Possible explanation for the MOTU art book limitation

Now that we know that sales of the art book went to benefit Make-A-Wish, Howard of Fixitinpost.org has offered what I think is the most sensible explanation yet for why the print run was limited to 1,000 books:

As I speculated on our post-SDCC podcast (plug, plug), I’m assuming that the limited numbers are due to a royalty structure or something similar. When companies commission artwork, there’s generally a clause that allows them to use the artwork for certain non-commercial purposes (promotions, charity, etc.). The definition of “non-commercial” is usually determined by the number of units produced, be it of a toy package or even the art itself. Again, this is all speculation, but I totally get the “legal limitations” reason/excuse.

The idea is that Mattel could only print 1,000 books for charitable purposes. Any more and they’d have to start paying royalties (or perhaps just larger royalties) to the artists. (Of course, I think it’s a shame the artists–rarely the wealthiest members of society–can’t be paid more royalties by a big corporation like Mattel via an actual for-profit production run, but that’s a separate issue.)

So here’s how I see this whole thing unfolding. Someone at Mattel got the idea to do an art book. Maybe it was originally going to be just an internal thing, for the MOTU team, like Holiday Hal. But then someone came up with the idea of selling some of them to benefit a charity (I do think the charity aspect was probably there from the very beginning). Once they looked into the legal issues, they found they could print 1,000 copies before major royalties had to be paid.

So the question became, where could they sell the 1,000 books? I think this is where the poor decisions were made. Mattel decided to sell the book at SDCC, but spent a week teasing collectors beforehand about a special bonus item that, as it turned out, few collectors would ever own. Selling the books at SDCC did allow them to make an easy cash-for-book swap, minimizing any processing expenses. But poor supervision of the SDCC sales resulted in an absolute mess in which it’s possible more resellers than collectors got the books.

Here’s how I would have done it:

1.) Announce the books’ existence immediately, with no teasing about a “special mystery item” to gin up interest and, afterward, resentment.

2.) Announce the Make-A-Wish connection in that same initial press release, as well as referring to it as a “special print run” of 1,000 books made just for charity. By not mentioning the Make-A-Wish connection up front, collectors were left with the impression that Mattel had limited the print run to 1,000 copies (with no more ever to be printed–they skipped the whole Make-A-Wish angle but made that repeatedly clear) for no good reason at all.

3.) Finally–and this is key–I would have sold the books on Mattycollector.com with a limit of 1 book per customer. The expenses on Mattel’s side go up, because they have to work with Digital River and cover shipping costs and so forth, but the savings in collector ire and positive PR from the charity angle would be worth it, in my estimation.


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  1. AnimateTed

    I'm not so sure…

    A. If the artists were work for hire at the time of concepting (which in 198something, I'm sure they were). Then Mattel owns all copy-write to that material. It's that simple. I've worked for a major corporate entertainment company for 10 years, and have never heard of anything like that regarding art generated under contract.

    B. The content and presentation of this book was incredibly haphazzard. It is in NO WAY worth 50.00. Look at all of the Art of Pixar books or Disney art books that are hard cover 11×14, and 40.00! They are chock full of pre-and production art. All art generated while concept artists were employed on a project.

    C. This book seemed like a sampler. There's 8 pages of actual concept art. Thats it! 2 pages from the dealer catalogs. 2 pages from the mini comics, 4 pages of cardback art, 7 pages of oil paintings, 2 pages on He-Ro. AND NONE OF IT in any real depth. There's no real writing or examination of the process, no background, no soul. It's just simply… pictures. The rest of the book has a few pages of New Adventure Art, 200x art, and classics. All of which could easily have had their own books. And finally 5 pages of concept art for a proposed movie.

    Tomart published 2 issues in the 90s that revealed TONS of concept art for abandoned characters. I wonder how much a 3rd party magazine had to pay to license all that art? You think Mattel had to pay more for it? Ludicrous.

