by Michael Sullenger
I had a chance to hang out with Andy Espenshade, Hasbro's Director of Marketing, in Hasbro's booth at Wizard World Chicago and discuss the new Saga product shown at the convention as well as some plans for 2002.
MS: With the toys being out now for a couple of months and the film finally being released, how has Star Wars done for you? Has it met or exceeded your expectations? I know that you recently dropped your price to $4.99. Can that be taken as a sign that sales aren't meeting expectations?
Andy: Sales are fine. We took the price down to $4.99 because we were taking a look at a few things going on in the marketplace and felt for the long term benefit of the brand, it would be the right thing to do. We saw as the summer ended and we were going into the fall, it would be a good way to get kids to be able to keep buying deeper into the line. One of the big lessons learned from Episode I is that almost every kid, almost every boy in the right target group, bought a Star Wars figure. The problem was most of them were buying like one almost as a souvenir, and we didn't feel that they were beginning to actually play with them. That's why we went back in and added all the play features in all the toys, so that kids can actually play with these. Taking the price down to $4.99 was to make it a better value for kids and collectors alike. As another lesson learned from Episode I, most figures were at $6.99 to $7.99, and we heard from collectors from the internet or what they said to us in person over and over again that they felt prices were just too high. So we felt that by dropping it to $4.99, it would be a better value and it's something that we plan on continuing.
MS: What I noticed in stores are that your lightsaber toys are doing extremely well and they could never seem to keep them in stock. Do you think the last scene of the movie had something to do with that?
Andy: Yeah, I think the last forty minutes in the movie had everything to do with it. In the original trilogy and Episode I, there were great lightsaber battles. But Episode 2 was just taken to a whole new level. We do always look at history trying to project our sales and how much we should produce of every toy. It's not an exact science and barely an art at that. But we do try and look at history and pick the right number and react to it as it goes along. So we see a character like Yoda, we're going to produce more if we know that's what fans want to see. We're producing lightsabers around the clock and try to get more out there. We're also reacting and putting out a few new colors of lightsabers. We're working right now on a Mace Windu lightsaber with purple blade and electronics, a new green electronic Jedi lightsaber, and a yellow-orange Jedi lightsaber. It should all be available for the holidays.
MS: When I spoke to you last at Celebration 2, you mentioned that 75% of your sales during a movie year were going to be kids. At first, I was doubtful. But whenever I shop at the stores, I'm amazed at all these kids in the aisles getting into Star Wars again. Going forward, as the movie finishes its run, are you going to begin focusing on collectors again like you did with Power of the Jedi?
Andy: Definitely. We know that on a non-movie year, the focus is on collectors. As you've seen, all the obscure characters we produced last year that people wanted to see were 100% for collectors. In a movie year, that's our opportunity to make it bigger and take it to a wider audience and get kids as excited as we were. When Star Wars first came out, I was six years old. That's why I'm doing what I am today because as a kid, I loved the Star Wars movies. While it's great to have the collector business and we love to keep making the collector focus product, it's really great too and a lot of fun to put play features in there and let the kids have fun with the brand. By my house the other day, there were six neighbor kids in the backyard next to me all playing with lightsabers. That was a really cool feeling. What I put years of work into and seeing kids have fun with it is great. But during a non-movie year and the attention span of kids being as they are as other new movies and toys come out, it's hard for one movie to hold their attention for a three year span. So our focus will definitely go back to collectors. But even this year, we're doing characters like Ephant Mon and things that are clearly for collectors to make them happy. We try in our product to have a distinct line for kids and one for collectors and make everyone happy all the time. The Deluxe figures we took a little more creative license with. Even if they're 3 ¾ inch scale, they're clearly for kids. So even if it doesn't do that feature exactly in the movie, for a kid it's fun. In Collection 2, everything in there is authentic to the movie as much as possible for collectors.
MS: Some collectors are unhappy with the lack of articulation with the flipping action Deluxe figures, but what you're saying is it's more play focused for kids?
Andy: That's a perfect example. If that's the only Anakin we'll ever produce, I can see collectors being upset with the lack of articulation. But on the other hand, we have several Anakins in the basic figure line that are for the collectors and that are more articulated. What we do with every figure is to try and maintain a balance between the paint decoration, the articulation, and the play feature. It's a trade-off. You can't have a character with 30 points of articulation and expect it to be fully painted and have a play feature. So we try to identify each character and figure and what's going to make that particular one special and different and then put the articulation and deco in from there. For a character like FX-7, we thought it was great to give it 37 points of articulation I think it was, because that's what the character and figure is all about.. Luminara looked great with all the deco we put on her. She's more in a dedicated pose, but it works for that character and she's still articulated. On the other hand, we have other characters that are clearly for collectors and we're putting more and more articulation in. A lot of people see pictures in the magazine and don't realize there's articulation, but when they take the toy out of the package, they're happily surprised.
