Like most geeks I lived vicariously through the toy bloggers snapping photos of figures and sets unveiled at the recent Toy Fair 2014 in New York. Seeing all the new stuff is the next best thing to having them in your dirty mitts. At the same time, there is a price to be paid for this early access to new toy images.
It’s a phenomenon I like to call Toy Spoilers. Because of the toy industry’s necessary lead time for Toy Fair and the crucial holiday season, we see toy versions of movies still months away from hitting the big screen. While a LEGO Ghostbusters set or ReAction Back to the Future figs now won’t take anything away from these classic franchises, seeing all of Grimlock (or God forbid, an all-new character) ahead of his debut in the next Transformers film very well can.
A toy spoiler doesn’t even have to be a spoiler in the traditional sense. The toy con just turn you off the eventual film. Allow me to better explain with a personal anecdote. Growing up I was an enormous G.I. Joe fan. I loved the figures, the vehicles, the comics—even the humorously non-violent cartoon series. I was all geared up for the live-action adaptation back in 2009. I was the movie’s key demographic that the studio was counting on. I was excited until I saw the toy version of Cobra Commander. As you probably know, he was a radical departure from the iconic bad guy we all knew. It was so shocking for me that I soured on the film completely. In fact I still haven’t watched the movie or its sequel.
Looking at the film’s reviews I probably saved myself the $10 movie ticket and hours of wasted time but that’s beside the point. Is this intense examination of movie toys ahead of release a good thing for fandom? Does it fall upon fans to avert our eyes from the massive event Toy Fair has become, let alone everyday store shelves?
I believe it should be the responsibility of movie studios and film producers to withhold as much as possible to protect their theatrical prospects. Licensees like Hasbro and Lego have a lot at stake but the Disneys and Paramounts have much more to lose. Studios need to use their leverage as rights holders to ensure all film secrets are kept behind the scenes, as much as it may pain us.
Franchise Building vs. Movie Marketing
Believe it or not, I do understand marketing. I realize the need to push out merchandise in advance of a film’s release to get a huge bang at the box office during opening weekend. This flash-in-the-pan tactic does not make financial since for all-important franchises. Franchises need nuturing. Careful product releases protect the important plot and visual points while also building appeal. This should be part of a movie studio’s strategy for franchise-building. The payoff will be bigger in the long run—as I’ll illustrate below—so too will our memories.
It’s a bit shocking in this ever spoiler-conscious world. Nearly every TV network and website is wise enough to sound the alarm of “Spoiler warning!” when anything potentially spoiler-ish is about to be revealed. I am merely suggesting that film studios be ever-vigilant protectors of movie images and details. Don’t even make it possible to see or know vital bits before a film’s release.
It wasn’t always this way. Things were kept from us and we loved them for it. Even 30 years removed, I distinctly remember my anticipation in seeing E.T. on the big screen back in 1982. I was 10 years old at the time and had no clue what was in store. No images of the E.T. character had been revealed. I was constantly browsing the toy aisles and never once saw the long-necked alien before the movie was released. I think that enriched the experience and helped make E.T. what it became. (For sake of full disclosure, I do recall getting my first glimpse of E.T. moments before going into the movie, while waiting in the theater concession line. Damn you, Reese’s Pieces sign!)
Along the same time, Lucasfilm was wise enough to keep the look of Yoda a secret. The official Yoda action figure was not released in the first wave of Empire Strikes Back toys. It came later in the year, after the film’s release. And even with Return of the Jedi, Kenner took steps to obscure the Ewoks on the card back. Granted they came out in the first wave this time so Logray and Chief Chirpa were just a toy store peg away from view. It was the effort that counted. Furthermore, the action figure was referred to as simply “Boushh” rather than “Princess Leia in Boushh Disguise.” Can you imagine a toy company doing that these days?
It All Comes Back to Star Wars
My use of Star Wars as an example is not by chance. As you may have heard, Star Wars Episode VII is coming late next year. Of course there will be a boat load of merchandise and toys leading up to the December release. My biggest fear is that this monumental event will be lessened by making a stroll through the Wal-Mart or Target toy aisles. If Disney makes even the slightest effort to withhold some things, that won’t happen. And the burgeoning new arm of the franchise will be stronger.
Make a Star Wars Episode VII toilet seat. (I’ll stand in line to buy it.) Go crazy and license all the toys you want. (I’ll probably buy them too.) Just impose a very strict street date so there’s no chance they will interfere with Disney’s tightly orchestrated marketing plans. Nor will they interfere with my ridiculous expectations for the movie.
Let’s face it. Ultimately, the onus is on us as geeks and media consumers to stay pure and spoiler-free when appropriate. I know I’ll do my best with Episode VII. But let’s not forget the important role the movie studios and toy manufacturers play in perserving the experience.