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For all the discussion of character selection, scare tactics, and revealing the entire lineup and all that, I think there are three main reasons for the decline in MOTUC subscriptions:

  • The most popular, iconic characters have been made;
  • The costs of the figures has gone up significantly;
  • The overall popularity of MOTUC is winding down.

I’ll break these down after the jump.

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The Main Characters are Done

As I’ve mentioned before, I barely subscribed to this year’s sub. I did so solely so I would not have to pay a fortune for Ram Man. I had visions of him commanding $300-$400 prices on eBay – something which has not come to pass. After Ram Man, there were very few iconic MOTU characters remaining – Clamp Champ, Two-Bad and Modulok perhaps, although none of those have the cultural cachet of a He-Man, Teela or Trap Jaw [1]. Except for Two-Bad and character variants (and the Stactions), every single Millennium figure (including exclusives) has been produced in MOTUC.

I’ll admit I was surprised we got Ram Man when we did. I was convinced Mattel would wait until they thought they’d reached the last possible year of the sub to offer him. In a way, I respect them for releasing him when they did; but in doing so, they should have had a plan in place to significantly reduce the size of the 2013 sub and stock it with well-known characters. Put more simply, as cool as many seem to find the Fighting Foe Men, perhaps Mattel should have been left on the drawing board (or saved for an SDCC exclusive set).

What Mattel could have done differently: I’m not sure there’s much more Mattel could have done, other than perhaps to space out the iconic characters a bit more. But we got a lot of the main cast in the first year because the staff behind the line had no idea how long it would last and wanted to give us as many of the must-have characters as possible. By the time the line had become an unquestionable hit, a lot of those main cast members had been done, so the opportunity of spacing them out a bit more was lost.

However, even if they’d spaced the main characters out more, I think the decline still would have occurred as casual collectors simply got tired of waiting while diehard fans became increasingly angry about the wait for their favorite characters.

Mad Matty

Figure Prices

MOTUC started having difficulties hitting its subscription numbers at the same time that the figures went up to $25 each. They balanced this out by eliminating quarterly figures, but subscribers were still forced to get the Fighting Foe Men three-pack. Like the Star Sisters, I think the Foe Men were a miscalculation. Yes, many diehard fans and some casual fans found them very cool and may even have subscribed just for them, but I have a hard time believing they’re the exception and not the rule, particularly with the $75 price tag. I think the Star Sisters and to a lesser degree the Fighting Foe Men hurt each year’s successive subscription, partly due to the characters themselves but more due to the cost. Too many collectors were forced to pay the greater part of $100 for toys they never would have bought otherwise.

To be fair to Mattel, the Star Sisters and Fighting Foe Men were revealed before the subs went on sale, so this isn’t a case of fans feeling like they’d been tricked. However, I do think a good number of them felt like they’d been extorted. It left a bad taste in a lot of mouths, and I’d be lying if I myself wasn’t thinking about the Star Sisters when I hesitated to subscribe this year. (Ultimately I thought I’d end up liking the FFM, but by the time they’d arrived I’d changed my mind again.)

That said, I want to emphasize that I think the issue with the Star Sisters and the FFM was less about the characters themselves and more about what people had to pay for them (including the ever-painful shipping costs).

What Mattel could have done differently: Scott Neitlich was open about the fact that they held off on raising the price on MOTUC figures as long as they could. I think a yearly $1 increase would have been more palatable to people, over time, than the big $5 jump the subs got in 2013.

That said, I must admit I’m still not sure about how the cost works out here. I’ve heard from people with industry knowledge that Mattel probably doesn’t make any money off these figures, and I’ve heard they make a huge profit. I’ve always assumed the situation was thus: the Mattel execs scarcely care about these collector lines, and MOTUC is suffered to live as long as it brings in a good-to-impressive profit margin.

As I’ve often said, I think Mattel could make MOTU into a Transformers-like franchise, with popular cartoons and movies and so forth, if they were willing to build the brand [2]. Part of that is maintaining good relations with the fandom, and part of that might be subsidizing fan-oriented lines like MOTUC to keep prices bearable. Alternatively they could keep the higher prices, or even raise them by $5 or $10, and produce as many figures as there are subscribers – none of this store-brand Kickstarter thermometer crap.

