Poe’s Point > Hard Times at McFarlane Toys

Rich Johnston, the comic industry commentator who writes an insider column for Comic Book Resources, reports that McFarlane Toys may be undergoing some serious downsizing.

McFarlane Toys, the company owned by comic creator Todd McFarlane, has had a long history and reputation for increasing the quality of design of action figure dolls, transforming them from the simplistic posed plastic characters of my youth to the intricately designed and articulated figures commonplace today.

However, of late, the company have had a few problems. And has internally announced a third round of redundancies far more severe than the previous two.

The company is split into two, design studios in New Jersey and administration in Arizona offices. I understand that Ed Frank, President of the NJ group and founder of the original company before it was bought and renamed by Todd fifteen years ago read a letter out to the New Jersey staff, visibly uncomfortable.

The studios will see forty staff drop to thirteen. Major operations will be shut down, including the mold, paint, sculpting, and model departments.

The only department to survive will be the digital department, and only two of its members will be held on, and a couple of traditional sculptors are being trained up to handle digital sculpting.

The plan as it currently stands is that most new sculpts will be scans of actual people (posed standing up, making a T shape,) cleaned up digitally, armour and accessories assembled and added digitally (think Mr Potato Head,) mixing and matching from other sculpts, and then the files sent to China for 3D printing, cleaning, touching up, sculpting, articulation and the rest. New Jersey will only generate digital output from now on. This is still a very experimental process, however.

The New Jersey complex will be reduced from four buildings to one, with the equipment either being sold of shipped to China. As for Arizona, they will shrink from seventy people to around thirty-five.

The phasing out off staff will occur sometime between now and June, though no specific dates of personnel of departments have been given. When asked about severance, a human resources representative stated that “allowing you to work until June should be looked at as your severance package.”

This is what you call a developing story…

I can’t say this surprises me. Aside from sports figures and maybe Halo, McFarlane hasn’t been a relevant force in the action figure industry for most of the decade. They bet on collectors wanting super-detailed sculpts of new or originalย  licenses with minimal articulation, while the market actually moved toward nostalgia properties (G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, comic book superheroes) with increased articulation.

When McFarlane finally had a chance to compete with their highly-articulated Halo line, they punted the ball by making them 5″ tall–incompatible with both popular scales of 3 ยพ” and 6″. The importance of this shouldn’t be dismissed. Collectors are often very loyal to particular scales, regardless of whether they plan to display figures next to one another or share vehicles with another line. I know that had Halo been in 6″ scale, I would have bought a lot more than just one Master Chief and one Grunt.

It seems to me McFarlane continued to believe they could appeal to the so-called casual action figure collector–a theoretically larger market than us hardcore collectors–with their various fantasy and military lines, but the casual collector is exactly where the market has contracted over the last five years. If, for example, their military line been 6″ and highly articulated, like Plan-B Toys’ Special Forces figures, I suspect the line might have had much greater success. (Of course, I don’t actually have access to any of the numbers, so I can’t say how successful or not McFarlane’s military lines have been–all I have for evidence is the racks of them at my local TRU and the fact that I don’t know anyone who collects them).

So now it appears McFarlane will be making nothing but immobile sports figures and videogame-based figures they can produce using 3D-modelling software. We action figure collectors will remain indebted to McFarlane Toys for revolutionizing the industry in the 1990s. It’s a shame they lost that edge and went in the complete wrong direction in the last decade.

Comments now closed (35)

  • I am going to say it….does McFarlane really matter anymore. Its not as if they have made anything overly great in the past several years aside from the Halo figures. Some of there Spawn figures were great, but it seems they only make sports, movie and sports stars now and they are not very articulated. I havea Metallica James Hetfield figure, I know super cool, but the hair is fixed in a blowing position and the legs and arms are fixed in a pose whilst minimally articulated. How much cooler would it have been with Near Marvel Legends articulation.

    I know Mc Farlane set the stadard for sculpting on modern action figures but they would need to step up there gameto compete with NECA etc as they have left them behind.

  • Totally concur in my respect for McFarlane Toys – they jumpstarted my interest in 6" action figures again a dozen or so years ago. I still have the red & blue Assasin One (from Wetworks), almost all of the variations / repaints of the impressively detailed Mandarin Spawn, Nitro Riders, Movie Maniacs Crow, Metal Gear Solid 2: SoL series, and a truckload of other figures that inspired me to pay better attention to details that we now all look for in other products. Being in the retail business, I know how tough it is to reduce costs & compensate, with the danger of sacrificing production qualities as a looming possibility. I totally agree that they should stick to 6" scale and articulate their Military Line better.

