Saturday, February 28, 2009

ENTERTAINMENT: The Masters are Making IT

Masters of the Universe, a toy franchise that hit the market back in 1981, still has a presence today. Though its presence is not as strong as another successful, long-living 80s line, i.e. The Transformers, He-Man and his cohorts are finding their way into consumers' hands. MOTU's second climb to fame and success is still at hand, as the potential of the brand is obvious--there is just a need to market the franchise in a way that will make He-Man and the Masters king again.

In n2an ironic twist, the Transformer line did not appear in the United States until three years after MOTU filled the toy shelves, and then only a year after the He-Man franchise was booming--chiefly due to the success of the cartoon series that debuted in 1983 (MOTU is usually given credit for pioneering an action figure toyline that corresponds with an ongoing cartoon series). At the time, TF was one of the many boy's toy lines that competed for market success, it offered something different--an action figure that presented two modes of play i.e. car and robot etc., and likely wouldn't be compared to He-Man the way another line like Thundercats or Silverhawks would be. Perhaps because of that difference, and indeed Hasbro and Takara's marketing strategy, Transformers would persevere running almost non-stop from 1984 to the present with a steady level of success. MOTU, however, would run from 1981 to 1991 almost non-stop with varying levels of success, and meeting a total demise with the New Adventures of He-Man toyline.

Liken3 many 80s properties, He-Man made an attempt at a come-back--more than ten years after the franchise disappeared from toy shelves, and the entertainment market as a whole. Unlike Transformers, a line that maintained a presence in the boys toy market, as well as the adult collector market, He-Man had to make a come-back, a strong come-back. At a time when competition was fierce, more fierce than it was in the 80s, the marketing ploy had to be one that hit the consumer on multiple levels. Mattel, the toy company that owns the rights to the He-Man franchise, launched a marketing campaign that saw the release of commercials, a cartoon series, a comic book series, and miscellaneous items like partyware, socks, etc. Many argue that the marketing was not invasive enough. The cartoon series, though in many ways innovative and action-packed, somehow was not reaching its audience. In comparison, other brands debuted cartoon series on network television and syndication, hitting a wider audience. Some would even debut on Cartoon Network and air re-runs in syndication, ensuring a massive market coverage. He-Man was exclusive to the Cartoon Network, a cable channel that everyone didn't get.

The an1ction figures of the 2002 Masters of the Universe toyline were beautifully designed and sculpted by the Four Horsemen, a group that is amongst today's top and well-known action figure makers. The line was breath-taking, and when it made its premier at comic-cons and toy conventions in the early 2000's, fans were ecstatic at He-Man's return. Fans had been rooting for his return for years, voicing their desires on websites and forums that eventually merged to become The 2002 line indeed started with a boom with the toys on shelves, and a television series on Cartoon Network. Eventually, a comic book by MVCreations was released, showing that He-Man was on the up and up. With a second season, and more waves of figures, and statues and bust exclusives, everything was looking good. But then the numbers started pouring in, and He-Man apparently was not performing as well as expected. Yes, the adult collector was ecstatic and avid about the figures, and those expensive busts, but the 4+ year old consumer just wasn't buying it. The line was perhaps too sophisticated, and actually targeted to an older audience, losing the younger demographic.

With a campaign that failed to grab its target audience, Mattel pulled the line back. Though the second season was planned out, and a third season was conceptualized with He-Man's sister She-Ra coming on board, the cartoon was scheduled into the "Oblivion" time slot on Cartoon Network and eventually was cancelled. The toy line was cancelled, and the comic book eventually disappeared as well. Many fans say that the demise of the line was due to Mattel's poor marketing and distribution strategy--not enough advertising of the brand, and too many of the same two or three figures flooding the toy shelves. I experienced multiple times first hand the journey from Walmart to K-Mart to Target to Toys-R-Us to K.B. Toys, all in the same day, only to find the same He-Man and Skeletor variants, and none of the other figures of the rest of the collection.

Despite Mattel's decree, fans were outraged and many online petitions, phone calls and emails followed. The toy company's only answer was to give the Four Horsemen limited power over releasing a line of "staction" figures, statues and busts through NECA (National Entertainment Collectibles Association) that basically keep the franchise afloat. The staction figures were hot order items, some of them going for $80-100 on Ebay because of the demand--off the shelf, one would usually cost around $17. Along with the Four Horsemen's line, BCI Eclipse has struck gold with their ongoing DVD series of the original. The Best of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a DVD set of 10 episodes voted on by the fans, was a smash hit. Winning the 2005 Award for Best 1980s TV DVD Release, the set paved the way for the entire run of the original show on DVD, as well as the She-Ra series, the New Adventures series, and the 2002 Mike Young Productions series. BCI also plans to release other cartoon series created by Filmation (the original He-Man's cartoon studio) thanks to the success of He-Man.

The desire for MOTU products is obvious with the aforementioned success of the Four Horsemen products and the DVDs. Mattel has released the Masters of the Universe Classics line (likely an attempt to replicate the success of Hasbro's Transformers Universe/Classics line). Unlike the retailer-prevalent Transformers Classics, MOTU Classics can only be found on Mattel's exclusive online store (they're playing it safe, gauging to see if producing such a line can prove to be lucrative). Mattel is also banking on the success of a live motion picture coming to theaters near you...hopefully within the next decade. I say if the Transformers can flood the market and conventions with its various products and sophomoric television series (not counting their most recent TF: Animated), and live motion pictures, the same can be done with the one toy line that started it all.

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