    I get Emmy brochures that are more detailed and better produced for FREE than this book. That's the sad thing… this book is one of the most coveted masters of the Universe items… and it's not worth it. 🙁

    I was one of the fortunate ones to be able to ad this to my collection… but the truth is, I hope this is just a primer, and that there are more extensive volumes to focus on individual lines and not just overall brands. Once again this is an example of brand managers, with no real sense of consumer interest, making decisions.

  2. The royalties thing makes a ton of sense. Thanks for the post. I still just kinda wish Mattel hadn't bothered, but this could explain why the book kinda just tumbled out of Mattel.

  3. I think you nailed all the right points on the head Poe.

    Mattel probably didn't want to pay royalties.

    You touched on something I said in your rather awesome forums as well, Mattel hyped this item up, which was a mistake. Had they came up front and said "hey we're going to have a very limited charity item for sale exclusive at the con", I don't think people would have gotten upset.

  4. izdawiz

    Why does Mattel wait until after the fact to announce these are for MAWF?

    I don't buy it for a minute. Looks like Mattel was trying to push the envelope and trying to figure out exactly how far they could go to screw collectors and how much money people would cough up for a $10-$15 book.

    The whole thing blew up, they got caught with egg on their faces and they made up the MAWF excuse after the fact.

    That makes much more sense to me than the convoluted explanation that someone is now trying to pass off to placate collectors.

    Can anyone think of another instance in which a major corporation decided to sell an (majorly overpriced) item to benefit a well known charity and for some strange reason didn't announce it until after a crapstorm of conroversy erupted?

    I can't. Because things like that don't happen in the real world, except apparently when Mattel is involved.

    Please me kind enough to explain why you kept this supposed "charity sale" a secret Mattel.

    Was there a "legal reason" for that too? Enlighten us, because we're really trying to understand here…

  5. PrfktTear

    With all this talk of the art book, very few of us have actually seen whats on the inside. I heard that Pixel Dan posted a video review which was taken down. Obviously scanned copies of the images are illegal and unethical, but I don't see whats wrong with posting a video review so at least we can know what it is that we've got our panty hose in a twist for. Otherwise, from what I've heard, the book isn't worth the $50 asking price.

  6. Mario

    @jestergoblin; I was one of the lucky few to pick up the art book, & it's not just '80's stuff. It covers the whole MOTU mythos, right up to concept art for a possible new MOTU movie.

    Honestly, the book isn't all that great. There's some nice stuff, but it does not warrant the $50 asked.

  7. Dead Man Walking

    I'm sorry, but why would the artists be ok with them selling 1000 and giving the revenue(or profit) to charity, but NOT be ok with them printing 5000 and doing the same thing?

    Are they like, "We like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, support what they do, and want to help them with their mission…but…we don't want to help them THAT MUCH."

    God forbid Mattel should sell more art books and make MORE money for a great charity.

  8. Mario

    @nerdbot; Man, as far as I'm concerned, you hit the nail right on the head.

  9. nerdbot

    The royalties issue actually is a very plausible explanation for why they *felt* they were limited to a thousand copies. As an archivist, I have come across a surprising number of cases in which big companies hired artists for a given job and only licensed the used artwork. These days, we have all become a lot more aware of intellectual property and copyright issues, and companies are much more savvy. But in the 80s? I can believe Mattel did not lock down ownership of the art.

    But, as Poe points out, that does not explain or excuse the way it was (and continues to be) handled. If that scenario is what happened, they should have been open about it from the start. They could have avoided any ill feelings by simply announcing the book with the caveat that only a lucky few would be able to purchase it at the Con. Or, better yet, do what Poe suggested and put it up on mattycollector.

    An even better solution would have been to pay the additional royalties and simply published a larger run. But maybe they couldn't afford to do so.