MS: Collectors really aren't so crazy about the buttons in the back to activate the action features because they sort of take away from the aesthetics. As the focus begins shifting back to collectors again, will figures stay away from the buttons and gadgets? The added accessories are great, but many feel that the buttons take away from the overall look.
Andy: It's certainly a trade-off. If you want to have a Mace Windu that can swing his lightsaber, you use the button to swing his lightsaber. We try to hide them as much as possible and put it in places where it wouldn't affect the aesthetics. In some cases, like the first Padmé Amidala figure, we wanted to put that quick draw feature on her. We knew it would limit articulation and wouldn't be what collectors wanted, so we're doing another version of her next year in the same white outfit.. We're doing her a little bit differently and the figure will be heavily articulated so collectors can put her in different poses and dioramas. The play features help us differentiate the characters we've done before. By putting the features in there like with Bespin Luke, and recreating that scene from Cloud City, it allows us to offer the character in a different way even though we already made an earlier version.
MS: The Trooper head variants were still up in the air when I spoke to you at C2. You still haven't decided whether you would recard the previous POTJ releases or make brand new sculpts for Saga. Any definite plans yet?
Andy: It's still a little bit up in the air and we're still trying to finalize that. We've identified a few figures that didn't get out in significant quantities in the green packaging. Just like they did back in the late '70's and Eighties, where you see one figure show up in different cards through the years, we feel there's a precedent for doing that. If we don't change the figure, we can just make it available again to people who couldn't find it the first time by releasing it in the new blue package in somewhat limited quantity but enough to satisfy demand.
MS: When is the second version of the Endor Soldier coming out?
Andy: We don't have an exact date on it. We base our decision on past sales history and how much we can sell of that figure overall. It would represent about half way through once we decide to switch from one version to the next. Therefore, I don't know exactly when they'll hit that point and the new head will hit the stores.
MS: Another popular item collectors have been asking about are Cinema Scenes. Are you planning on releasing any based on Episode 2 or maybe even classic stuff/
Andy: It's a little too early to talk about 2003 and there a few still up in the air. The reason we didn't put them out this year for Episode 2 in 2002 is another lesson learned from 1999. It takes us 12-14 months to make a toy. It's so far out that you don't know what the key scenes are going to be. We had great ones like the Watto's Box scene, which featured new characters. Then we had some poor ones, like the Mos Espa Encounter scene. People already had Sebulba and Jar Jar and it wasn't a very important scene. What we wanted to do this time around was wait until we see the final movie and identify what scenes people like. Then, if we decide to do it, produce some unique scenes that will deliver characters that aren't available elsewhere and people would want to collect.
MS: It's pretty common knowledge that FAO is taking preorders on the Imperial Shuttle. Can you share any more details about the toy?
Andy: We're very happy to hear that people would like to see it. It's concerning that FAO is taking pre-orders because it isn't 100% finalized. We are still working out the details on pricepoint and quantity. We hope to get it out there for people but there's nothing really finalized at this point.
MS: Continuing with the subject on classic ships, the one's you do have confirmed like the new X-Wing and Landspeeder have received good response from collectors just because you made some great changes from previous molds people wanted to see. One ship collectors have also wanted to see retooled is a new TIE Fighter with better proportioned wing panels. Any chance of that happening in the foreseeable future?
Andy: That one specifically I don't think we've talked about a whole lot, but we'll certainly take it into consideration. A lot of it has to do with the proof being in the pudding. If classic vehicles sell well and the consumer response is good to make the retailers happy, then we'd be happy to make more. On the other hand, if the demand isn't there, then chances are there wouldn't be more. I hope it because we really love doing it and the ones we have planned right now. By using the old tooling and then making changes to that, it's a good mix which makes it affordable for us and affordable for the fans. We can then go ahead and make changes to it to keep it unique. Plus kids that have gotten into Episode I and II and checked out the classic trilogy on video are going to want a Landspeeder.
MS: Fans are excited about your new 12" offerings utilizing the G.I. Joe body, which has more articulation and proportionality. Do you have similar plans for your female 12" action figures in the future?
Andy: Where it makes sense. We're still working on the product line for 2003 and focusing on 2002 right now. But certainly for the future, if they continue to sell well, we'll utilize similar tools for the female 12" action figures if it makes sense and are available. With G.I. Joe, there's more male bodies to use with the history of that line. But we'll certainly look into it for the females as well.
MS: For 2002, you came out with a new assortment called Unleashed. They're supposed to be artistic interpretation of characters. Your previous assortments, like Epic Force and Mega-Action, which tried out a formula other than your proven 3 ¾ scale, didn't really do as well as you expected. What are your expectations for this new assortment?
