Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. This whole interview kind of came out of the blue, but when I was asked if I was interested in talking to Todd McFarlane about a new adult geek toy line I couldn't resist. McFarlane Toys' Movie Maniacs line took a ridiculous amount of money out of my bank account. I still have their Jaws Diorama proudly displayed in my guest room.
McFarlane forever changed how we would look at the action figure with his Movie Maniacs and sports figures and now he's aiming to do it again but “in a different aisle” as he says. He's producing a set of build environments very much in line with Legos... except more realistic. He has three environments based around the popular Walking Dead franchise that will be released exclusively through Toys R Us this Fall.
Below you'll find some photos and a rather lengthy interview with Mr. McFarlane about why he's so focused on delivering highly detailed, quality adult geek merchandise. It's not the typical chat with a CEO, that's for sure. The man is nothing if not blunt and honest about his passions. Enjoy!
Quint: Hey, man. How's it going?
Todd McFarlane: What're you doin' today?
Quint: Writing, working, talking to Todd McFarlane. Same old, same old. What about you?
Todd McFarlane: Oh, just working on some packaging. Doing some artwork for some packaging! All the fun stuff, right?
Quint: Before we start, I just want to say that I've probably paid for at least a month's rent at your offices with all the Movie Maniacs figures I bought as a teenager. I was definitely your target audience for those thing. I don't think people quite remember what toys looked like before you did that. They were mostly the crude 3 ¾ inch figures.
Todd McFarlane: The big shift in all that was when the stock market crashed and all the stores that you used to buy the Movie Maniacs and the Tortured Souls and all that cool stuff at, they sort of vanished or their business model shifted. It's kind of frustrating. You go, “Wah, we used to be able to do all this cool stuff and there was a buyer there.” Now you can't sell those same toys to those stores today. They don't exist, right? KB Toys and Suncoast don't exist and then the big guys who used to take 'em... even Wal-Mart was taking Movie Maniacs... all those guys have become risk averse over the past decade since the crash of the stock market. It's harder to find shelf placement for some of that stuff.
Other companies are doing it, but they're doing it with a model that's different, with smaller staffs. A bunch of art houses are doing it and God bless 'em for keeping that stuff alive, but at some point you've got an infrastructure and you've got to package what the big boys will sell.
Quint: I have a feeling that if you ever returned to that line you'd find it hugely successful. I mean, clearly you're not afraid to take risks. One of those risks is why we're talking today. I've been wondering when someone was going to take the Lego model and twist it into more adult themed playsets. I know more parents that collect and build Legos than their kids! It's fitting that you're the one taking the lead with that since you pretty much transformed the action figure market in a similar way.
Todd McFarlane: You hit there. It's the same thought process (as the action figures). Twenty years ago I walked down an aisle of action figures, I looked at the product and I asked a simple question: Why can't this be cooler looking?
I said, “Alright, I'll be the one to make them cooler lookin'. I'll spend my money and start a company and we'll do it.” The answer to that question, why can't they look cooler, is easy. They can. It's just plastic. At the end of the day it's no more complicated than taking plastic and putting it in shapes, right? Why they chose to make goofy shapes? I don't know. Those are questions that would have to be posed to those companies. I'm not going to buy these sports figures. Why? Because it doesn't look like them.
I get you got the right logo on them. I get you have the dude's name on the back. But other than getting the right colors and logos, it doesn't look like the guy. Don't take my word for it. Go look at Sports Illustrated or watch ESPN or any photo anybody snapped of the dude. Oh, my God! Why can't you make it look like the photograph of that person!?! It's bizarre to me.
We would win awards for the sports stuff and people would say “How did you make it look so real?” It's not how did I make it look right, it's was how did they do it wrong for so long! They had cameras, too. They had access to the same technology. There's nothing wholly original here. They just chose to look at that picture and not replicate it. Why? To this day, I don't know. I'll probably go to my grave not having an answer that's viable.
