If Marshal BraveStarr were a real man, he'd stand 6 foot 4. But even at just eight inches of quality-molded plastic, the Space Age sheriff towers over the rest of toyland. More than $15 million worth of BraveStarr figures and accessories were shipped to stores last month, and next year, the mega-concept cowboy will star in an animated feature film and a weekday television series and will be seen on almost 50 licensed products ranging from bed linens to lunch boxes.
All of this exposure is expected to earn $200 million or more within two years for Filmation, the Woodland Hills animation studio that created BraveStarr. And Mattel, the Southern California toy giant, is hoping that BraveStarr and his infrared Neutra-laser gun can blast away the competition and emulate--or maybe even surpass--the success of Mattel's own legendary Barbie doll, which revolutionized the toy business 38 years ago.
In one sense, BraveStarr is just another gee-whiz update of the cowboy as all-American hero. He's Clint Eastwood meets Gene Autry, armed with a high-tech six-shooter. But BraveStarr also represents the state of the art in a fiercely competitive, $13-billion-a-year industry that is all about--but nothing like--child's play. With his thematic tie-in, and in his concept, design, development and marketing, BraveStarr is typical of the new toyland pack.
"The world we live in is different today," says Lou Scheimer, president and chief executive officer of Filmation, a subsidiary of Group W Productions and the country's largest animation studio. "Kids have computers, not just radios. Children don't play cowboys and Indians anymore--they play cowboys and aliens."
No longer are toys pure and simple playthings--pieces of wood, tin or cloth created lovingly by hand. They are products of painstaking research, sophisticated strategy and aggressive marketing, from the start designed as "mega-concepts," with television, film and licensing rights going to the highest bidder. Development costs for just one toy can run into millions of dollars, making television exposure all the more crucial to success.
The return on ancillary rights can be sweet: The film "Star Wars" has generated more than $750 million in toy sales, and the Muppets have more than 500 licensed products to their credit, some of them sold in a New York boutique called Muppet Stuff. Filmation knows a mega-trend when it sees one: Its animated version of "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe," based on a Mattel toy, is currently among the top-rated children's shows. Filmation, this time backed by Mattel (which has promised to buy half of the show's commercial time), is hoping for a mega-hit.
BRAVESTARR MAY BE THE QUINTESSENTIAL American hero, but he owes his existence to Tex Hex, a gaunt, ghostly outlaw who is his chief adversary. Tex Hex was created by Filmation's staff artists in the summer of 1984, during the development of characters for another television series, an animated version of "The Ghostbusters." Scheimer, intrigued by this lean, wild-eyed wraith, pulled Tex Hex from the cast and asked Arthur Nadel, the firm's vice president for creative affairs, and art director John Grusd to develop the character further.
What appealed to Scheimer in the villainous Tex Hex, and in his virtuous counterpart, BraveStarr, who was conceived soon afterward, was the memory of a thousand classic battles between good and evil fought on countless Saturday afternoons by such matinee cowboys as Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix and Gene Autry. By late summer, an informal team of about 15 staff artists and writers was at work on the idea of a futuristic Western to be built around Tex Hex.
The "Star Wars"-era story line was a key means of attracting an audience of children who probably have never heard of Roy Rogers and Trigger. In the tradition of the wonderfully strange worlds created by such science-fiction writers as Frank Herbert and Andre Norton, BraveStarr's home-on-the-interstellar-range became New Cheyenne, a harsh, arid planet with three moons and a midnight-blue and dawn-pink sky. In contrast to many previous Filmation series, however, including "Superman," "The Lone Ranger" and "Star Trek," all of which had been based on live-action shows, the creative staffs had nothing more to work with than an idea based on that original sketch of a long-whiskered, sneering bandit.
"We write and draw at the same time," says Scheimer, a tall, trim man with deep-set eyes, who studied classical painting at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. "Most of the time, the drawings have more meaning--ideas seem to spring out of drawing."
BraveStarr was conceived as a fallible man who relies on judgment and common sense but can draw on four innate animal characteristics in his ongoing battle against the forces of evil: the eyes of the hawk, the ears of the wolf, the strength of the bear and the speed of the puma. Although his heritage is never identified, there are Indian overtones, including the character of Shaman, the mentor who helps BraveStarr discover and understand his mystical abilities.
"The idea was that Indians are the people closest to the earth, which allowed us an element of mysticism," says Nadel, who, with Scheimer, Scheimer's daughter Erika (who is Filmation's director of development), writer Bob Forward and others developed the scenario that set "BraveStarr" in the year 2349 during a "Kerium rush." (Kerium is a fluorescent orange crystal more valuable than gold that is often the focus of the conflicts between BraveStarr and Tex Hex.) "It was the appropriate type of background to show that power or strength--good or bad--prevails," Nadel says.
