowski’, and proud we all were to get it. At the time of signing, the only two cast members that Universal had locked in to licensed products were Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. Which was fine for us, our thinking was to launch with those two anyway, and eventually get other cast members added down the line. We always knew that BBP! would concentrate mostly on different sizes of action figures and bobble heads, and before the ink was dry we’d already begun our design process for all things Dude and Walter.

We thought we’d try an ‘urban vinyl’ styled set of 8” figures, with cloth accessories and limited posability. On paper, the Dude looked similar to his end product, but Walter was slightly different. Same outfit, but we wanted his arm to raise and be able to hold his .45, a pose from one of his signature moments in the film. We submitted the designs, and were about to give the green light to the sculptor, when we suddenly got word from the studio that John Goodman didn’t want his figure to come with a gun. Fair enough, we thought, and went with plan ‘B’, which was the figure we released, with bowling bag, ball, coffee can and bottle of beer. Sculpting started, and as the first pictures came to us and were then sent in, we got word from the studio that Goodman didn’t want little Walter to come with ‘beer’ either. So, two character specific accessories down the tubes. Oh well, never mind then, onward and upward, right?

Besides, the Dude was shaping up nicely, and the painted versions of the bobble heads came in and looked fantastic. They got submitted, and we were moments away from announcing them and posting them up for pre order, when we got another call from the studio. This time, Goodman wasn’t telling us he didn’t like the way Walter was holding the coffee can in the bobble sculpt or the color of his skin tone. Nope, word was, Mr. Goodman didn’t want to be a bobble head at all. Hmmmm. Now, at this point, I got a little upset. Approvals were one thing, but killing an item that we already had a license for, simply because he didn’t want it made, seemed to be a bit much. (I mean, did he give Mattel this kinda hassle for his Fred Flintstone Talking Plush back in the day??) I expressed my disappointment, and we moved on, but not without me asking for the moon from the studio on other fronts. To this day, we’ve done very successful bobble heads of the Dude, Donny, the Stranger, Jesus and Maude, but no Walter. We do have a prototype, and he’s a beaut. Maybe someday the rest of the population will get to see him.

Now, the flip side of the above coin, was that once we got the other cast members on board and added to our license (which, for the record, took almost a year and a half for the studio to do), they were MORE than eager to help and give feedback on their sculpts. So much so that, Julianne Moore said she’d LOVE to be made into a bobble head, as long as it was Maude as Brun Hilda. Which was perfect, as we already had a ‘Dream Sequence’ Dude on the agenda, and she would end up being the perfect companion piece.

On a side note, there are many, many exciting aspects to this whole toy making process, but the one that seems to be the MOST satisfying is seeing the finished product in it’s painted form. When you come up with an idea, it gets conceptualized on design sheets and you talk it to death, it can still be a little intangible. Once there’s a painted piece of plastic in your hand, it somehow becomes less arbitrary. And seeing the Dude and Maude standing next to each other, with connecting bases, from that amazing dream sequence, is one of those ear to ear grin-worthy moments.

Something similar to “Operation : Goodman” happened just recently actually, with one of our newer licenses, ‘The Twilight Zone’. I’ve loved the show my whole life, and Rod Serling is a personal hero of mine, so before we had the papers signed I already had a slew of ideas for where we were gonna go with our merchandise. One of the things that was most attractive to us about the license, besides the 50th Anniversary of the series, was that for the first time ever, we were going to be able to make 3-D representations of Serling himself. Action figures, bobble heads, the works. Our idea was to make a bobble head of Rod with a talking base that played his opening salvo from the show, to be released at the same time as the Mystic Seer and Invader bobble heads. We had just started our research and design process, when we got word from CBS that Carol Serling, Rod’s widow, did not want him to be a bobble head. Understandable, she may not have fiound it the most flattering item to make of  such an iconic presence. So we compromised, and proposed a non poseable mini statue, to be in scale with the other bobbles, but an accurate, portrait styled sculpt of the man himself. We had it made, were about to license the theme tune and his audio clip, and the design was approved. Again, moments away from solicitation, we then got a call saying that Carol Serling didn’t want Rod made at all. In any form. Once again, even though the license states otherwise, we had to bow to those wishes and move on. Who knows, we can always revisit the concept and maybe make it happen someday. More importantly, I like to think these little doors that get shut on us make us stronger to open the bigger ones.

Now, as everyone knows, 1980’s ‘Flash Gordon’ is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. And as most of you have figured out by now, I’ve loved it since it came out.  It never got it’s ‘due’ in this country, and on it’s release it was marred by confusion and lack of merchandise and publicity. It was on the list of the first four licenses I wanted to get when setting up Bif Bang Pow!, and I still feel lucky and special that we all made it happen and Alex Ross got involved with me to help the figures come together. However, the road to release wasn’t paved with asphalt. From the start, the project seemed to cause a fair amount of confusion at King Features, the company that owns all the characters in the world of Flash Gordon. They seemed to think that Universal, who made the film, were the ones that controlled the merchandising rights for it. Not so, said Uni, and after several months of back and forthing,  they eventually produced 25 year old paperwork that stated just that. Universal made the film, yes, but King Features has always controlled merchandise rights for Flash, whatever form he takes.