    The only thing that explains their bizarre behavior with these lines (DCUC, MOTU, JLU) is that higher Mattel execs are barely aware of them. I get the impression that these are being produced with spare change that falls down through the Mattel system. If Barbie or Fisher Price stuff ever had the QC problems that DCUC had/has – heads would have rolled.

    Perhaps Neitlich and crew wandered into Mattel HQ one day and – like the legend of how Spielberg got his start – set up shop in an empty office and found a way to make stuff that, being fanboys themselves, they wanted.

    That would also explain why they are at times shockingly inept at what should be large parts of their job: public relations, communication, and evaluating and anticipating their market. They seem stuck in this mode of pulling stunts to generate buzz. They don't seem to understand that there is already huge interest in these collector lines.

  10. PrfktTear

    @Philip Reed: Mattel needs better art directors and lawyers if they’re signing agreements for MotU artwork with limitations like this.

    Who knows, maybe they had no idea the art they commissioned twenty-five years ago would be in demand nearly three decades later.

    As far as contorting the truth or anything, I think this is the most plausible explanation that we've got so far, so I'm willing to run with it. This whole book issue does not affect me as I never planned to purchase one, however those I know who did want one were not able to get one, and also it shows me yet another an example of Mattel's poor choices.

  11. The Flash III

    I heard Hasbro had some items that went for charity at SDCC, so I find it to be just a bit of a coincidence that Mattel just happens to announce it is giving the money to charity.

    Seriously, Mattel, if you're listening, I'd gladly give you some advice for dealing with collectors and in positive PR–you could pay me in DCUC.

  12. Dead Man Walking

    Sorry, I don't buy it for a second. The fact that the MAWF angle didn't come up till well after the debacle is VERY shady.

    I bet Mattel could have printed 5,000 of these, sold them at a lower price, been able to cover artist fees and still have profit to give to the charity.

  13. jestergoblin

    Uhhh… correct me if I'm wrong but isn't the MOTU book all classic art from the 80s?

    It would totally make sense that they would have used a royalty system in the 80s – because it's a hell of a lot cheaper up-front.

    Especially when Mattel owns the rights to the characters and probably had near exclusive rights for production, this means they only had to pay as much as needed for each run of figures.

  14. @Po – "But the fact that they can’t give any sort of answer as to why the books are limited makes me think it’s a legal and not a tax issue."

    It's also very likely that someone at Mattel thought a super-limited run would make the item more collectible and exciting for fans. I wouldn't be surprised if upper management and marketing at Mattel are surprised at the response to this project.

  15. Poe

    Well, again, this is all speculation on my part. And the limitation due to charity may not be related to artist royalties, but could just be some sort of tax issue.

    But the fact that they can't give any sort of answer as to why the books are limited makes me think it's a legal and not a tax issue.

  16. To be clear, I don't think the speculation has any real value _unless_ Mattel doesn't care about the future of their brands (and haven't cared since 1980 or so).

  17. If Mattel actually has contracts with these limitations in place then they are not thinking very hard about the future. 99% of the artwork that _we_ commission is work-for-hire; royalty artwork is extremely rare and the ONLY time there's a use limitation is on second-rights work that we've used for covers in the past. (We rarely use second-rights art these days.)

    Mattel needs better art directors and lawyers if they're signing agreements for MotU artwork with limitations like this.

    In short, this answer makes me think that either Mattel is run by people with a very short-sighted view of their company (and this would extend back decades) or that this is a PR spin without very little basis in reality.

  18. I just don't care. I'm not buying their toys anymore. Nothing they do is worth the hassle, the hunt, and the futility of it. I was all excited for DCUC and I have the first couple of waves but finding them became impossible fast. DCIH is just a horrible product for too much money. MOTU is just a money grab.

  19. Poe

    Honestly it's the mystery of it that gets me more than anything. I just want to know why the hell they "couldn't" print more than a thousand books. I don't even care that I didn't get one. Well, not much.

  20. I think you've done a lot of contorting here to try to make Mattel's bullshit fit reality.

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