As the story line evolved--a process Forward describes as fueled by "many minds with a single thought"--BraveStarr and Tex Hex took on consistent visual characteristics. Each character was transformed through several generations of preliminary drawings by as many as eight artists with distinctive styles, who produced pencil renderings of BraveStarr that ranged from comic to stoic.
Although villains may be more fun to draw--there's usually a characteristic or gimmick on which to build--heroes are a bigger challenge. "Heroes have to be pretty even, yet still distinctive," says art director Grusd, an industrial design major from Cal State Long Beach who joined Filmation nine years ago. "When you get an idea (for a character) in your head, it's based on your intuition of what is going to work. That, combined with your experience of how animation works technically, is how you come up with an idea that's not formula or run-of-the-mill."
By March, 1985, BraveStarr, Tex Hex and the other inhabitants of New Cheyenne--including Thirty / Thirty, a horse, named after a Winchester rifle, that can transform into a two-footed sidekick--were ready to meet their first critics. With elaborately colored story boards and a "bible" (a detailed plot and character synopsis) in hand, Scheimer took the concept to Mattel, the Hawthorne-based toy manufacturer from whom Filmation had licensed the right to animate the "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" toys two years earlier. That meeting, if successful, would be the crucial link that would change BraveStarr from mere cartoon character to mega-concept.
THERE WAS NO NEED TO PITCH BraveStarr anywhere else: Mattel representatives were impressed. "We had already identified a futuristic space-fantasy theme as a key market concept," says Matt Bousquette, Mattel's director of marketing for boys' toys. "This was a fantastic idea, with a tremendous amount of play value for the money." In addition, the concept fit in with infrared technology that Mattel happened to be developing.
But, despite the immediate in-house excitement BraveStarr generated, Mattel, ever cautious in a business in which today's craze is tomorrow's cliche, first tested the concept of its new high-tech hero with the experts: focus groups of demographically diverse children. Their play patterns with prototypes of the toy were monitored through one-way mirrors by in-house researchers and by outside consultants hired to independently analyze BraveStarr.
Observers watched for flaws in the toy's underlying theme, while noting the responses of children within specific age groups. "We laid out a sequence profile of the needs, wants, desires and abilities of children within various market and age groups," says Bousquette, whose resume includes bringing Procter & Gamble's butter-flavored Crisco to market. "Our objective is to capture a certain share of each age-group category until a child is no longer interested in toys, which usually occurs between the ages of 12 and 14."
Mattel representatives are tight-lipped about the specific internal tests each toy must pass before it is seriously considered for production: Only a "small number" of the 500 or so ideas studied every year are developed and marketed, says executive vice president Joseph F. Morrison. Nor does the company release details about the cost of developing, test-marketing and producing an action figure such as BraveStarr, which sells for $8 to $9. Many of the final decisions about such products are made in Mattel's 360-person design-and-development department on its second and third floors, where security is tighter than that of the Pentagon, according to some of the few outsiders who've been permitted access. That's where Mattel develops color drawings of each action-figure with specific recommendations about coloring, clothing and accessories.
BraveStarr, the designers suggested, should be clothed entirely in blue, rather than in gold as pictured by Filmation, a determination Mattel made based on market research suggesting that boys wouldn't buy a "sissy" color like gold.
"That was a battle," says Scheimer, who, with the eye of an artist, not a salesman, believed that BraveStarr's original all-gold outfit contrasted perfectly with the planet's surrealistic mauve-and-blue sky. "I thought it was glorious and shining, like sunlight." Mattel and Filmation eventually compromised, and BraveStarr, costumed in a butter-yellow Western-style shirt and mustard-colored trousers, wears a blue vest and blue-and-brown boots.
There were other compromises. In the television series and film, BraveStarr sports a ponytail. Mattel, however, wasn't sure that a ponytailed action figure suited its target market. The ponytail also complicated BraveStarr's molding process. As a result, the BraveStarr toy has only a longish "duck's tail" at the back of his neck. Filmation kept the ponytail but shortened it a bit to more closely resemble the toy figure.
As designers decide on the look of a toy and its accessories, engineers tinker with its physical possibilities. Although mass-production plastics, introduced since the end of World War II, and batteries and electronics have widened product options considerably, toys based on animated characters must still approximate their television or film counterparts.
"You transfer whatever characteristics you can into the physical action figure. (We ask,) 'Can we make a toy do that and at what cost?' " says Don Panec, Mattel's BraveStarr product manager, who won an Emmy in 1980 for the Public Broadcasting System's children's program "TNRC Presents." "You try to translate animation into something the child can see and do."