Not only did they not look like the guy, the pose was wrong. That's not an athletic pose! Don't insult me by saying that's somehow an athlete and that's a position they go in and that's what Derek Jeter would do. It's a farce. For the most part most toy companies' objective is you sell mom's products to take home to 7 year olds. I applaud them, they make billions of dollars, but that's it. That's the model.
I love my mom and I love moms, but they're not very discriminating artists, right? They go, “My kid wants Spider-Man. Oh, there's something that's got a big Spider-Man logo and it's blue and red and it has a little bit of webbing on it. That's Spider-Man.” That's the extent of their expectation. The 7 year old goes, “Cool, I got Spider-Man!” When I was 6 and 7 you could have sold me anything, but that's not my model. The vast majority of our product is sold to people 15 and older, which means they're buying it for themselves. Not only are they buying it for themselves, they've got keen eyes. I'm not the only guy that's got a keen eye. They've got keen eyes, too. They understand when you're faking it. I can't sell them something that's a bad facsimile of the Alien or The Matrix or Predator. I have to do it accurate. That's my job. Otherwise I can't sell it to a 25 year old with a straight face.
We're taking all of that, all of the experience that I've gained over the past two decades, and I just asked the same question in another aisle. “Why can't these blocks look cooler? Why do they all have to look bit-mapped?” The problem with their builds, for me, is that the closer I get to the build the less realistic it looks. There's some interesting builds out there and if I'm across the room, it's kind of convincing. I go “Wow, look at that. That's kinda cool.” As I get up to it I see it's just plastic blocks. It's not convincing to me. I've got three kids and from time to time we take them to places like Lego Land or Comic Conventions or wherever they have those things where people build giant things out of a million blocks. Again, from 100 feet it's cool as heck. Even for me, as an adult. But the closer I got the less cool it got. I just wanted to turn that equation on its head. I want my stuff to look cooler the closer you get to it because then you're going to see all the detail.
How do I do that? Deja vu all over again. I'm going to put things all together with the blocks and at the very end, when they stop and they're finished, I go “There's one more step. We now actually have to put the art on top of it. We're not done yet, boys and girls.” There's going to be a lot of components to what we're building to where you're going to have lay another layer of bricks or tiles on it and cover up the dimples or nipples, whatever you want to call the tops of the blocks, and you cover them up with art so at the end of it it looks kind of like a diorama.
I want a product that when you're done building it you don't have to put it in your bedroom because you're a fan of something, but you know you just built a toy. I want something that when you're done with it you're proud enough to put it in your living room for everybody to see.
Quint: It sounds like a bit of an evolution of the model kit culture.
Todd McFarlane: I know the average person doesn't want to go out and get a brush and some paint and customize it even cooler. There will be plenty that will do that, that'll go, “Todd, you got me 80% there, but you just wait. I'm going to handle all the sexy myself and it's going to be awesome!” There is a model kit aspect, that when you're done you'll have a diorama of sorts, but to me... when I was younger people used to build train sets. They'd build big, elaborate cities with their train sets. As a kid I just thought they were awesome. It's going to be some of that there, with the building component being prevalent!
The Governor's room at first glance... people could probably look at it and go “Okay, maybe there's 20 pieces there.” The Governor's Room is 297, I believe. It may look like 12, but it's 297. You don't just snap this together like a model kit with 5 parts. I'm not gonna make it that easy on you. You're going to have to build it, but when you're done building it it'll look real! We can talk about anything you want, but at the end of the day it'll look way more real than theirs. Now the question is: how much is that going to matter in this business? I guess we're going to find out. We'll see if there are enough people like me.
I'm very fortunate that many of the questions I ask when I start my companies are the very same questions a lot of other people are asking. I wasn't the only person asking why the Albert Pujols figure didn't look like Albert Pujols or why doesn't the Peyton Manning figure look like Peyton Manning? Why can't these things look like what they're supposed to? I knew I couldn't have been the only guy. We're here again. God bless 'em for keeping the artistic bar low. I'll just skip right over it and people will probably say some nice things about it, but it wasn't a very high obstacle. That bar is fairly low.