Andy: 3 ¾ inch will always be our bread and butter and what we all grew up collecting, so obviously that's where our heart is and where our focus will always be. That said, we're looking for new and fun ways for people to collect. You see it in different categories and brands and it's just new trends emerging. We thought this would be something unique and different. When we look at the past and some of those lines you mentioned, the Mega Figures were clearly aimed towards kids. With Epic Force, the problem was that it wasn't different enough. It was just a bigger version of a 3 ¾ inch figure and the toy didn't motivate people to buy it. With Unleashed, we're able to get detail and attitude in the figures that we've never done before and it really is a 100% different style. It will be hard to get that kind of detail and other things we're doing with it in a smaller scale. We're putting it out there and see what people think. If they don't do well, you won't see anymore in the future. We think they're pretty cool and we hope fans do too. If they sell well, we'll be happy to come out with more. There's not so many characters you can do it with because there are only a few who have that attitude and open to interpretation like that.
MS: Yeah, you can't really do an Unleashed Jar Jar.
Andy: No, exactly. It wouldn't make a lot of sense. Or a lot of tertiary characters for that matter. And the characters we're doing, even an Unleashed R2-D2 wouldn't make a lot of sense. But for Jedis and villains it does. It's a lot of fun for our designers to do and brings out their creativity rather than being 100% movie authentic. We have really creative guys and this allows them to put their vision in it a little bit more.
MS: You're also releasing a 10" assortment of vinyl figures this year. With Applause no longer holding the license, Hasbro took over that niche segment. Care to comment on these and if they'll be available in the mass market?
Andy: To be honest, I'm not 100% sure since I don't work on that segment of the business, so I can't comment on them too much on where or when they'll be available. It was a niche market opportunity and one that we'd be able to satisfy for the right customer and the right consumers.
MS: The Silver Anniversary Vader and the upcoming R2 have been so well received. The Vader being only exclusive through Toy Fair initially before you made the decision to give it to the Fan Club and now you're coming out with this new R2-D2. It still being the Silver Anniversary of A New Hope, are you planning on releasing any other unique items in this special packaging?
Andy: As far as the 25th Anniversary goes, the R2-D2 will be the final figure. There are some things we're talking with the Fan Club about for Christmas sales that you'll see in a little bit, but it's not in the black and silver packaging like this. We were really excited about 25th Anniversary and we felt the collectors would be as well. Vader was an opportunity for us to do something fun at Toy Fair. We didn't want to make it a new character, that's why we made it the exact same tooling and exact same sculpt as an existing Vader. The reason we did it in different packaging was that we wanted it to be outside of the main line so people wouldn't feel that it was missing from their collection. We were a bit overwhelmed by the popularity of the figures and it was great to see fans get excited about it. That's the main reason why we're doing this R2-D2, so fans can get their hands on a cool classic character done in that vacuum metallized look. Both Vader, or Anakin, and R2 have been in one form or another in every one of the movies and that's why we decided to do them. This is for Toys R Us in late August. Again, the quantities that have been tossed around are not accurate. It will be limited in the fact that you can only get it at Toys R Us as a gift with purchase. But we are trying to make enough of it so that everyone who wants one can get one.
MS: Speaking of exclusives, let's have Hasbro finally put the last nail on the Jorg Sacul figure so the collectors can know what happened and where you stand. In this convention, they have the Vanishing Beeker exclusive and I noticed that they punched passes to ensure the 2 per limit was enforced. Unfortunately at C2, a lot of collectors who made the convention came back without a Sacul figure because there weren't these kind of controls in place. Can you share your thoughts and comments?
Andy: Again, we were a bit overwhelmed with the success of that figure. We truly wished that every one of the fans who made Celebration could have gotten one or two. That was our intent. We were ourselves limited on how many of those we were allowed to produce based on how many people were expected to be at the convention. They looked at how many people came to Celebration 1 and how many people had pre-registered for Celebration 2.
(Andy and I start laughing because Peter Mayhew just stopped by and tried to fit himself in the giant Hasbro Saga blister card and had to literally crouch himself in.)
Andy: Just like the real Chewbacca action figure we're making, Peter Mayhew himself has a hard time getting into our blisters. See how accurate our figures are!
MS: Oh yeah, absolutely!
