Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Toy Stories

A proud tradition of franchise movies dating back to Star Wars, if not even earlier, is the sale of film-related merchandise, in particular toys.

I remember the Star Wars toys of the 80s, even though I didn't own a whole lot of them (I may have owned a small, Kenner-manufactured Tie Fighter at one point but I'm not even sure). But I have seen a fair share of Star Wars related merchandise, and back then it looked really good, and boy, did it make a lot of money.

The tradition has been carried on by some filmmakers and their toy-tie-in partners; within the last decade, toys and merchandise from the first Cars film and its spinoffs made something like eight BILLION dollars, an obscenely large amount of money by almost anyone's standards, which by itself justified the making of a sequel, Cars 2, probably better than any box-office figures ever could. So Disney has continued the Star Wars tradition. Of course, with its myriad of new Hasbro action figures and vehicles Clone Wars Lego sets, one could say that the makers of Star Wars themselves are continuing the Star Wars tradition.

Curiously, though, apart from Disney and Lucasfilm, there appears to have been a lot of dropping of the ball in terms of selling movie-related toys lately.

Now, I don't collect movie-themed toys (or action figures in general) but I remain a fan of toys, and I certainly admire well-made ones, which is why I'm a little disappointed that a lot of the movie-related toys I see around are not that well-made, and in some cases, not made at all.

The latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, for example, has had almost no licensed toy products to speak of save a line of Minimates, an oddity considering that every X-Men film that came before it had a comprehensive toy line up, with figures and vehicles. Heck, X-Men 2 even had a tie-up with a manufacturer of die-cast model cars to produce the Mazda RX-8 that appeared in it.

The Thor toys were just crappy, which is disappointing considering the meticulous detail poured in the the Marvel Legends toys, even the ones produced after Marvel entered into a deal with Hasbro for all of its toys (which Marvel used to produce themselves through their "Toy Biz" company). The toys are small and lacking in detail. Ironically, for the Green Lantern toys, Mattel followed the Marvel strategy of marketing a set of different action figures with the parts of a much bigger figure enclosed among the individual figures. Of course, considering GL was a box-office flop, this strategy did not amount to much, but at least they were aggressive with their toys, even marketing Hot Wheels cars with GL branding. But Thor, a successful movie, made a whole bunch of toys that kids may or may not buy, but which, I feel, are not likely to be terribly attractive to collectors, now or in the future.

Captain America: The First Avenger was another disappointment; despite all of the cool, visually striking retro-futuristic vehicles that appear in the film, the only vehicles that show up in toy stores are crappy G.I.Joe knockoff jeeps, motorbikes and APCs, NONE of which actually APPEAR in the movie! Where's Red Skull's awesome six-wheeled car? The giant bomber that was central to the movie's climax? Hell, where's Cap's Harley and the Hydra agents' bikes? Nowhere to be found. At least Hot Toys is coming up with an amazing looking 1/6 doll of Captain America, but that's only for hardcore collectors who have money to burn. Kids and casual collectors are less fortunate.

Marvel has a diecast partner in Maisto, and when it comes to missing opportunities for toy tie-ins, they appear to have a history of it.

Maisto makes diecast cars and motorcycles, with the former being as big as 1/18 scale and the latter being as big as 1/12 scale or maybe even 1/6 scale. They make, among many other things, the Audi R8 or the car driven by Tony Stark in Iron Man.

For all of that, though, they never bothered to make an "Iron Man"-themed or packaged car even though the car has, since the 2008 film, been widely identified with Iron Man. Instead they come up with some shitty, generic vehicles with the Iron Man logo printed on their body work. Considering how prominently featured the Audi R8 was in both Iron Man films, Maisto and Marvel, whether it was because of their lawyers or marketing people, missed on a huge opportunity to sell some toys.

With Captain America Marvel and Maisto failed yet again to make the most of a great opportunity to sell some toys. Sure, there is a well-conceived line of WWII planes with Captain America logos on them, so at least it trumps Hasbro's ridiculous "G.I. Joe" style vehicles, but Maisto/Marvel still goofed in a big way. In terms of sponsorship, legendary motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson is to Cap what Audi was to Iron Man, and because Maisto makes toy Harley Davidsons in varying scales, it represented a great marketing and sales opportunity for everyone concerned, an opportunity they appear to have missed completely.

But that's not the worst "toy story" of the year for me.

One of the big announcements regarding Transformers: Dark of the Moon, when it went into production last year was that it would feature as one of its characters a Ferrari 458. This, like the Cars films, is a movie franchise that exists mainly to sell toys, especially considering that it was based on an already-existing toy line. Michael Bay HIMSELF announced that a Ferrari 458 would be joining the Autobots, so the car was written into the script.