They've got their model and the upside to corporations having strong models is it gets very difficult for them to cover every single corner of a landscape and I'm going to go into a corner they haven't touched yet.
Quint: The adult geek collectible corner is a strong one. Look around. We live in the era of the geek. Comic books are now cool. Superhero movies are the biggest blockbusters. Jocks love them, too.
Todd McFarlane: I think that observation is becoming more and more obvious every day. I understand why some of my competitors make some of the choices they make. If I had a billion dollar business catering to the youth, I'd stick to it, too. But that doesn't allow them to break out of their molds too much. Again, it's my opinion and people can disagree with it, but I think we're doing it a little bit cooler than everything else. For me the point was driven home when they started doing mature brands, like Halo and Call of Duty. I don't know if you've seen any of those.
Quint: Just on the shelves. I haven't seen any builds.
Todd McFarlane: I'm glad both of them are doing extremely well, which is why they're letting The Walking Dead in, but for my sensibilities as an adult geek collector it doesn't represent what I like so much. I like that video game. This stuff doesn't look like what's in that video game. What I fell in love with is what was on the screen and this stuff doesn't look like what's on the screen! What it is is a reasonable facsimile at best, I think.
Quint: Or a stylized version of it.
Todd McFarlane: Right. To me it's weird that it's based on a mature theme, but it doesn't look mature. There's a disconnect for me here, artistically and visually. I'm trying to eliminate that disconnect. I like The Walking Dead and the way it looks. As much as I possibly can, given the limitation of building blocks, I'm going to try to give you as much realism and authentic look as possible. That's my duty to you. It means I'm going to have skin the cat in different ways than they've done and I'll just let people decide if they'll accept some of the sidesteps they'll have to do to get there.
It's hard for me to imagine some 25 year old geek is going to look at some of this stuff and go, “It's too realistic looking.” I don't know. In all honesty, I think in three years I'm going to have a whole subdivision and all they do is sell props or whatever word you want to use. We'll sell stuff for people to customize their own world. I think even young kids are going to go “I need to buy some of that stuff!” “Why?” “Because I'm building a house and I'm going to take all my existing bricks that I've collected and I'm going to build this really cool house. I'm going to need a window. I'm going to get a McFarlane window. Now I need a door. I'm going to get a McFarlane door. I need to make a garden, so I'm going to get McFarlane flowers, a McFarlane sidewalk.”
When it comes down to the stuff that matters, the details, if you're concerned about the art you're going to have to default to my pieces. Or maybe not. Maybe the other guys will pick it up and they'll start creating some cool stuff, but otherwise I'll be the guy.
I can't accept that if you give me a piece that's ten by ten and is brown and has a hundred nipples on it and you put it in front of a dog house or something then that is dirt. Whoa, whoa, whoa. What's this supposed to be? Dirt. What do you mean it's dirt? “But, Todd... it's brown.” Dude, there are a lot of things in this world that are brown, I wouldn't necessarily call them dirt, though. You're saying that I have to accept if you take this exact same piece and paint it black then that now is asphalt and if you paint it green that's now grass? I reject that concept. If you want me to accept that is grass then make it look like grass! There's nothing stopping you from making it look like grass. There's nothing stopping you. It's just plastic. You've just chosen not to do it.
I mean, they've got their flowers and their bushes and all their other stuff, but they make them unrealistic. Okay, I'll fill the more realistic void you guys have chosen not to go towards. You have a billion dollar model that works. I understand, I understand, I understand. You reach for the billions, I'll reach for the millions.
Quint: There's something to the look of the Lego and concept that it's all one shared universe done in that style. I also think there's a lot of nostalgia since the look of Legos haven't changed much since most adults today were kids. But to your point that only goes so far. I mean, I have nostalgia for the Kenner Star Wars toys, but that doesn't mean I want to put them on my shelf.
