NEW YORK – The toy industry’s top names descended upon New York’s Javits Convention Center this week to be a part of Toy Fair 2011. This annual celebration of all things amusing boasts a wide variety of playthings ranging from games and collectible sculptures to stuffed animals and action figures.
On Sunday night, Mattel provided select members of the press with a sneak peek at what they have in store for wrestling fans in the upcoming year.
I had a chance to talk to Bill Kerner, the Director of Design for the Mattel’s WWE action figure line, and find out what it’s like working with legends like Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior, how long it takes for a debuting wrestler to show up in the toy aisle, and which WWE legend is tops on his wish list.
Gordon Holmes: What lessons have you learned from your first year with the WWE license?
Bill Kerner: In the beginning I think we learned that we could have launched larger. We truly had a hard time keeping product on the shelves. And in the end we probably learned that we could’ve maybe paced ourselves a little bit better. We probably should have held back a little bit. We gave out a lot of new news (figures) in 2010 and as a designer my challenge is, “How do I top all of that news?” I would have stretched out some of the legend stuff. Maybe I would have stretched out the Macho Man (Randy Savage) or the Ultimate Warrior a little bit. Because when you get into the third or fourth year it gets difficult.
Holmes: The WWE is going through a youth movement these days with the elevation of guys like The Miz, Alberto del Rio and Nexus. What challenges does that present to your team?
Kerner: It’s important to get the young guys. The ideal thing would be to have on Tuesday morning the hottest thing from Monday night. That’s the Holy Grail. The Nexus for example, and we will do most of the Nexus guys in their original outfits with their bands and stuff, the shame is that it will be after the fact. They’ll be doing different things. The challenge for us is to be able to react to that quickly and be able to get them in a reasonable amount of time. We’re always trying to institute new characters quicker. We’re working on getting things into the system in maybe 90 to a 100 days. And I know that may sound like a lot of time, but it isn’t for a toy company. It normally takes 60 to 70 weeks.
Holmes: Does the WWE work with you to give you a heads up when big things are coming down the pike?
Kerner: We’re working with the WWE on that. They’re giving us more up-front information which is very difficult for them to do because sometimes they don’t know until the night it happens.
Holmes: What feedback have you received from the WWE talent so far?
Kerner: The talent loves the product. They love it. I get requests almost daily for multiples of all their figures. We’ve had events with those fellas and they’re all just ecstatic.
Holmes: Anyone in particular?
Kerner: Beth Phoenix said, “You made me look better than I really am.”
Holmes: That’s quite a compliment, as she’s a lovely young lady.
Kerner: Yeah, she is actually. Oh, Randy Orton really likes his. Although, Randy Orton is Randy Orton, so he’ll say, “You know, you missed the tattoo on my wrist.”
Holmes: Any concerns that a tattoo in the wrong place could leave you on the receiving end of an RKO?
Kerner: (Laughs) Randy’s a method guy. He’s always in character so you never know.
Holmes: Has there been talk of more peripheral characters? Off the top of my head I’m thinking of Michael Cole or referees.
Kerner: It’s funny you mention Michael. We’ve had a lot of discussions about him. We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to work announces and referees in. It’s harder to justify those one-use characters. But I think we have some really good opportunities to work those guys into the line.
Holmes: Were you a wrestling fan before you started with the Mattel line?
Kerner: Not really. I was a fan in the ’60s. I was a Bruno Sammartino fan and Chief Jay (Strongbow) and Haystacks Calhoun and all of those kind of guys growing up. And I kinda got away from it. Then my kids in the early ’80s liked (Jimmy) Snuka and Hulk Hogan and those fellas. So I got back into it because my kids were back into it. And then it was really off my radar screen until I had the opportunity to get back into it. And I’m really glad I did. It’s really fun. I love the line. As a designer you can work on SpongeBob and you can have fun with it…
Holmes: But SpongeBob never tells you if he likes it or not.
Kerner: (Laughs) Right. But SpongeBob’s really focused on kids. This is something we can get into as adults. We can go to events… it’s really fun from that perspective.
Holmes: Are there any legends figures we didn’t see today that we can look forward to in the future?
Kerner: We’ve done a deal with Bret Hart so we’re going to be doing Bret. We’re trying to go back even further; we’ve been talking to Gorgeous George’s estate. Andre (the Giant) is on the list, he’s coming. You may see him in September of 2011.
Holmes: Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior haven’t always been on the best of terms with the WWE. What’ve your experiences been working with them?
Kerner: Macho Man and Warrior … you have to nurture those guys. But, we’ve really established good relationships with them, they like working with us. Macho Man has been terrific. We were so worried about him because he was kind of jaded when he came out of the business. He was a little afraid to get back into it. And, he’s been great. I think he’s going to be doing more stuff. I think you might even see him more out there in the WWE world. I’m not going to speak for him, but he seems to be getting back into it a little bit.
Holmes: OK, Bruno fan. Are we ever going to see a Bruno Sammartino action figure?
Kerner: I want to do Bruno. Him and Mr. McMahon haven’t always been on the best of terms. We’ll bring him up and he’ll say, “No, no, not yet. Come back to me in a couple of months.” But we are talking to him (Bruno) and I think we will see him sometime in 2012. Cause you’ve got to do Bruno.
Holmes: I agree. I don’t know how well he’ll sell, but you can’t talk about legends and not include him.
Kerner: Some guys we’re going to bring out and do because they have to be done. I’m a designer, we need to keep the vision alive.
Holmes: That speaks very well for the line that Mattel is making decisions that aren’t totally focused on the bottom line.
Kerner: We have to show the collector world that we’re serious about this, and we’re going to do all the key people that should be done. We’ll get Bruno done and I think there are a lot of other guys that the fans are going to be surprised that we’re going to go after in 2011 and 2012.
TNA FIGURES ON GROWTH
JAKKS Pacific was also on hand at Toy Fair to talk about what they have in store for TNA fans in the upcoming year. “The collectors really want us to create the entire roster,” said JAKKS Pacific’s National Sales Manager Andrew Kovall. “You’re going to see more Knockouts. We’re going to have a Matt Hardy out by the end of this year.”
Kovall also touched on the subject of TNA’s bloody Hulk Hogan figure that was released late last year and if the action figure line would continue to head in that direction. “It needs to make sense. It needs to be from a certain moment or a certain time. We’re not going to take a Mr. Anderson figure and put blood on him just for the sake of doing it.”
When asked for any surprise names that could pop up in the local toy store, Kovall smiled and said, “You’re going to see Dixie Carter toward the end of this year.”
And how does TNA’s owner feel about being immortalized in plastic? “She’s very excited,” Kovall laughed.