So, once that was out of the way, getting assets for reference and packaging should be easy, yes? Well, like I said, when it comes to Flash, nothing’s easy. As with Lebowski, we wanted to get something released quickly and easily, so planned to put out  bobble heads of Flash and Ming. The problem was, the clock was already ticking on the license and our
prototypes for New York Toy Fair that year, and we’d been provided with no reference materials. So, using the old motto of the round table, ‘adopt, adapt and improve’, we lifted images and logos off of the original soundtrack album and movie program. There weren’t many, but they were all we had. Meantime, King Features sent us not once, but twice, style guides for the comic strip/Alex Raymond version of Flash and his friends, even though we’d discussed in dozens of conversations the film versions of the characters. Eventually we got materials from both parties that have become invaluable, but just as when he first hit theaters, Flash got overlooked once again. This time by his handlers!

The upside to all of this is, several months before we were set to release the first action figures of Flash and Ming, I got a phone call from the home video division of Universal Studios. They wanted to discuss why I thought it might be a good idea that they re release ‘Flash Gordon’ on DVD. Seems they’d seen our action figure artwork at comic con, and felt we’d be the right guys to ask. I was, frankly, desperate to get the movie re released, for one, because it hadn’t been available for about ten years, and also because for us it would mean more exposure for our toys. Long story short, within the year, they released a brand new, remastered version of the film, with cover artwork drawn by, yes, Alex Ross. I made the introduction, and even managed to get our black robed Ming variant a cameo in the featurette on Alex, having Fed Exed him into his hands directly from New York Toy Fair the day before.

There are many other setbacks, mostly more headaches than migraines, on the road to fruition. For San Diego Comic Con 2008, our buddy Scott Ian was going to be making an appearance at the Entertainment Earth booth. We had recently released his bobble head, and we wanted to do something special for the con, an exclusive, limited edition version of what we’d done. Scott’s a big geek like the rest of us, and one of the things that we first bonded on a few years back was the  Sci Fi Channel version of ‘Battlestar Galactica’. He’s become friends with Aaron Douglas and Katee Sackhoff, and actually got to visit the set once (a trip that I, unfortunately, was unable to make. He even got pics in the cockpit of a Viper! Bastard.) So I thought that a funny and simple variant bobble head to make for comic con, would be one that had ‘Cylons Rule’ painted on his chest. I figured that Universal wouldn’t have a problem with it, especially since we already had a relationship with them, and was pretty sure the word ‘Cylon’ wasn’t enough to get us in hot water. Plus,  he was a friend of the show already. Oh, how I was wrong. The answer I got from Universal was a resounding NO, unless, of course, I wanted to fork over a nice chunk of change for a ‘limited’ BSG license. So to any of the Scott Ian/BSG crossover Fanfic throng out there, well, I tried, man.

I don’t want to make it sound like the approval process is always a nightmare, or that the talent are always difficult to deal with. On the contrary, nine times out of ten the feedback we get is fantastic and extremely helpful. Because we’re living in the golden age of action figures, actors are a lot more hip to the toy world, and most can’t wait to be immortalized in plastic. Michal C. Hall, in particular, was so excited about his Dexter ‘Dark Defender’ figure at SDCC ’09 when we met him, that he commented on it’s removable trench coat and said he couldn’t wait to see what was next. And memorably, Julie Benz’s request for her bobble was “prettier shoes”, and CS Lee’s note for the Masuka bobble head was a slight “bulge” in the front of his trousers, just enough to be barely noticeable. I’m happy to say we succeeded on both counts.

I could, of course, go on for days about all the ins and outs of the behind the scenes action.  I always knew that things would need to be done by the book when it came to studios and networks, and we’re very good at handling things that way. Of course, that doesn’t take away from the madness that sometimes ensues, or the frustration we feel when we’re spinning our wheels for months at a time. But we’re also very good at doing business and thinking unconventionally, which has sort of been the Bif Bang Pow! philosophy all along: expect the unexpected. It’s served us well. We’re smarter, tougher and smoother than we were way back when, and all of these trials and tribulations have, I think, made us more successful. I look back at the past five years and all it’s ups and downs, and honestly wouldn’t change a thing. Having said that, we’re just locking up a new deal where actor likenesses and hang ups won’t be an issue at all, and that means one less step in what’s always a lengthy process. What could possibly go wrong? Right? RIGHT??

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Jason "Plastic Soul" Lenzi
A successful television producer and voice-over artist, pop culture fanatic Jason Lenzi established Bif Bang Pow! in 2005, channeling his boundless enthusiasm as a fan and collector into the creation of the company’s highly-desired toy lines. His enthusiasm has proven contagious, earning BBP! unanimous praise from the toy community and leading to creative partnerships with the likes of comics giant Alex Ross and rock icon Scott Ian. BBP! has so far released action figures and bobble heads for 'Flash Gordon', 'The Big Lebowski', 'The Twilight Zone', 'Dexter', 'LOST', HBO's 'Eastbound and Down' and 'The Venture Brothers'. When he's not chasing down new licenses, producing and narrating various TV series, or reading every music magazine on the shelves, he's obsessively playing Beatles: Rock Band until he gets every song right.
Read other articles by Jason "Plastic Soul" Lenzi.

 

 

 

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