Take Sand Storm, for example, Tex Hex's reptilian ally, who disarms unwitting victims with "sleep gas." The Sand Storm action figure accomplishes that task with a refillable pump that sprays the gas--water, really--out of its mouth. Also, when things get tough, the local town--a modular and expandable play set that so far consists of the marshal's command center, a jail and a bank--can be transformed into Ft. Kerium. Instead of circling the wagons, BraveStarr and his buddies can fold up the town, which turns it into a fortress with "fortified" walls and a defense system. Of course, Tex Hex, depending on the whims of one's imagination, is quite capable of blowing open the fort.
Originally, the town also included a cantina (Mattel executives avoid the word "saloon"), which was later dropped. One problem was that boys didn't like the idea: "They didn't know what to do in a cantina ," Panec says. "Barbie might enjoy an ice cream parlor where she can have a soda with her friends, but boys don't want to sit around and eat food."
A second issue was queasiness from a public relations standpoint over the idea of including a bar--whatever you call it--in a play set designed for 6- to-8-year-old boys. "Obviously," says marketing director Bousquette, "we had some concern about it."
Although Filmation deliberately created a richly detailed world for BraveStarr, in part as background for "The Legend of BraveStarr," a full-length animated motion picture due out next summer, Mattel reworked the plot for its own audience. Certain story elements had to be refined, eliminated or simplified into a version better suited for physical toys.
Mattel decided that BraveStarr's mystical powers, for example, were better left to the series; they are never mentioned in the toy's packaging and promotional material. Also, the planet of New Cheyenne was renamed New Texas, because of Mattel's concern that children might not understand the Cheyenne reference.
Mattel added elements of its own, too, most notably its Neutra-laser system, which it hopes will become the desirable action-figure accessory. These beeping "guns" produce invisible, harmless beams of infrared light that can be picked up by sensors up to 30 feet away. The sensors confirm a direct "hit" with an electronic-sounding whoop. Special backpacks that can be strapped to the action figures emit the infrared beams, so that a child holding a BraveStarr figure, for example, can "shoot" at another child's Tex Hex figure. The Neutra-laser gun is also sold in a child-size version that can be used to play "tag."
Vehicles--from Barbie's metallic-pink Corvette to He-Man's Bashasaurus--are a favorite toy accessory, and Mattel adapted a toy planned for overseas markets to create Tex Hex's Skull Walker. The Skull Walker is a walking, flying transport adorned with the bleached, two-horned skull of a steer. And BraveStarr drives a Stratocoach, a futuristic stagecoach that converts into a hovercraft.
Other characters in the BraveStarr line include such good guys as Handle Bar, the cantina owner (the character exists even though the idea for the saloon was dropped); Deputy Fuzz, a small gnome-like character, and Borobot, a robotic cavalry officer. Bad-guy figures include Tex Hex's rotten sidekick, Outlaw Scuzz, and Thunder Stick, a robotic outlaw. Mattel plans to introduce additional accessories and characters on a regular basis throughout 1987.
Once a design has been finished, the engineers create models from specially tooled molds that can cost considerably more than $2 million in producing a full line of toys like BraveStarr and his buddies. BraveStarr is more costly to manufacture than most action figures because, at eight inches tall, he's larger than most and because he has 11 points of "articulation," or movement, which require a greater number of toy molds.
Unlike other manufacturers, who usually introduce new products at the industry's 10-day American International Toy Fair (held every February in New York), Mattel previews its latest offerings in September at a private show in Tucson for its major customers. BraveStarr was introduced with an unusual amount of flair: Guests were directed into a smoky Western saloon where they were served a non-alcoholic red or green punch--imported, of course, from New Texas--and were encouraged to play with the Neutra-lasers.
"They created an atmosphere that got us all involved in the concept and the technology," says Frank Reysen Jr., editor of the trade magazine Playthings and a guest at BraveStarr's debut. "We were impressed; it seemed like Mattel was really in tune with themes that will generate a lot of excitement. The fantasy part is done very well, and cowboys are always popular. They've put together two proven themes."
Fun is fun, but these previews are an opportunity for retailers not just to examine (and play with) new toys but to see how they are packaged: Each must be displayed attractively enough to generate interest as well as demonstrate to potential buyers that the toy is "a good play value"--that is, worth the money.
Although action figures are typically "blister-packed"--an inexpensive packaging process that seals He-Man, She-Ra or whoever in a plastic bubble over a cardboard background--BraveStarr is sold in a window box with gold foil stamping to give him a premium look. Also, all packages must be easy to display on toy-store shelves. "It's important that packages are geared toward self-service," says Michael Goldstein, executive vice president of Toys 'R' Us, the Rochelle Park, N.J.-based retailer whose 18,000-item discount toy supermarkets have helped transform the industry from a six-week Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season into a year-round business.
Despite the fact that the "BraveStarr" TV series and movie are still months away, the action figures were on the shelves of Toys 'R' Us' 233 U.S. stores in early December. This marketing strategy is a repeat of a similar tactic Mattel used last year to introduce its multihued Popples, plush critters that fold inside of themselves to form a ball. Without much advertising but with lots of exposure, they attracted strong sales that carried over nicely into 1986.