The movie has come out and is, in fact, slowly on its way out of theaters, and the Ferrari made its appearance, but to date, not a single Ferrari Transformers toy has shown up on shelves. It's rumored to show up later this year or early next year, but what's the point of releasing a toy so long after the release of the movie? Whether it's an issue with the lawyers of Mattel (who holds the Ferrari license), or General Motors (whose vehicles are the most prominent in the Transformers franchise), the makers of Transformers fumbled big time in terms of an opportunity to sell what will, if it EVER comes out, most likely be a very popular toy. Ferraris sell, in real life and in toy versions, which is why Mattel shelled out huge amounts of money to lock up the license to make Ferrari toys. If Paramount/Hasbro planned to make a Ferrari Transformer toy, they should have moved Heaven and Earth to do so in time for the film's release. That they didn't speaks very poorly of their marketing strategy.

In this economy it is perhaps understandable that people don't go the extra mile to make toys the way Kenner used to for Star Wars and the way a juggernaut like Mattel would for Cars, but as someone who appreciates toys, whether it's the actual craftsmanship or even just the cool packaging, I can't help but be disappointed by the lackadaisical attitude of some of the makers of today's movie-related toys; it's almost as if they just rush whatever they can shove onto shelves in time for the movie's release instead of taking the time and effort to make and market toys of Star Wars level quality. A shame, really.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Hey Catholic Church, Are We Really Gonna Do This Again?

Five years ago, the Catholic Church railed against the evil known as the film adaptation of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. They called for a boycott by all the faithful of the film, which ended up grossing three quarters of a billion dollars at the global box-office despite almost uniformly bad reviews. In short, in spite of their exhortations, and quite possibly because of them, people went to see the movie, possibly because they wanted to see why so many people were kicking up such a fuss.

Nowadays, the local Catholic Church of the Philippines is again foaming at the mouth over somebody's art exhibit, which they claim is blasphemous. After somewhat heated protests and an act of vandalism by unidentified persons on the exhibit, its curator has agreed to close it down for security reasons.

I won't go into the whole debate on Freedom of Expression, which to my knowledge is being much more eloquently articulated elsewhere, but I will point out how ironic it is that to get the exhibit closed down the people against it, many of them dyed-in-the-wool Catholics, turned to Imelda Marcos, widow of Ferdinand Marcos, who needs no introduction to anyone familiar with Philippine history, and in particular the atrocities performed during the martial law years. It's ironic that it while the Catholic church helped remove the Marcoses from power because of their heinous and decidedly un-Christian treatment of the Filipino people, Catholic adherents (and, I think, even some priests) turned to Imelda for help regarding the perceived desecration of Christianity, like some kind of white knight. To those who think politics makes strange bedfellows, I give you this oddity.

It's even more ironic that while the early Christians, including most of Christ's twelve apostles, were martyred in some of the most spectacularly brutal ways imaginable (with one saint even being sawed in half while alive), members of today's Catholic Church is apparently in the business of creating martyrs by siccing ex-dictator's widows on people who make them angry.

The thing is, though, that by bullying the curators of the exhibit into shutting it down, as they once bullied the MTRCB to give The Da Vinci Code an "R" rating, the Church and the fundamentalists ranting beside them have done nothing but drum up publicity for a person who, based on what I've seen, is little more than a hack trying to get attention. The DVC has been described by some as a lousy movie based on a lousy book, but people who would otherwise have been completely indifferent to it ended up watching it because of all of the noise.

I have no love for people who use shock value to promote themselves or their work and this person is no exception, but I think the people that person offended went about handling their wounded feelings incorrectly; to put it another way, they fell for the bait, hook, line and sinker.

This artist, whom I will not name as I have no interest in promoting this person one way or another, is an individual of dubious talent who, thanks to strident protestations, is now a champion for all those who despise the church, and will live on in infamy or fame depending on one's inclinations. I'm pretty sure that outside of the people inclined to attend such exhibits, the average juan remained blissfully unaware of the existence of that person or exhibit until both were trumpeted in the media thanks to the Church.

Fortunately, in a country with very short-term memory this person will soon be forgotten, but had the usual gang just managed to keep their cool, perhaps there would be even less for people to remember.

This is not a victory for the fundamentalists and priests and whoever thinks they've struck a blow for their faith; it's a victory for shock value and the artists willing to have themselves figuratively martyred to get their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.