Unfortunately for fans, it seems clear that the higher-ups at Mattel are not serious about making MOTU, or any other popular brand they own, a major franchise. I guess they just go to Transformers movies while their kids watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

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End of the “life cycle”

This last point is related to both of the previous ones. Without popular media support [3], a decline in subscriptions was inevitable. The question was always whether or not the line could get through its entire roster before that happened, and this is something I think Mattel should have better planned for.

Hasbro seems to understand all toy lines have life cycles and they do their best to manage that, reinventing them every so often (sometimes perhaps a bit too quickly), putting some on the backburner for a bit (like G.I. Joe right now), and so forth. Star Wars evidently reached a point where a six-inch line seemed like a worthwhile idea, and even Transformers can have an off year or two while they wait for the new movie. Marvel Legends, once the undisputed champion of action figure lines, eventually reached a point where it couldn’t sustain itself without movie tie-ins, and that IP is much more popular than MOTU.

As for MOTUC – five years and what, eighty or ninety figures, plus giant figures and vehicles? That isn’t bad at all for any toy line. But if the 2014 (or 2015) sub doesn’t go through, a lot of us will look at some of the figures we got and wish we were seeing Rio Blast, Tung Lashor and NA Skeletor. While I always appreciated Mattel’s willingness to be inventive and try new things, there were too few hits (VikorDraego-Man) and too many misses (Demo-man [4], Mighty SpectorSir Laser-LotCy-Chop). [5]

What Mattel could have done differently: We’ve been hearing for over a year now that Mattel is intent on finishing off the “major” characters in 2014, but I think that should have been the plan at least a year earlier. The 30th Anniversary sub and concept sets like the Fighting Foe Men took valuable subscription dollars away from characters fans really wanted and demanded. Calling the FFM “fan-demanded” is silly; the majority of fans, while perhaps amenable enough to the idea, will probably not be happy if they have the FFM but no Extendar, Ninjor or Sssqueeze.

In short, I think Mattel should have been more thoughtful about the life cycle of MOTUC, taking into account rising production costs when debating whether to expand the line or add concept characters. I do think that part of the problem was that no one in the beginning anticipated how big it would become, but on the flip side, no one seems to have anticipated that popularity might dissipate, especially as prices went up.

I do think there are other factors at play here, but all of it – from many fans’ general mistrust of Neitlich, to the lack of a good plan for dealing with lower subscription numbers over time, to sets like the FFM – stem from a general lack of investment on the part of Mattel in the franchise. Whatever you think of Neitlich, he seems to be out there on his own, with little support, and that’s part and parcel of that lack of investment. I don’t think there’s anyone there to step in and say, “this Mighty Spector figure seems like a bad idea,” or “let’s spend a little cash on some market research before we produce the Star Sisters.” And so here we are, hoping that another subscription makes it through so that we can get those last few characters we need in what is otherwise a very comprehensive line.

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[1] I realize I’m neglecting much of the She-Ra: Princess of Power (POP) cast; unfortunately, with the exception of She-Ra herself, POP is simply nowhere near as popular as MOTU. Between this and the Star Sisters I’ve been hard on POP, but I can’t deny what I see.

[2] I’m not sure what Mattel should have done with the current comics. I was going to say they could exert more control over DC, making DC use more iconic costumes and minimizing the unnecessary violence and extreme character changes. But part – possibly a big part – of the problem with the Millennium era was Mattel exerting too much influence on the comics and cartoons. I’m not sure what Hasbro’s relationship to their various media productions has been, but it seems to have mostly worked out for Transformers, if not G.I. Joe.

[3] I find the DC comics so terrible I don’t count them. It can hardly help sell the toys when the writing seems to suggest the creators think the property is lame and needs the grit and gory violence of Game of Thrones to have any credibility. I’d like to point out that most of the Millennium comics were great without any of that (well, except for Icons of Evil: Trap Jaw). Plus, the designs in the current comics themselves don’t match the toys at all, so why would anyone who actually likes the comic want to buy the toys?

[4] Whom I liked, but many did not. “Too screamingly Ecto-Cooler green” seemed to be the main, and entirely fair, criticism.

[5] It’s true that most of the misses came as part of a separate sub, but rather than a sub of original characters it could have been, say, a New Adventures sub, or a POP sub, or a characters-who-never-had-a-toy-before sub (Fearless Photog, Eldor, Strobo, Goat Man, etc.) and I think fans would have been happier than they were with the actual line-up – yes, Draego-Man and Castle Grayskullman were great, but if you had to choose between one of them and your favorite unproduced character, which would you choose?