    Hopefully, the company can get back on track, find the hungry talented artisans out there who can give us all great sculpts as the Horsemen has done & still do! All of us WIN if they can get back in the game & up the ante of the competition……

  • This is very sad for me. Unlike I guess the majority of collectors, I don't care about super-articulation. I own dozens of Marvel Legends and many of them look terrible for their articulation. Even my DCUC figures I generally keep standing straight because of those awful gaps at the hips.

    I'll always love McF for giving me Overtkill 2, MGS Gray Fox, Danger Girl, Warrior Isis, and more awesomely sculpted and painted figures.

  • I'll say it again here. (Said this at the FAN Ex forums…)

    I really feel sad for the great traditional guys that are getting let go for the digital age.

    While there are many great benefits to the digital media, I worry about a company that let's go of traditional workmanship.

    It's not a new battle either, the technology vs. the artist.

    The battles are won when the two merge and work together, that's where you see the best results IMO.

    It's the hard line business line that seems to favor the all digital approach, but what they don't realize is what they loose when they let go of the "heart and soul" of the medium. Be it animation, be it paintings, be it sculpting or music even.

    There will always be technology that provides tools for the artist of whatever medium. But the tools can't do it by themselves and have any soul to it.

    Again, just my ranting on the subject, it's how I see things right now. Feel free to disagree or agree. ๐Ÿ™‚

    My prayers go out to the good folks looking for work.

  • Don't get me wrong I know their detail was amazing. I don't mean hyper articulation as to much does hurt some figures, but it should have more than head, shoulders, wrists, wiast and hips.

    Harsh fact is maybe if they had takin on some better lines to produce they would still be making more money. Nostalgia is in…a lot of lines at the moment are all classic or anniversary figures etc. There are lines like Thundercats, Dungeons and Dragons and loads more they could have produced figures for that would have sold well. They could always do a Spawn Anniversary line.

  • @Beana, have to agree with you.

    A lot of animation is taking the easy way out using cgi.

    I doubt digital will ever replace proper fine art…thats all we need some untalented, untrained idiot producing images on his computer and calling himself an artist….that wouldn't even know where to begin if he was asked to produce a study ina life drawing class.

    Some musicians have gone back to recording on tapes instead of using digital technology.

  • @ Mark,

    Well that's just it. Every good artist has put in the training, regardless the medium.

    I don't know that McFarlane is putting idiots in front of a computer, at least I hope not.

    But I've seen companies that do that, run a quick course on how a program works, and then produce something without any flair, soul, or real craft behind it.

    My experiences have been that those that put in the training and express their talents with their favorite mediums give the best result. And in today's world, I would hope we all recognize that computers are just a medium like clay or paint or a guitar. If you want to make the best product out there, let your top artists do their thing in whatever medium they do it in. That will connect with people, it may not be the most business-sound medium to use, but you'll make up for it in spades when you let the right people do what they do best.

    I'm not anti digital work, how could I be?

    I'm just not an advocate of letting the computer always win over the real talent.

  • Years ago, in looking at some of Toy Biz's first offerings in their Lord of the Rings toys, a friend of mine made a good observation: when the Real Scan technology shrunk the features to an accurate 6" scale, so much detail was lost that the likenesses became bland and indistinguishable.

    He pointed out that while actors in a movie can use their normal facial expressions because their head is ten feet high on a screen and visible to everyone, actors in a play have to exaggerate their expressions because the people in the back rows can barely see them. There's a similar effect going on with small-scale action figures.

    In order to properly capture a likeness in a 6" scale, you need a skilled artist who can ever-so-slightly exaggerate some of the actor's features so as to make them look normal and recognizable in such a small scale. That's why the first Toy Biz Gimli figure–a straight Real Scan likeness–was terrible, while the second one–sculpted by Phil Ramirez–was amazing.