Todd McFarlane: It's an interesting comment you made. One of the guys working for me is about 32 and he said, “Todd, I collect this stuff. I'm a big Star Wars fan and I bought the brick build of the Millennium Falcon. I like it. I think it's cool, but it's been in my bedroom. At the end of the day, I know it's just this little geeky toy thing. Knowing what we're working on and seeing what's coming into the office... if you built the Millennium Falcon, I'd build it and I'd put it in my living room so everybody could see it.” Why? Because at the end of it it would look like art, not a toy.
Quint: There are a lot of people like that. I lean that way. Looking around me right now I see Sideshow Statues and Hot Toys figures. Super realistic pieces.
Todd McFarlane: Right. Why can't a build look closer to that Sideshow statue? I'm going to look at every possible angle so the answer is that eventually it can. We'll start with environments then we'll get the mini-figures... I'm going to figure this out. It's going to be my mission to figure this out.
The only frustrating thing is that I've yet to take a photo that looks anywhere near as cool as when you see it with your eyeballs. Especially the tower. I can't get it. It looks way cooler when it's in front of you. The fence! We're talking about a damn fence, right? But the fence is cool as heck. It's so cool and it's just a fence! That was a moment... if we could be standing there, a bunch of artists, looking at a fence and going “That's cool” wait until we are actually doing something that is supposed to be cool! Most people wouldn't put “fence” in the cool category, right? Just wait until we actually get our hands on some awesome visuals. We'll have some big fun with all this stuff.
Quint: When will people actually get to look at them in person?
Todd McFarlane: For people to actually see them with their own eyeballs, that first reveal will be at San Diego Comic-Con. If you happen to be one of the lucky ones in the building you'll actually be able to come look at it in different variations. Here it is half built, here it is apart, here's how it works. Hopefully the reaction will be “Todd's doing what he did (with action figures) and just moving it to another aisle.”
Quint: I've only seen the exploded view videos of Daryl on the motorcycle and the Governor's Room. They look really cool...
Todd McFarlane: That's to show how it works. We get comments from the Toys R Us buyers and the Wal-Mart buyers that they don't get the build, so we wanted to show how the build works. There are a couple of times people get startled: When you pull up a couple of planks in the Governor's Room and expose the nipples then all of a sudden they go “Oh, those are bricks!” “That's what I've been telling you!?!” It's this weird barrier and they just didn't want to accept it completely. It's all interchangeable. You can use it with all the competitors, so we're good with all that. That's the first one. The second time that gets people to snap their heads back... you show them these close up shots and there's no scale to them. They go, “That's cool, that's cool... look at the fish tanks with the floating heads and the lights. That's cool.” Then on the fifth photo I'm standing there holding it in my palm and they go “What!?! Those five pictures is what you've got in your hand?” “Yeah.” “That detail is on those little things you've got in your hand?” “Yeah.”
There's something interesting about miniature stuff. We're going to try to keep as much of the detail at that scale as we possibly can. We're still learning what can and can't be done. We're not going to give up what people are used to with our company, we're just going to bring it down to a smaller scale.
Quint: You're starting with The Walking Dead, but are you planning on branching out into other properties right off the bat?
Todd McFarlane: It's sort of unknown if people even want this idea, but we're already talking to a couple of people about some other properties that we've had our eye on. Once we know that we've made our mark, if you will, we'll probably have a couple of these signed, sealed and delivered and go “By the way, here's some other stuff we're going to do.”
Quint: As long as you promise me one thing. Jaws is my favorite movie and the diorama you guys made of Bruce eating Quint is one of my favorite pieces of Jaws merchandise ever. So, if and when this becomes a big thing all I ask is that you give me build of the Indianapolis Speech scene from Jaws, with everybody sitting around the table.
Todd McFarlane: Right! All those companies we used to be in bed with... we can now come out in another aisle with our versions of them again. They won't buy them to put in the action figure aisle anymore, but there's a way to get them into another aisle.
The thing is... what you just said, and I've already had this conversation internally, what you just said... I think there are gobs of people who are just like you who go, “Remember that cool stuff that you used to do?” We're going to show it you again.
There you go. The new venture hits Toys R US shelves this fall and if you're diving into the decadent geek madness that is San Diego Comic-Con you can check 'em out in person.