Andy: Based on how many people signed up for Celebration and what they were expecting to be there, we did have enough and limited the production run to that number. Sometimes things become self-fulfilling prophecies as rumors spread on how limited the figure would be. Unfortunately, people bought more than what they were supposed to. We had no control over how many they were letting people buy. We obviously only wanted it to be two per customer so that everyone could get one. Unfortunately, some people took advantage of the situation for profit which wasn't good for the fans or Hasbro. Value in the secondary market does us no good. We don't see any of that money and all it does is upset the fans and we don't want to see that. Our goal is that everyone who wants one toy can find that toy. That's the nature of a convention exclusive though. It's to only be available at the event like the one they're selling over here. It's a great figure by the way (referring to the Wizard World exclusive Muppet Show Vanishing Beeker by Palisade Toys).
MS: Yeah, I bought one.
Andy: Yeah, I'm trying to pull a trade myself. It's a thin line to tread because it is considered a reward for people who have attended. But at the same time, you want to make sure that everybody who is here gets to share in that. So that is our goal and it was unfortunate what happened. I think for next time around, we have more ammunition to go back and say that we should really make overflow production to satisfy demand.
MS: You're fans choice polls have been really well received by collectors. Have you considered diversifying it a little and offering a Fan's Choice vehicle or 12" figure in the future?
Andy: We've talked about that and there's a good chance that may happen. We don't have definite plans right now but it could certainly happen in the near future. We really love the Fan's Choice polls ourselves because it let's our designer do some of the more obscure ideas and characters they've been wanting to do for awhile and put it out there. It also gives a voice to fans and let's you tell us what you want to see. We're all in this together, and like we said before, what's best for the fans is what's usually best for Hasbro and vice versa.
MS: With Djas Puhr, you guys are up to 40 basic figures so far this year. How many figures total do you plan to release for 2002?
Andy: For the year, we're looking anywhere between 53-57 or so depending on if we decide to bring back the last waves of Power of the Jedi into the line. Clearly, what makes collectors happy, is that every couple of weeks you go into store and find new figures. It allows us to manage our production and hopefully we can ramp up and get the figures out there in adequate numbers.
MS: We're reaching 400 total figures now for the line. As you know, 300th Boba Fett was a hit with collectors. I know a lot of collectors, through e-mail correspondence or through our forums, have been asking for an ultimate Luke Jedi Knight figure. Besides Boba Fett, that's probably one of the more iconic characters in the classic line.
Andy: We're talking about the black outfit?
MS: Yeah, and the black cloak. They want super articulation, accessories, the works. Do you have any particular plans for something special for the 400th figure and possibly an updated Luke Jedi Knight coming up?
Andy: We don't have any plans for a 400th figure right now. Probably by the time 500 comes around we can do something for that. I have to go back and check the books to see when we'll get to 500. We are always looking for good new versions of classic core characters, so to do one of Luke that people are looking for is a very good possibility, although there are no definite plans right now.
MS: How do you like these kind of shows where Hasbro gets to show their new goods and meet and greet the fans? I know the fans appreciate it when we can put a face behind the product.
Andy: Oh without a doubt. We absolutely love coming to conventions. We have a tremendous amount of fun just getting to see people face to face and meet the people that we've been emailing and seen the postings online and to be able to hear and answer the questions that people have. We wish we could do more. Obviously, to bring a booth this size and bring this much product takes a lot of time, effort, and money.
MS: I notice Hasbro has the biggest presence and the most allocated space in Wizard World this year.
Andy: ToyFare and Wizard have been great to us. We're actually big fans of their magazine to begin with and a lot of us have the same sense of humor on things and see the world in a similar light. The time, money, and effort issue restricts us to doing only a few a year. We did Celebration, we're here in Chicago, and we're going to Comic-Con in San Diego later this month. We love to have the Q and A's. We love to see that passion and we love to share and tell people that we care as much about this stuff as they do. To be able to meet people face to face and explain our position is really good for all of us.
MS: Unfortunately, the Arena playset couldn't make it to the show. Can you give us any hints on what you plan to bring to San Diego?
Andy: We'll certainly try to have the Arena playset there. It's so great and you have to wait to see it in person to see how everything fits with it.
MS: Ham (Hasbro Principal Designer) shared with me a couple of crossover features this playset has with other toys and I think it's great. It totally enhances the play value of the toy.
Andy: Yeah, it was actually fun designing this playset. A lot of times, you just put features in a playset and you're done with it. It was so fun tying all the features in with other toys. The Deluxe figures we're coming out with towards the end of the year have accessories that can hook up to the playset so it's expandable. We put play on both sides of the playset. On the front side we have the Arena, but on the backside is a droid factory and different areas. So you can play with both sides of it. Playsets are typically one of the hardest things for a toy company to do and make them viable and break even on them because there's so much plastic in such a big box. But we think this one, because of the movie, is something that we had to do and people will really like.
MS: Thanks for talking to us Andy and it's always a pleasure to meet you guys at the shows.
Andy: It's always a pleasure meeting everyone and talking to you guys as well. That's what we're here for and it's been a blast for us.