  • I have a great deal of sympathy for the people that are now out of a job, but as for the company as a whole, frankly it serves them right. McFarlane has been running his businesses like he has a license to print money and people should just drop their ducats on whatever he slaps his logo on, no matter the quality or what common sense dictates. For years people have been saying McFarlane needs to get with it, as the sculpting quality on mainstream lines got better and better and McFarlane's one claim to fame, its very strong sculpts, were no longer so special. Do they up the ante on sculpting to remind people they started that trend? No. Do they incorporate more articulation into their lines to increase poseability/play value? No. Do they lower their prices so people are more inclined to pay for what is basically a plastic statue? No. Noticing a trend?

    I'm sorry people lost their jobs, especially at this point in time with the economy, but when you rely on consumers for your income, you have to actually consider what your consumers want and will pay for. You can't just make whatever you want and expect the public to pay for it. It's a shame they had to learn that the hard way, but the writing was on the wall for a while, no one wanted to read it.

    Mattel may have a million problems with how they run their action figure lines, but there's one big difference: People want Mattel's lines, they enjoy the product, so they will tolerate some of the issues. When no one wants what you're selling you can't get away with doing whatever you want.

  • "We action figure collectors will remain indebted to McFarlane Toys for revolutionizing the industry in the 1990s. It’s a shame they lost that edge and went in the complete wrong direction in the last decade."

    Well said Poe. I agree, I really do feel we owe a lot to McFarlane for what he did back in the 90's. I was collecting long before Spawn Series 1 came out, and I can still remember back in '94 being at a Comic Con and seeing Spawn 1 for the first time. It was just amazing to me…..something I have never seen before. Everything I had collected before that was a joke compared to what that figure was. Looking at that figure today, it is pretty weak, but at that time, it was something that had never been done.

    The stuff McFarlane produced in the 90's made my love for collecting figures stonger than it ever had been. I bought everything they put out, and was thrilled to do so. I thought McFarlane was untouchable and assumed that would never change. But then in the early 2000's I rememeber starting to compare their stuff to the likes of NECA….and for the first time, I was doubting that McFarlane was the leader. And since then, everything went downhill (and very quickly might I add) on the McFarlane toy front.

    It is sad that such a powerhouse was not able to change with the times to stay on top. But at the same time, that's how it goes. I haven't bought a McFarlane product in years…..but I do wish someday that they work through this downtime and turn the company around and make great pieces again.

  • Awesome example Poe about the LotR figures!

    Another example could be of rotoscoping animation, where they just copy video footage frame by frame.

    Polar Express suffered from this greatly, it felt very stiff, but they captured perfectly the real actor's movements. We want exaggerations in art, that's why when you move to Gollum of LotR, they did rotoscope Andy's movements for the character, but they exaggerated his movements, and made them all the more believable and you feel Gollum's "soul" in his portrayal.

    Someday the computers might be able to accomplish these sorts of things, but only coupled with an artist that commands the expressions.

    Gorsh… When that day comes… we'll all be on edge because that will mean shows like Battlestar Galactica and Terminator will have a very real connection to society… For better or for worse. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Yep, it's over for McFarlane. There won't be any pulling out of it, because it's obvious from their strategy that they are going in exactly the opposite direction from where they should. Digital scanning and cookie cutter work isn't going to set them apart.

    First, digital scanning is not going to replace sculptors, at least not with companies looking to do quality product. Sure, you want to crank out kid's toys that even kids won't buy, go for it. But who is the entire industry amazed over right now? Hot Toys. And why? Largely because of their exceptional, realistic head sculpts. While machines might eventually be able to do that kind of work, they aren't yet. And that kind of work is a competitive advantage, something McToys seems to have completely forgotten.

    Once upon a time (longer than 5 years ago, which is really when this decline started in earnest for them) they were industry leaders with a competitive advantage – great sculpting and paint. They applied those advantages to a wide range of licenses, but it was the sculpt and paint that always set them apart. They've lost that, and companies like Mezco and NECA have it now. If you're a licensor looking to hand out the next hot property, who are you going to turn to? It's not going to be McToys anymore.

    When you have a great product, making bad decisions has little effect. Oh, companies like to think that it's the decisions and strategy, but great product can carry you along no matter what. But once the product stops being great, the outcome of every decision becomes crucial, and I think moving away from what made them great and gave them a competitive advantage spells the end.

    And yes, like others, I feel for the folks who will lose their jobs. Now is not the time for that to happen (not that there's ever a good time), and it's a mighty tough world out there right now.

