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Figures & Speech: The Force of Hobbit

For toy collectors, this month began with a most expected announcement: action figures from The Hobbit are coming. Needless (perhaps) to say, nothing in the initial rollout constitutes a “spoiler,” if such a thing is possible for a movie based on a well-known book and set in an already established cinematic universe. Still, there was one mystery that finally got solved – in what scale would these toys be?

It has been accepted wisdom in the toy industry for years that serious collectors prefer scales of 6-8 inches in their action figures, while kid-oriented lines often use the Star Wars-created scale of 3-3/4 inches in order to craft affordable vehicles, steeds and playsets. Nowadays, costs are simply so high that 3-3/4 has become the default scale for most mass-market lines; the added bonus for kids is that characters across multiple universes can play well together (unlike in my childhood, when Kenner stubbornly made Batman and Robocop too large to work properly with G.I. Joes). The Bridge Direct, a relatively new player in the action figure game, clearly wants to please everyone: there’s a 3-3/4 line that presumably allows for in-scale dragons and trolls. There’s also a 6″ scale line (note: we say 6″ scale rather than 6″ because so many characters in The Hobbit are vertically challenged and would come out shorter) so that those who collected Toy Biz Lord of the Rings figures can pose them side-by-side and expand their existing Middle-earth armies.

Just one problem: generally speaking, this never works out well. Toy history is replete with examples of companies who tried to maximize sales with multiple action-figure scales and failed miserably. Now, to be clear, we’re not talking about different scales of radically different types of figures – as Star Wars and many other lines have proven, a license can simultaneously sustain, let’s say, a line of plastic action figures, toy soldier-style fixed-pose miniatures and larger-scale doll-like figures with cloth clothes. What doesn’t work is two scales for the same sorts of figure in only slightly different sizes. One inevitably suffers and dies… if either lasts at all. Now, The Hobbit is a trilogy-to-be that’s as close to a sure thing as you get in the toy world, so we can probably discount the latter (though you never know – Harry Potter had real trouble getting into a toy groove, with several false fits and starts by Mattel before NECA settled into a more limited line). So which scale will end, if one does? Here are some of the precedents from which we might learn:

Playmates: After years of falling behind Hasbro and Mattel, Playmates seemed poised for a comeback when they obtained the toy rights to Terminator Salvation and J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Then they promptly proved they weren’t ready for it. Both featured three separate scales, though in the case of Trek, the largest scale featured the doll-like style with cloth costumes, so that’s a different deal. Still, nobody really went for the 6″ scale, because why would you when the 3-3/4 scale comes with playsets like the bridge and transporter room? As for Terminator, fans picked up the classic endoskeletons in every scale – 3-3/4″, 6″ and 8″ – but the other stuff hung on shelves forever.

Now, there were problems above and beyond just the scale. Sculpting was poor, Christian Bale’s likeness wasn’t secured in time (behold their clever workaround solution in the image on the right), and the Star Trek playsets came incomplete and required you to buy every figure in order to collect the missing pieces. Bad judgment in every respect. But the fact that I can STILL find 6″ Captain Pike on toy shelves if I look hard enough says something about which scale worked.

Narnia: Play Along Toys tried two separate scales for Prince Caspian. Since nobody really cared much about the movie and thus the toys, it’s hard to say which worked, but the smaller 3-3/4″ scale came with an impressive castle playset.

Thundercats: A property fans were champing at the bit to get relaunched, and Bandai botched badly, with odd mixes of 3-3/4″ figures and 6″ figures for the new show, then Classics figures that started at 8″ and abruptly downsized to 6″. Meanwhile, Mezco put out some classic-style 18-inchers with some success, which brings us to a corollary – you can have two simultaneous scales work if different companies make them (see also Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 by Zizzle and NECA, and NECA’s Lord of the Rings Balrog, made when Walmart refused to let Toy Biz sell a flaming demon on its shelves).

Marvel/DC: When it became clear that rising prices were making 3-3/4″ the new optimal scale, Hasbro put its 6″ Marvel Legends line on hiatus and focused their efforts on the smaller Marvel Universe. Recently Legends have returned in drips, drabs and exclusives, but seem geared solely to those who already own the previous iterations. DC has done the opposite – after their attempt at a smaller scale flopped due to being completely half-assed in both sculpt and articulation, they’ve focused predominantly on the 6-inchers.

Then there are the DC movies. For both Green Lantern and the last two Bat-films, Mattel has created a separate Movie Masters line aimed at collectors, in a 5-6″ scale (infuriatingly making them slightly smaller than their regular DC guys), while smaller, brightly colored and poorly sculpted figures aimed at kids clog the shelves. The Movie Masters cost anywhere from $12-20, a price presumably as high as it is because of a collect-and-connect gimmick that allows folks who buy every figure to build a larger item (the Bat Signal or the villain Parallax). In the case of both The Dark Knight Rises and Green Lantern, initial enthusiasm with a quick drop-off has ensured that the later figures don’t make it to retail, and must be ordered from pricier online vendors – a strategy that’s neither kid- nor collector-friendly. In an entirely different debacle, Mattel’s animated-style Young Justice figures came out in two scales at once, in confusingly similar packaging; an online attempt to save the final two figures recently failed to gain momentum. Now, maybe having two scales doesn’t necessarily mean that the company puts all its efforts into one over the other, but DC and Marvel toys sure make it look that way.

So how will The Hobbit fare? It would seem that the Marvel model is what’s being emulated here, with “Legends” to please old LOTR collectors, and smaller figures to ensure that Smaug the dragon won’t be unfeasibly huge when he’s finally made. My money would be on the 6″ line either dying out or going to limited exclusives after the first movie.

(Shout-outs to my online pals Justo Fajardo, Sean Vandehey, Kevin Meyers and Lou Rosen for helping me remember all these lines.)

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