"BraveStarr will be on our shelves at a time when literally thousands of people are going through our stores," Goldstein says. "They'll at least see it; maybe they'll buy it. It's a smart move for Mattel."
"There's an advantage in shipping BraveStarr in the fourth quarter, even though it is essentially a 1987 toy," Mattel's Morrison says. Because consumer buying patterns have changed with the increase in purchases by parents and grandparents with more money to spend on, but less time to spend with, their children, Mattel ships 65% of its toys during the first nine months of the year, up from 55% a year ago. "Getting the product started in late 1986 gives us a better jump on 1987. If we're up and running," Morrison adds, "we'll have a better year."
Although the popularization of so-called "toy-driven television"--children's programming based around toy company products--is relatively new, the concept had humble, and local, beginnings in 1952. Hasbro's Mr. Potato Head was the first toy to be advertised on local television; three years later, Mattel gambled half a million dollars on commercials aired during "The Mickey Mouse Club" show, and, swamped with orders for such playtime delights as Mouse Guitars and Burp Guns, the company realized that television might have its uses.
But the marriage between television and toys wasn't consummated until 1969, when Mattel's small die-cast cars, called Hot Wheels, starred for 30 animated minutes every Saturday morning on ABC. Much perturbed, the Federal Communications Commission ordered local stations to log part of the show as advertising under its rules separating promotion from programming.
There are currently more than 20 national and regional toy-related shows on the air, typically financed by toy companies or their licensing partners. BraveStarr--whose 65 episodes cost about $20 million to produce--will join such toyland colleagues as the Transformers, GI Joe and the Thundercats next fall.
Filmation expects to make back the bulk of its investment in "BraveStarr" by pre-selling its commercial minutes: For example, a 30-second spot on "Masters of the Universe," now in daily syndication, costs an average of $10,000. Mattel has sold more than $750 million worth of "Masters of the Universe" toys (not including product sales by other licensees) since the show's introduction in 1982. As part of its deal with Filmation, Mattel will buy in advance half of the commercial minutes of "BraveStarr" during the show's initial two-year airing. Since at least part of each year's audience grows older and moves on to other toys, and new viewers join, each episode will be repeated eight times in its Monday-through-Friday afternoon time slot during the first two years of broadcast.
Despite critics who complain that toy-driven shows are nothing more than half-hour commercials, the FCC has declined to hold hearings on product-based programming for children. Partly in response to critics of children's TV, BraveStarr and his friends will deliver 30-second moral messages at the conclusion of each show, stressing such virtues as tolerance, courage and honesty. One "BraveStarr" script, titled "The Price," deals with substance abuse and peer pressure when a 12-year-old boy becomes a victim of Spin, the drug of choice on New Texas. The show ends with BraveStarr hanging a black wreath on the boy's tombstone.
By the time the first of Filmation's syndicated half-hour shows airs in September, the company expects to have licensed BraveStarr to about 45 manufacturers, including Hallmark Properties, J. P. Stevens & Co. / Burlington and the Putnam Publishing Group, which is planning a series of novels for teen-agers. Gail E. Munn, Filmation's vice president of licensing, has sponsored a series of introductory seminars for mass-market retailers to acquaint them with BraveStarr. On licensing, Filmation typically receives 8% to 12% of the product's wholesale price, and, as a condition of licensing, has required standardized packaging for all licensed products.
"Why do companies want major sports personalities to endorse their products?" Munn asks. "Cartoon characters are well known to children, and it's the same kind of things."
Mattel representatives say that putting the products on retailers' shelves before BraveStarr debuts in theaters and living rooms won't affect sales.
"I'm a believer that television does not or should not affect a toy's success; television is just an additional element in the mix," says Bousquette. "The toys are inherently interesting in and of themselves; that's critical from our standpoint."
In a year marked by little growth, retailers are looking for a last-minute Christmas surge like the one brought on by Coleco's Cabbage Patch Kids in 1983.
"The toy industry is really crying out for a new sensation, a new Cabbage Patch Kid or Trivial Pursuit," says Playthings editor Reysen. "Things have really slowed down, and a number of manufacturers are trying to fill the void. BraveStarr is one of the leading candidates. He's a contender."
BraveStarr may not single-handedly rescue the toy industry this holiday season, but never fear: It will be a while before he rides off into the sunset. Mattel's top-secret plans for next year's BraveStarr toys are already being developed. What's next for the marshal? Bousquette and Panec seem embarrassed, then look at each other. They really can't say--it's company policy, you know; competition is tough. Then Bousquette, an irrepressible salesman, allows that there might be a hideout "someday" for the bad guys. "We don't really talk about that," he says. "But whatever we do, it'll be the kind of thing you normally see in a Western town." Stay tuned: There are only 369 shopping days until next Christmas.