  • @MC: But I think McFarlane still offers the same great paint work and sculpting, although it's no longer their exclusive domain due to NECA and Mezco. I may not like McFarlane's sports or military figures, but they're amazingly well-sculpted.

    So what do you think was the main cause of McFarlane's decline? The focus on sports figures? The indifference to articulation? Or simply a number of instances of misreading the market, e.g., the 5" scale for Halo?

  • "So what do you think was the main cause of McFarlane’s decline? The focus on sports figures? The indifference to articulation? Or simply a number of instances of misreading the market, e.g., the 5″ scale for Halo?"

    My thoughts is that it is a bunch of the above.

    Focus on Sports – I think it became obvious sports became their bread and butter and I think that was put first over everything else. Im sure that hurt the other non-sport fans.

    Lack of Articulation – At the time, I don't think this hurt them so much….but eventually their stuff became so stationary, it became useless to most people.

    Misreading the Market – I think this has a good part in it as well. Look at some of the lines they picked up through the years….i.e. Little Nicky ;). They started making stuff for anyone that would give them money. It got to the point you would find so many of 'these' lines warming pegs for years. Sticking your name on everything that comes at you is not always a great idea.

    And I am with you Poe, I don't think their sculpts did them in. I still think they have great sculpting. It's just that so does everyone else. And if I can get great sculpts, with articulation, that's what I am going with.

  • My point isn't about what caused their downfall, but what will happen now. I find it less interesting to talk about what they did wrong – which is a combination of things – than what they can do now to survive. The announcement is about the cuts they are making and their shift to all digital work, and that's what I'm refering to. The sculpting and paint won't be their focus if they are shifting to largely scanned portraits with cookie cutter digital process for creating the body and armor, etc. They are cutting costs in exactly the wrong area – cut HR, cut Finance, cut even marketing and sales, but don't focus your cuts on your competitive advantage, which is what they are doing. If they are down to cutting there, then they are down to below the bone.

    They are trying to find ways to do things cheaper, not better. And I think that by doing so, they have sealed their own coffin.

  • I started collecting with Spawn figures,but a couple years later,Toy Biz started making figures that were not only well sculpted,but articulated,and based on characters from comics I actually read! What a concept. These days,I can go to Toys R Us and grab a great looking articulated Spider-Man,Batman,Wolverine,classic G1 Transformers with today's awesome sculpts and articulation,classic G.I. Joe characters,etc.

    Or I can go to Spencer's gifts and pick up a shitty brittle plastic statue of a generic bloody big boob girl from MacFarlane.

  • @MC: If you're right, then the only non-boneheaded strategy they could be employing is they've decided to put all their eggs in one basket, i.e., sports and maybe military figures. They can get by on those lines with digital processing and minimal sculpting.

    That, or they're thinking of more or less moving out of the toy business entirely, a la Marvel Toys, and into something else–perhaps entertainment.

    Or maybe they're just going under. Maybe we'll see Todd McFarlane drawing Spider-man again in the near future…

  • Question: How much do you people REALLY play with your figures. If you're like me, you have hundreds of figures. When I get a new one, I fiddle with it for a few minutes, find a decent or space saving pose, and put it on a shelf.

    McF's biggest problem was a lack of BIG licenses. I don't believe for a second that McFarlane quality Spider-Man figures wouldn't sell.

  • What happened to Marvel Toys anyway?

    I personally always thought that McFarlane Toys had excellent sculpting but they really should have tried to match it on the sculpting. I still wish and hope for the Day when I can get a Jason Vorhees that looks as cool as the Movie Maniacs version with the articulation of a Marvel Legends figure.

  • I'm an example of probably slightly more than a casual collector. I've always admired the McFarlane military line, think they look awesome, and would have purchased several had they been action figures.

  • I think mc farlane should get the big licenses…work his way up back to the top again.

    I knew this would happen about 2 years ago….and since then when I go to toysrus i ask myself…how the heck are they still in business.

    Now…end of story. Finally happened and i'm suprised they lasted this long!

    Todd M. has to work his way back to the top or file bankrupcy. His company had a lot of potential to combine articulation and detail….yet he was pretty adamant about sticking to pure sculptures. Hence, the reason my the horsemen left Todd.

    I bet the 4horsemen are doing a "I told you so" parade at their place. Hopefully, mcfarelane will learn from all this. Accepting this humbling situation and working slowly to make limited figures of HUGE POPULAR properties and selling them exclusively online maybe.

    Sort of like Matty collector.com

  • dead man, i definitely still play w/ mine, both on my own and w/ my kids… i collect toys, it seems a sin not to play w/ them… that's kind of like buying oreos and leaving them in the bag, no?

    that said, i can't help but to think mcf could have held on and perhaps turned things around, had they saved the right jobs. but as michael pointed out, they axed the very crew that could save them. for thor's sake, they should axe the HR jackoff who made the statement "you should consider working until june your severance package," clearly that slapnuts is making WAY too much. SAVE THE ARTISTS TODD, NOT THE ASSHOLES!!!

    (but he's not listening cuz he's todd and he knows better than we do :p)

  • @Jim….finally someone else who isn't a McFarlane fanboy. Bottom line is none of their properties from the last few years have been very good….if Todd had had more sense he should have took all his Spawn money and left it at that.

    Four Horsemen Rule.

  • @Mark: EXACTLY! Hey Mer man is going back up if you missed one! I'm going to get another 2 for mer man soldiers to fill up the 80's motu shelf!

    8:53! Clock is tickin buddy!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Bought one on ebay….I'll pay the scalpers LOL, I got a good deal.

    I wouldn't advise you getting two….it will just cause you more hassle…which head will you use for Merman and which for his soldiers.

  • I want those 2 mermans as fillers for my shelf…OFCOURSE the classic head for the RULER of the mermen and the Retarded goofy eyed Merman as soldiers……

    ……..even though it looks funny he's ruler of a bunch of retarded mermen….sigh

  • @Jim…easier to control as soldiers, he just commands them to run (or swim) into battle only to receive a beating from He-Man. I think it gives them more of a good guy look…they just are under some sort of mind control by Mer-Man.

  • Oh Dear how the mighty have fallen.

    Switching to this scan and tweak method is a very bad move.

    I've worke dwith scan data in the past and no matter how good the scan theres still a lot of roughness than can only be cleaned up by hand.

    Lots of detail will be lost when trying to make it look like real people.

    When a sculptor does his/her job they always (no matter how good they are) will caricature a likeness and thats how something on such a small scale ends up looking like someone recogniseable. The scan data messes that all up.

  • @Mark: I think it gives them more of a good guy look…they just are under some sort of mind control by Mer-Man.

    I have to say man…I LOVE the way you think! You have a point there! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I'm a casual collector from Malaysia, the last McFarlane toy i bought was master chief from halo, thats coz i love the game so much. Anyway, as casual collectors, we collect toys, not statues……

  • It's too bad. I really like the Spawn figures, even the non-articulated ones, but the last two series haven't been great, they changed scale and were more expensive than earlier waves. And then they dropped all internal properties.

    I like the Halo line, but I'm not a huge Halo fan, so if I'm short on funds (and I am), I'm going to stick to DCUC over everything else, for being bigger, characters I like a lot more, and better QC. Out of my 15 Halo figures 2 broke right out of the package, vs my nearly 50 DCUC figures, not one has broken.

  • Just one thought I have always had in regards to his company…when you have a company founded on the ego of one man, things often go wrong. It is hard to correct the course of a ship when the captain thinks he invented navigation. It was always his company and only his company, which means if he is wrong, there is no one to push back. He has always been the comic personality I have most hated due to his lack of accepting that anything not done by him could be good (in an interview once he said he refused to watch the original Star Wars Trilogy because it had no story and was just a bunch of fancy FX). As Michael Crawford mentioned, there are a ton of misteps we could catalog, but it all goes back to one thing…Todd himself.

  • @ryanlb…wow Ryan…r u serious?

    DCUC is notorious for QC issues. You seriously have luck with the line if you haven't haven't had issues.

    I bought all 4 of the TRUS 2pk exclusives for example and ALL …EVERY figure broke except batgirl and she had a loose leg. The others had STUCK joints. Poe's way to unstick joints is great but I don't think we should have to resort to such crafty methods.

    So I just gave up the line and got fed up with everything.

    MOTUC all the way for me!!!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Totally agree Jim…although there is a few Tansformers Universe figures I am tempted to get. Got Merman yesterday, he is awesome, I was amazed it only took a week to arrive from the USA. The line is getting better and better.